Philippe Starck Speaks His MindStarck’s dreamy and humor-filled work at the Miami Beach Delano Hotel makes visitors feel as if they have stepped through Alice-in-Wonderland’s rabbit hole. Likewise, his answers reveal an interesting and quirky personality. When asked if he likes boating, Starck does not simply answer yes; he says that if we could see him right now we would notice webs between his fingers and scales on his back.
Nominated for awards as exterior designer, interior designer and stylist for his work on the Feadship yachtWedge Too, Starck created a splash with his speech at the International Superyacht Society awards. His approach, by his own admission, is always political, and he swings from left field. Some of his comments on yachting have been perceived as haughty disdain but reveal a deeply-rooted desire to humanize.
Starck is not a yacht designer. The yachting industry considers him an outsider, and he readily agrees. Nevertheless his “Darkside” collection will have a place of honor in the Baccarat Crystal Lounge at the Monaco Yacht Show in September.
Starck is, so to speak, a gifted generalist. His work over the past 25 years has touched almost every aspect of daily life. He has designed pasta, everyday objects such as a toothbrush, a lemon juicer, furniture and clothing, but also apartments—including those of former French President Francois Mitterrand—and houses, hotels, schools, motorcycles, airplanes and boats.
Young Philippe spent time drawing alongside his father, airplane designer and engineer Andre Starck, and taking apart and putting together objects and motors. After attending private school in a posh Paris suburb, he was registered to attend classes at Nissim de Camondo, an environmental architecture and design school, but was not an assiduous student, preferring instead to explore the woods surrounding Paris.
At 58 he is still quite the wanderer, flying from one continent to the next, but rests in homes that all have water nearby. A licensed lifeguard, he holds a Hauturier Permit that allows him to navigate day or night, over any distance a vessel with any type of power. He has designed sailboats for French builder Beneteau, collaborated on a stunning minimalist racing sailboat called Virtuelleand created several boats for his personal use, including the charming Ara III. He designed furniture for the yacht Senses, but his first real venture into the world of megayacht design was Wedge Too. Since then, he has collaborated with Martin Francis on a project shrouded in secrecy that will, he says, set new standards for years to come when it is revealed within a few months, and has developed a new concept for a 246’ yacht yet to be built.
Is the discipline of naval architecture easily compatible with creativity?
There isn’t more rigor in naval architecture than in other areas. Any trade, any object, any product has its own rigor...My father used to tell me that for a plane to fly you need to be creative, but for it to stay up you need rigor. I try to keep this in mind. I think that the reason I have survived this long is that I have both creativity and rigor. I get along well with engineers; we have mutual respect for each other’s jobs. We are not fashion designers and we totally accept and understand the beauty, elegance and philosophy of engineering.
What are some of the challenges specific to boat design?
We are not going to talk about technical challenges; everyone knows them. But we are at the core of a real subject that affects boats of all sizes and prices. Today boats are useless objects; they don’t even have the one use that they should have, which is to bring pleasure to their owners.
If you take a good look at small sports boats, you will see that their architecture is so completely archaic and obsolete that they don’t offer one inch of comfort...If one person is having fun it is the person who is at the wheel; the kids are just grabbing on hoping not to fall; moms are sitting at the rear on ridiculous benches, surrounded by fumes and noise; teenagers are lying somewhere on a sun pad also trying to hang on while getting skin cancer. These boats are ridiculous and need to undergo an immediate revolution; there is no reason for this idiocy to go on.
I think the boat market will soon arrive at the point where the automobile market was in the ’50s when all products were identical and devoid of meaning, and it all crumbled. Things only took off again when car manufacturers realized they needed to explore niches, become more present, amusing, sentimental; in short, when they started to consider parameters that they ignored previously. The car industry at the time—as the boating industry today—was governed by a principle right out of the ’50s, that of one product for one consumer, which is a fallacy as we’ve seen.
Even when going up in price and scale to megayachts, you will notice that most offer no more space or comfort. They are not designed for their owners’ comfort or pleasure, but only exist to show off money’s vulgarity and money’s power...It is a shame because there is a lot of know-how and a lot of money that is wasted. The collateral damage to consider is the resentment this may create in people who do not have this kind of money. It is very possible for people who have less money to admire something that is pricey but well done, something that has an intelligent design. But the stupidity and inanity of these boats can only generate resentment. On top of that as the market grows, more of these boats pollute the landscape. When you see beaches filled with these ridiculous boats, with their obscenity and male chauvinism, you begin to feel they should be classified as polluting objects. The real issue of navigation today is to reform naval architecture so that these objects become more user-friendly and to reform their symbolism.
What are your priorities in designing a boat? Do you approach boat design differently than other types of design?
My priorities are to revolutionize usage architecture and to clean and revolutionize symbolism; to move toward greater simplicity, discretion and harmony with nature; and to use human standards rather than technical standards, or worse, sexual standards. My work is always political and conceptual. What matters is the final goal, which is the final effect that the product will have; how people are going to live with this product; how it is going to improve their lives, and by extension their ways of thinking, and thus their intelligence and the love they can have toward their society.
