Philippe Starck on why we need less design, not more, and why any design without moral commitment is nothing more than a cynical confidence trick
GOOD DESIGN DOESN’T exist any more. Some years ago it was possible to say that good design produced some concepts or ideas, to help you, your tribe, to have a better life. Good design was about vision, creativity, deep modernity, respect, intelligence, quality, humour. Voilà! But, today, design has become rather useless. Other urgent priorities have made it irrelevant. Our civilisation, our society, our whole life is under threat. Twenty years ago it was perhaps a little funny to lose time speaking about the beauty of the lamp. Now it’s an obscenity. Because design doesn’t save life. And the main thing is to save life.
There are people who die everywhere, every minute, for political reasons. Some for religious reasons; some because they have nothing to eat; some because there is sickness; some because there is no water; some because there is too much; some because there is no more land. Our climate is changing. There is an explosion of new challenges, vital challenges. Design perhaps can help, to add a bit of life, but, sadly, design cannot save life. That’s why I say today it’s better to have a rescue dinghy and a helmet than design a lamp.
I like to think I was a little ahead of the curve. Don’t forget, fifteen years ago I started designing and selling gas masks to protect people from a bacteriological, atomic or chemical accident. Everybody was laughing at the idea then. Now, nobody laughs and everybody wants one!
People are what matters. In fact, you and me — human beings — are the best example of good design. The only animal species who has taken control of his speed and quality of evolution is mankind. We are incredible, you and me. We are so, so intelligent in different ways. There is no materiality, there is no product which reaches our level of intelligence, our inherent design perfection.
Sadly, too, mankind is responsible for the worst design. I don’t mean wars or guns, I mean religion. It is the worst-designed thing ever. Religion has set back scientific exploration. Millions of people suffer and die because some people use religion to control other people. It’s horrible. If there were not this stupidity, perhaps everybody could be happy and alive.
Believing is the negation of our intelligence; believing is when you cannot answer. You are a coward to say: ‘Oof, it’s not me, it’s God.’ This removes any self-responsibility — you can do what you want, because it’s not you, it’s God. Believing is the worst thing. Our company charter says we don’t work for arms manufacturers, tobacco, oil firms, gambling outfits — for dirty money. But, more than anything, we don’t work for religion — and we have had requests.
What else makes bad design? That’s very easy. It’s to be very talented, very intelligent, have a lot of power, a lot of know-how — and then use all that just to create useless products which are produced not to help people but to take money out of the pocket of ‘a target consumer’ and to put money into the pocket of a company. It’s a very cynical way to do the job. It is done with greed, with no respect. These designers want to take and not give. We need to make things that are more ecological, more social. And, yes, we need to produce less.
Starck designed the distinctive interior of London’s Sanderson hotel in 2000
OK, OK, I know I’ve designed what some might call frivolous items in my time. But I have no regrets. To regret, it’s not a positive way of thinking. You have to be yourself, to understand that every time you make something that was not perfect, it’s a step to learn and try to do it better next time.
Part of the future means consuming less and designing less. I should design less, but I am obliged to continue to design a little because of the size of my business. According to research by a journalist, 300,000 people eat because of what I do. I cannot decide in one day to stop that, to just jump out of the window. I try to design better and to be honest with myself, but also to take care of and protect my partners and the people of my partners. It’s not so easy but I’m working on it.
I have spent years doing democratic design, raising the quality, killing the price to give good design to everybody. We’ve won the battle. It’s taken 30 years but it’s done. Now, I’m starting with democratic ecological design. Two years ago I designed a windmill. Soon, we shall launch democratic ecological architecture, with a new company to develop high-quality, high-technology, pre-fab ecological houses with affordable prices. It’s not a trendy gimmick. We move with real products, real projects and real companies. I will also design an electric car, which will be made by a small French company.
I am 62 years old now and people ask how long I will go on designing. Designing, I have no idea. Creating, I cannot stop. Creativity — you don’t choose it, it chooses you. I have this creativity which I have to express. My Mother, Jacqueline, was deeply creative and a little foolish. She taught me the elegance of life. My father, Andre, was deeply creative. He was one of the best aircraft engineers of his generation. The Starck plane was the Ferrari between the two wars.
Against them, I cannot be proud to be a designer. Sometimes, people in the street tell me: ‘Thank you. Thank you for what you are, for what you do, for what you have made. And what you made for us.’ This is OK for me. I don’t care if people tell me: ‘Oh my God, it’s so beautiful, your last chair,’ because I know they will say the contrary next year. But when people say: ‘Thank you for what you do for us,’ it’s OK. I feel good. Not proud, but good.
Philippe Starck is creative director at Yoo
Image of the Alessi PSJS ‘Juicy Salif’ courtesy of Alessi s.p.a, Crusinallo, Italy. alessi.com