Hubert Burda Media

The fluid designs of Philippe Starck

Prolific product designer and pioneer of the designer-boutique hotel craze talks us through his design philosophy.

Philippe Starck is arguably the world’s most prolific product designer and his creativity shows no signs of abating. From meeting clients, attending product launches and giving talks, his calendar is packed with appointments. Frankly, he travels too much, but he isn’t complaining. He will, however, make a wisecrack about it: “We fly so often that we are dead like ghosts!”

Today, Starck, 67, is in town for M Social, the new experience-rich hotel he has designed for the Millennium Hotels & Resorts Group. Quaffing cocktails at the hotel’s Beast & Butterflies restaurant, he chats with guests and poses for selfies, showcasing that firebrand humour that has helped make him one of the most interesting and well-liked personalities in his field.

Starck’s oeuvre is as impressive as it is diverse — from designing hotels and restaurants, to furniture, lighting and home appliances. Not only has he pulled together M Social’s overarching aesthetic, he’s gone into the minutiae, even designing the custom-made tan leather armchairs and retro-style checked sofas we’re sitting in. In fact, it was Starck’s partnership with hotelier Ian Schrager on the Royalton in New York in 1988 that many credit as pioneering the designer boutique hotel craze. (He’s also behind the stylish interiors and facade of Hotel Fasano Rio de Janeiro, as well as Bon Restaurant in Paris in 2000 and Katsuya Restaurant in Los Angeles in 2006.) 

Alcove cosy room at M Social

When designing spaces, he takes into account the aspect of “human-scale” proportions to make living and working in a space unfettered. In how living spaces are changing to meet the needs of today and tomorrow, he explains: “Our daily lives have drastically changed in the past few years. We don’t live as our grandparents or even our parents used to. Life is faster, more global, less compartmentalised.”

“We are living in a time in which differences between all the rooms of the modern house seem to disappear. It is like living in a ‘total loft’ in which we can sleep, wash and eat everywhere. The living space needs to adapt to our new ways of life, our new habits. It cannot be rigid anymore; it has to be more open, nomad, in motion. The right place for a sofa [can be] the kitchen, where one can drink a glass of wine, chat, cook, work or love.”

Most, though, are unaware that Starck started his career from humble beginnings in the late 1960s, designing inflatable furniture. It was through such objects that he began questioning materiality. The premise of how humans could live, work and play better with useful, well-designed products and spaces also piqued his interest. His early designs caught the eye of Pierre Cardin, which led him to a job as artistic director of the fashion icon’s publishing house.

While at Cardin, he founded his first industrial company Starck Product (later renamed Ubik) and segued into securing design contracts from manufacturers the likes of Kartell, Driade and Alessi, who were bent on commercially producing objects for the home. By 1983, he was refurbishing French President François Mitterrand’s private apartments at the Élysée.

The Loft Gallery Room

The Loft Gallery Room

Inarguably, one of his most iconic works is the Juicy Salif he designed for Alessi in 1990, which today is part of the MoMA collection in New York. An idea that was sketched on a paper napkin while dining with Alessi founder Alberto Alessi, the citrus squeezer was envisioned for squeezing a lemon over a dish of squid, though design aficionados rarely use it for its intended purpose. Starck himself once quipped: “It was not meant to squeeze lemons but to start conversations!” Other notable design objects include practical products for Alessi (Hot Bertaa kettle, 1990), Kartell (Bubble chair, 2000) and Flos (Angelis floor light, 1994).

With his vast array of designs, Starck is not about just being a famous designer and living the high life. His “democratic design” concepts steer towards well-designed objects that are not necessarily catered to elite individuals who can splurge, but centred on a “utopian ideal”, whereby economies of scale would allow product costs to be reduced, thus allowing more people to enjoy its use.

In fact, he cogently emphasises good design should be shared with the general public. This idea is materialised in many of the furniture pieces — most of them plastic — which he designed for Magis, Kartell and Alessi. A notable product that is feted even till this day is the Louis Ghost chair he designed for Kartell in 2002. More than one million pieces have sold globally.

Today, step into any designer furniture showroom and Starck’s products are sure to court your eyes. Incredibly prolific, he has the imagination of a child but buoyed with the maturity of a seasoned designer who understands all the tenets of creating a well-designed product, demonstrating the adage: “When you stop dreaming, you stop living.”

Starck's Kong counter stool for Emeco

Starck's Kong counter stool for Emeco

GETTING SOCIAL

Philippe Starck’s love for designing interiors is evidenced in projects such as Singapore’s own The South Beach hotel and more recently, the 293-room M Social — an impossibly hip and whimsical hotel at Roberson Quay designed explicitly for those with a millennial mind set. In town with his wife Jasmine Abdellatif, the gregarious personality tells Prestige about working on the project

What did you have in mind when designing M Social?

M Social is designed for the future of Singapore; it is for the crazy children, because we hope all our children will be crazy. It is about the life, the creativity and what the generation of young people will experience in Singapore. The architecture brings people together — to exchange ideas, to work, to love and to fight.

Any challenges you had to take into consideration?

The river location has been a key driving force in our design approach. With the objective to integrate the development into the existing context, the design responded to the historical riverside warehouse architectural form that is sympathetic to the existing urban fabric and human-scale. Other than the rooms, where possible, common facilities were positioned to best exploit the views of the river — Beast & Butterflies on the ground floor, the pavilion on the second floor and the pool deck on the fifth floor. The planning of the internal spaces required making the spaces flexible, maximising the usable floor areas and volume and allowing for innovative loft living.

Did Millennium & Copthorne Hotels Chairman Kwek Leng Beng give you a brief, or were you given carte blanche?

Mr Kwek understands my style. He is so fun and full of energy. He allows me to express my style in the projects he commissions me to do.

What’s the most rewarding part about designing this project and why?

M Social is where all the elements of the world come together in an explosion of energy to create the joy of today’s and tomorrow’s world. To me, it is a stage dedicated to creative people, coming together in creativity, humour and love.

How would you describe your approach to design and has it evolved over the years?

I do not care for design or architecture, actually. But that does not mean I don’t take my work seriously. I’m more fascinated with human evolution and the aspect of our humanity. Just think what happened in the last four billion years and what will become of us, four billion years later. I would rather participate in this evolutionary process. For me to design better, I’m my worst critic. It’s only when you critique your work, you can do better and create more useful objects.