Do you enjoy the relationship with the shipyard? How much to you get involved in the realization of the project?
I personally draw all projects down to the smallest details. My right arm, Thierry Gauguin, shares my love for navigation and we work in perfect harmony to develop the technical aspects of the projects after that. We are sticklers for details and control freaks; we want everything to be perfect. The relationship with shipyards is very peculiar because they have a vast amount of knowledge but are very conservative. One reason is that they do not want to question what they’ve been doing; they are conservative by habit. In addition they do not want to take chances that might eventually cost them money, which is a bit more understandable. But this makes it so that you always have to argue, negotiate and push.
What can you tell us of your experience designing Wedge Too?
Wedge Toois a human story, as is often the case with me. One day a very elegant woman arrived in my office and told me “if you please draw me a yacht,” and I said no for the reasons that I have mentioned earlier. I told her that is was my duty to refuse in terms that sort of surprised and disoriented her. But, as she is a very intelligent woman, she bounced right back and defied me to design a yacht that would not be vulgar. The Wedge Toois not a yacht where I had revolutionary means, as the project was already in the works and the shipyard, indeed, was very conservative, but I achieved my goals. The people who live on it are very happy and proud of their yacht, which is well-known the world over as an elegant yacht that distinguishes itself in marinas. I had one goal: break vulgarity and bring elegance. It was achieved.
How would you define the Philippe Starck style or styles?
I don’t belong to a “mechanical” world so to speak, but more to a philosophical one. Where others may think glass and steel, I think respect, honesty, vision, tenderness, humor, love, things of that nature. I do not have cultural baggage, and my work blends the needs and desires of the person who orders the project with my own ethics. There isn’t a style or styles; there is a different logic, a way of thinking, a different approach that makes for different products.
You have made design accessible to everyone through objects and furniture that are practical and beautiful. How did you decide to embark on the design of objects that are the desire of many but the property of very few?
Indeed it is a valid question to ask why someone who dedicated 25 years of his life to develop democratic design that consists of giving the most to a maximum of people, raise quality and bring down prices, would then design $200 million megayachts. The answer is simple: I do not have to choose. Someone who only has $2 to spend on a baby bottle is perfectly respectable; as is someone who has worked a lifetime honestly and who can afford to have a $200 million yacht. Each has its own logic and scale. I employ a Robin Hood strategy, which means I use the money that the rich give me to give to the poor...We have access to terrific people who have terrific ideas, and terrific means and that sometimes results in interesting things that we can apply and distribute. To use an example I don’t like it’s a bit like Formula One as compared to the mass market of the automobile, or haute couture versus prêt-a-porter. I make haute couture for people who can afford it, and I try to derive from it prêt-a-porter. It is completely complementary and not at all contradictory.
Is there someone is the area of yacht design whose work you find interesting and new?
I am not interested in design and designers in general, but there is someone that I respect in the industry and that is Martin Francis, who is the person with whom I have developed the 394’ yacht. He is someone with purity, honesty, rigor, talent and technique—which are rare qualities in our line of work— whom I really respect. I enjoyed working with him.
Are you involved in other yacht projects?
We are preparing now a 246’ yacht that will be even more revolutionary than the first one, but unfortunately I can’t talk about it. I will reach complete maturity of my know-how with this project, and between it and the 394’, I think we will have solved a lot of questions. As people from the industry who have seen the plans have told me, there will be the time before and the time after these two boats.
What can you tell us about these two projects?
The 394’ has many parameters, but the guiding principle is complete harmony with the elements. Physically it is more a fish than a building, which deviates quite a bit from what is being done today. You can see a harmony, a different way of capturing light; it is sort of a stealth yacht, less visible in any case. It is very smooth, almost dematerialized. Beyond that inside are extraordinary technical innovations that yield extraordinary comfort, which are very large spaces. In many yachts you have small corridors, small rooms and complicated things. This project nearly has no corridors but rather large lofts, very pleasant gigantic rooms with many windows. One of the most innovative aspects of the yacht is the hull that I developed in conjunction with Martin Francis; it produces nearly zero wake at 25 knots and that indeed confirms the concept of harmony with nature. But other interesting components of this project are the tenders, which I designed, that are innovative philosophically and technically. It will be finished in six to eight months. I don’t know who will carry out the 246’ project yet, which is for an illustrious client, one of the most gifted brains in the world today.
And in conclusion?
The underlying idea is that you do good projects with good partners. Wedge Toowas done for an intelligent, charming and human woman, and the boat is intelligent, charming and human. The 394’ is done with a young and brilliant mathematician, so the yacht is as he is, pure; and the third one is for one of the most intelligent people in the world, one of the most innovative and so, in this project, intelligence, vision and humanity reign. Projects are reflections of their masters.