Global Economics

Philippe Starck on Design and Politics


The French designer wants big changes in his field and has joined mydeco, a Web site that aims to democratize interior decoration

Philippe Starck, one of the world's best-known contemporary designers, has created interiors for luxury hotels, restaurants, condos, and weekend homes. Objects he has designed include plastic Louis Ghost chairs, AK-47 gun lamps, and a whole host of everyday items, such as a spider-like chrome juice squeezer for Alessi, noodles for Panzani, mineral-water bottles, toothbrushes, luggage, a motorcycle, a mega-yacht, and a new euro coin in honor of France's presidency of the European Union.

Starck, who revels in being provocative, recently has taken on the role of creative adviser to mydeco, a London startup that aims to "democratize" interior design. The French designer also wants to democratize ecology, with his new design for a $600 personal windmill that's supposed to generate 20% to 60% of the energy needed to power a home.

Sporting a white T-shirt, blue, yellow and red patterned pants, and a sunburn, Starck recently met with BusinessWeek's Jennifer L. Schenker at his offices near the Bastille in Paris to discuss the future of design, his new line of eco-friendly objects, and mydeco.

In a March interview with the German newspaper Die Zeit, you said that everything you designed was unnecessary and that you regret what you have created. Did you really mean that?

This was taken out of context. It is more complex. Design is not very important today. In periods of peace, luxury, and quiet, you can have some interest in the aesthetic side of design. But in other periods, like ours, where you have extraordinary violent challenges—whether religious, political, ecological or economic—it is not appropriate. Today design must be political or shouldn't exist. Everything has its time. In the '80s it was O.K. to do a nice lamp; it is not the time anymore. If I did it today, I would regret it.

So what is the political vision behind your designs?

I mean to give the best to a maximum of people, to raise the quality and lower the price. Today, we can consider that done. Take the chairs I designed 20 years ago. The perimeters of quality have expanded a lot, and the price has been divided by 100. When you divide the price by 100, you have radically changed the concept. That's democratic design, and it's an example of my political consciousness. That fight is almost over, and others can finish it.

Two months ago we announced the new concept—the new war—which is called democratic ecology. It is the same process of building affordable products, high-technology products that are easy to understand, so that everybody can not only save energy but also produce energy.

How does mydeco fit in with your philosophy?

It is the ultimate side of my democratic work. I am not involved with mydeco to have an Internet outlet to sell more of my chairs. I'm not interested. We sell enough of them already. What interests me is several aspects of mydeco that are very original, totally new, and that can provide a real service to improve the quality of life of people.

Please explain.

Mydeco will do to the home what Napster did to music. Napster revolutionized the music market: how to find it, how to load it, even how to steal it. It put into question all the majors; it put into question the production of music. It was an atomic bomb that revolutionized everything. Mydeco is going to be the same for many reasons.

To draw a parallel with the music industry, all the young creators were complaining about the dictatorships of the major music labels, saying "I can't have access to creation because they are the ones who choose everything. Everything is locked up. There is no freedom."

Today we are almost in the same situation for furniture. You have major furniture corporations and stars like me. Partnerships between those companies and stars are like the situation with the music labels and major recording artists. We lock up all the possibilities. The system is operating so efficiently that people take less risk with young creators—because if they do business with people like me, they know it's a guaranteed success. Since I have an altruistic nature and political consciousness, that bugs me. I prefer the common interest, and especially the interest of the young creators, to my own interests.

So how will it work?

Today if people want a decoration or a piece of furniture, they have to pass through Philippe Starck or a major company. Tomorrow, any creator could sell his talent, his objects, to anybody. A woman in Sydney can see a young British designer on mydeco and say: "Oh, I like that," and be able, through mydeco, to order a decoration directly from this young Brit, who with the system of virtual imagery, will be able to show the woman in Australia how it looks. So you don't go through the majors anymore, you don't go through the stars.

How will this change the way people's homes look?

You have your living room, you take photos of it. You need a table, you have access to a million tables. You pick one, it appears in your virtual living room. There is no taste dictatorship anymore. Everybody will have access to his own taste.

But there will still be a need for interior designers?

Mydeco is the continuation of what I did with the British company Yoo, which has been an extraordinary success, because I have helped people choose interiors that correspond to them so they can live in harmony, build their own home, their own egg, their own life. This is all consistent. Democratic design goes with mydeco; mydeco goes with Yoo; Yoo is a partner with mydeco.

What opportunities will this open up for young designers?

It will give creators in the middle of the countryside, in the desert, or countries where there is no cultural or industrial activity a platform for recognition, to become not a star, because there won't be any more stars, but a fundamental component of world creation. That is what is extraordinary. Mydeco is a structural revolution, a social revolution, which ultimately will give a universal access to creation.

Why now? And why mydeco and not some other Internet venture. Surely others have thought of similar ventures?

Brent [Hoberman, mydeco's founder] not only came at the right moment but he brought his knowhow, talent, investment power, and extraordinary technology. In the lab you can dream of everything, but to make it work is a different thing. Brent is the sole person who really knows how to do it. This is why out of the hundreds of proposals that we have received over the years from Internet ventures, we have accepted to be only in this one. Mydeco has the right weapon.

What specifically is your role in the company?

I am a co-chairman of the design advisory board [along with Terence Conran], and after that I am a kind of subversive element, a rebel, an avant-garde scout to bring new ideas, set up a process to get new creators, create competitions to find young creators. My role is to be a kind of creative director, spirit, soul, and temple-keeper, so that mydeco always keeps this subversive power.

Even if it means affecting your current business?

I am here to dynamite the existing system of the majors and the stars that go along with it. So I am here once more to dynamite myself. But when there is an opportunity to increase the speed of evolution, the speed of knowledge, the speed of creativity, the quality of creativity, you have to do it.

(Translated from French by Jennifer L. Schenker)


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