Why lo-tech Philippe Starck is the ‘Robin Hood’ of design

As the newest restaurant he’s designed opens in Venice, the Frenchman talks mega yachts, why he stays away from fashion, and designing for Xiaomi despite not owning a mobile phone or computer

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 January, 2017, 7:02pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 January, 2017, 5:31pm

Philippe Starck is removing the large cardboard sleeve of a Taschen book on Venice that’s on a coffee table in front of him. He looks at the sleeve intently, examining the folds that allow it to envelop the hardback, but also curiously allow the sleeve to stand up by virtue of another fold. “What is this? What is the point of this? This is bad design,” says the French designer.

We are in Venice, in the plush VIP rooms at the recently opened T Fondaco dei Tedeschi by DFS, a few hours before the gala opening of Starck’s latest restaurant design project, Amo. Dressed in his signature jeans, hoodie and sneakers, all in shades of grey and black, Starck is in a boisterous mood despite the long day of interviews, not least because food and restaurants are so close to his heart. “People go to restaurants for special reasons – birthdays, because they are in love, a business deal – and it’s a very good place to give them the opportunity for an experience.”

DFS chief on its new Venice store and why Hong Kong luxury sales boom is over

For the 67-year-old, the experience is more than just the look, feel, taste, touch or smell of something. To achieve that full sensory experience Starck packs his design with triggers. “All of my restaurants are full of magic things, what I call ‘fertile surprises’ and mental games. They are a global experience to open the mind,” says Starck, who has a house on the Venetian island of Burano and has been a “Venetian for 30 years”. A collaboration between Starck and Michelin-starred Venetian restaurateurs the Alajmo brothers, Amo is full of surprises. Set in the atrium of a luxury department store, Starck has created a space that plays on Venice’s history, with carnival masks, Murano glass, gondolas and other typical motifs all playfully and tastefully interwoven into the design.

Amo is the latest in a long line of “big” Starck projects that have included Parisian grand palace hotels Le Meurice and Royal Monceau and mega yachts for billionaires.

Hot spots: Le Meurice, Paris

Next year, Starck says, he will look to refurbish his most celebrated Hong Kong project, Felix, the restaurant on the 28th floor of The Peninsula.

Starck has always seen himself as a more “democratic” designer, someone who makes things that are for everyone, not the gilded few – a view somewhat at odds with his most acclaimed and visible achievements. “The mega rich are mega smart. They give me the opportunity to do research and to make prototypes. I use this research for other projects. For example, with Steve Jobs’ [US$100 million yacht] Venus, I made a few inventions and he was cool with that. I brought those inventions ‘down’ to the masses. It’s what I call my ‘Robin Hood’ strategy, I take from the rich to give to the poor.”

To further illustrate his everyman philosophy, Starck recounts a story from his first big project and one that made his name, refurbishing the interiors of French president Francois Mitterrand’s apartments at the Élysée Palace in the early ’80s.

“President Mitterrand received the furniture the same day as 3,000 other people and it cost the same, between 30 [HK$245] and 140. I remember him asking, ‘Philippe, where is my furniture, it takes so long to arrive?’ I said, ‘wait Francois, you will receive it the same day as everyone else’.”

Starck has designed pretty much everything, but one area where he doesn’t feel comfortable is fashion. “I don’t like fashion,” he says, pointing to his own way of dressing. His fourth wife, Jasmine, who is also in the room, tries to qualify the statement suggesting that though Starck is friends with many designers and admires them, fashion just isn’t for him.

“I try to work on timeless longevity and heritage, which is contrary to fashion. We don’t have the same speed or cycle. I respect what they do and I am not able to do what they do, imagine trying to come up with new ideas every two months. I take my time and I do things when I’m sure but they have to produce and produce.”

Starck has made forays into fashion, however, with accessories such as watches and eyewear, and a cashmere collection with Scottish mill Ballantyne in 2009, and he confesses his reticence is born of a bad experience.

“We made a beautiful collection, we are very serious people, so when we do something we do it right. It was a big critical success. But, the same time as we presented our cashmere collection which cost 1,000, Uniqlo presented a collection of very acceptable cashmere at 30. I said. ‘forget it, we’re obsolete’, not for economical reasons, but for philosophical reasons. Why do we cost 1,000 and the other 30? We are not 970 better than them. Politically, for me, it was not acceptable.”

Fashion may not fire Starck’s imagination but he’s found his passion with fragrances and launched his first perfume collection, Starck Paris, in September. “The design is not important and the bottle I don’t really care about. The perfume inside is everything,” says Starck, of a project that was four years in the making.

This current generation of young Chinese, wow! ... Everything is impressive; the production, the process even the way they sell it, everything happens so fast
Philippe Starck

“My real work is working with abstraction, but sadly 90 per cent of my abstractions become concrete, which is sad for me. I don’t like materiality. With perfume it’s really making and creating abstraction.”

Later in the evening at the gala opening of Amo, Starck makes one small concession to fashion and dons a suit jacket over his hoodie. After the dinner, Starck heads back “off the grid”, returning to his home on Burano, which, like his other homes around the world, is as lo-tech as possible.

“Nobody works like me. I work completely alone in the middle of nowhere. I don’t have a telephone, no computers, no e-mail. I draw everything by hand with a pencil and tracing paper,” says Starck proudly, before Jasmine chimes in to say she has to scan all his drawings and send them to the office in Paris that they visit only twice a month.

Review: Xiaomi Mi Mix – some day all phones will look this way

Always full of contradictions, Starck’s other new obsession is Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi, for whom he designed the Mi Mix, despite not having a mobile phone himself. “They are incredibly smart people. This current generation of young Chinese, wow! ... Everything is impressive; the production, the process even the way they sell it, everything happens so fast,” he says, adding that he has already designed the next phone for Xiaomi.

Approaching his 70s, he shows no signs of slowing down. “I am the boss. I’m not obliged to choose which projects we do or don’t do,” he says before adding with a smile “I have so many ideas.”