Philippe Starck says it’s all been wasted time.

March 30, 2008 at 4:36 pm (General, The Economy) (, , , , , )

Last week, French designer Philippe Starck gave an interview to the German news magazine, Die Zeit. I was rather stunned to find that Mr. Starck considers that everything he has designed has been unnecessary.

Here is a link to the original article, in German, and below I present a Babelfish translation, augmented a bit by my own limited ability with German. All materials remain copyright of Die Zeit and Getty Image.

“I am ashamed of it”

© Zeit magazine LIFE, 27.03.2008 NR. 14

Philippe Starck is a star designer of the past two decades. Nevertheless, he says today: “everything that I designed is absolutely unnecessary.” An interview.


Philippe Starck looks through his Louis chairImage © DIANE Bondareff/i Saloni via Getty image

Zeit magazine: Mr. Starck, you have designed everything; from the toothbrush to the spaceship. What do people really need?

Philippe Starck: The ability to love. Love is the most marvelous invention of mankind. And then one needs intelligence. Mankind is ahead of the animals in that we, based on intelligence, created a civilization. Therefore no person can afford not to work on its own intelligence. And humor is important.

Zeit magazine: Nothing material occurs to you?

Starck: We do not need anything material. It is much more important that one develops one’s own ethics. And that one also adheres to these rules. Otherwise one must worry oneself about nothing.

Zeit magazine: That is not your serious [concern]. There are nevertheless probably all kinds of things one needs for survival.

Starck: If you talking about objects like: one surely needs something, in order to make fires.

Zeit magazine: What still occurs to you somewhat?

Starck: A pillow perhaps and a good mattress.

Zeit magazine: Why did you then become an industrial designer?

Starck: That is an interesting question. And I have not really answered it for myself yet. See, I have designed so many things, without really being interested in them. Perhaps all the years were necessary, so that I could recognize in the long run that we do not need anything for that reason. We always have too much.

Zeit magazine: Everything you’ve created – is redundant?

Starck: Everything that I designed is absolutely unnecessary. Structurally seen, Design is absolutely useless. A true occupation is an astronomer, biologist or something like that. Design is not anything. I tried to give meaning to products, some sense and energy. Even if I gave my best, it was senseless.

Zeit magazine: That is the balance of your work?

Starck: People who are smarter than I, would perhaps have understood faster. Perhaps I was not intelligent enough and had to take the difficult way. I had from the outset the suspicion that product Design is in the long run useless. Therefore I tried to transform the job into something else. Into something, which is more politically, more rebelliously, subversive. Perhaps the most important thing which I created is not a new object, but a new definition for the word designer.

Zeit magazine: They say that we are moving into the age of post-office-materialism. (not sure about this part of the translation -dlock) What is that called?

Starck: Society pursues a strategy of de-materialism. It always concerns more intelligence and fewer materials. Take the computer. First a computer was as large as a house. Now there are computers of credit card size. In ten years they will be in our bodies, bionic. In 50 years the concept “computer” will have dissolved.

Zeit magazine: What are designers then to design?

Starck: There will be no more designers. The designer of the future is a personal coach, the coach in the Gym, the diet consultant. That is everything.

Zeit magazine: It has been said that your goal is more and more to destroy Design. How far did you come?

Starck: I have achieved it! When I began, Design articles were only beautiful things. No one could afford them. Design meant elitism. But elitism is quite vulgar. The only elegance lies in the duplication.

Zeit magazine: You must explain that.

Starck: If one has the luck to have a good idea one has the obligation to share it with others. Thus democracy functions. When I began, a good chair cost about $1000. Is a family, which needs six chairs and a table, to pay 10,000 dollars to be able to eat each evening? I found that obscene. Within four years I sketched a chair which cost less than ten dollars. If one takes three zeros away from the price, one changes the entire concept of the product.

Zeit magazine: Why did you then recently create an motor yacht for a Russian millionaire?

Starck: Even that belongs to my Robin Hood concept. I use such a project like a laboratory. I can try new technologies out and make them usable for the mass-market. For the yacht I developed a hull which does not make a bow wave at 20 knots. I will use the concept for a solar boat: perhaps the prototype for a water taxi in Venice.

Zeit magazine: But you do not want to stop designing?

Starck: In any case. In two years I will definitely stop. I will make something different. I do not know what yet. It will be a new kind of the expression. A new attack, which will be faster and more enormous and easier than Design. Design is a terrible kind of expression.

Zeit magazine: Thus you will only change the job.

Starck: Exactly. I was a producer of Material [goods]. I am ashamed for it. I want in the future to be a producer of concepts. That will be more useful. (emphasis added – dlock)

Zeit magazine: Is there any object which you like?

Starck: No.

Tillmann examiner placed the questions

Philippe Starck: The 59-year old Frenchman designed objects for the mass-market beginning in the eighties. Among other things, the lemon press Juicy Salif for Alessi and the motorcycle Motó 6.5 for Aprilia excited attention.

So. This is bound to provoke a great deal of thought within the design community. There are certainly some designers and architects who agree with Mr. Starck that design is not, and cannot be, a function done in a vacuum. (See Dwell magazine for some great examples of contextual housing & furniture design.)

And I’m no designer, but do I know what I like, and I can’t help but agree with Mr. Starck. Looking at design from the 30,000 foot viewpoint is long overdue. There are so many products in the marketplace that are poorly, haphazardly designed (see my earlier entries on the Jeep Compass and Subaru Tribeca); or are simply designed to look great but fail to function properly.

Human civilization on this planet is getting to a point where we may no longer be able to afford the wastefulness that goes with our current “traditional” way of life. And I think that is part of what Mr. Starck is trying to address in his comments. We have to become more thoughtful, more deliberate, more conscious when using our creative energies. It behooves us all to consider the entire picture – the ramifications of our each and every action, because we do not act alone. John Donne wrote that “no man is an island” and that has never been more true than in this overcrowded global economy.

I look forward to your comments.

UPDATE: April 2, 2008

For a guy who believes his design work has been “useless“, Philippe Starck is going to be awfully busy designing things over the next few years.

According to a story published on France24.com, Mr. Starck has been appointed the “Chief Artist” of France’s upcoming EU Presidency. Apparently, the designer will be in charge of the “look” of events, objects, and materials related to France’s activities in the EU.

In a phone interview with Mr. Starck, France24.com quotes him as saying that the idea was to show “a very modern, very creative France of high technologies, not France wearing a beret, but an avant-garde France.”

Hmmm. Well, Emerson said: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Who are we to expect it of anyone? I expect rationality, consistency, and logical behavior all the time, and people (including myself) disappoint me all the time.

Welcome to the Human Experience.

UPDATE: August 28, 2008

Wired Magazine recently featured a short interview with Philippe Starck on the subject of his latest chair design, Mr. Impossible.  Mr. Starck also touched on his views of the future, and creating products that last, supporting sustainability:

“The stupidity of the ecological movement is that people kill trees for wood. It’s ridiculous. The best ecological strategy is to make products of a very high creative quality, so you can keep them for three generations. I prefer to make a very good chair in the best polycarbonate than make any shit in wood that will be in the trash one year later.”

I have to agree with him there.  I have always favored creating things that are built to last, not built to trash.  A good chunk of my energy is devoted to keeping things like cars and computers out of the landfill, and extending their useful lives.   That’s not only because I was raised to “take care of my toys” (we didn’t have tons of money when I was growing up) but because I like old things.  What some people call “obsolete”, I call “classic”.

And if it still does what you need it to do, it is certainly not obsolete.

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