Beautiful design is perceived by many to be beyond their grasp, the preserve of the uber-rich and therefore simply unattainable. Advertising agents are thought to rub their hands with glee at the prospect of badging an item as ‘Designer’, as it will command greater attention and, commensurately, a higher price. I believe that most people, if offered the choice, would prefer to surround themselves with beautiful objects especially if they are highly functional and modestly priced.

Philippe Starck, one of the worlds most in-demand designers, is insistent that many of his striking products are available to all at reasonably competitive prices. Already responsible for over 10,000 creations, he believes that his work should interact with others, enrich the lives of its users and be considered as beautiful but, primarily, it must be useful.

In the early 1980s, I lived and worked in Paris for an international law firm housed on the Champs Élysées. I was intoxicated by Paris – and still am – but it was not all Ricard Pastis and Gitanes. Starck was already well known there having been appointed in 1969 as the Artistic Director of Pierre Cardin’s publishing business where he designed furniture. Cardin had, apparently, been impressed by Starck’s inflatable circular house and furniture that he had designed in tribute to his fellow designer, Quasar Khanh.

Philippe Starck was born on 18th January 1949. Following his studies at the prestigious school of product and interior design, the École Nissim de Camondo, on Paris’ Left Bank, he designed for Adidas.

By 1970 he had launched his own design studio, Starck Product, later renamed Ubix. This led to his early work with Alessi, the powerhouse of Italian Design. Alessi had also commissioned other noteworthy designers, including Michael Graves and Richard Sapper, to breath new life into their pedestrian and functional range of homeware. Starck’s contribution resulted in many modestly priced objects including, the Dr Skud fly swat, the Peltoo spatula, and, in 1990, the magnificent and sculptural Max Le Chinois colander and the statuesque Juicy Salif citrus-squeezer.

A designer should not be defined by just one product however Starck’s Juicy Salif is probably his most iconic creation. It is definitive of an era when form and function were not wholly compatible and it certainly pushed boundaries, even sitting slightly at odds with the designer’s own ‘usefulness’ philosophy. For me it is a splendidly executed piece, exaggerated for dramatic effect and possessing its own beguiling beauty. Some say that the Juicy Salif is a triumph of form over function. Others argue, more simply, that it doesn’t work very well! Starck, rather hypocritically, is rumoured to have said: “It’s not meant to squeeze lemons, it is meant to start conversations.”

The idea for the Juicy Salif came to Starck during a lunch on the Amalfi coast. He realised that his plate of calamari hadn’t been dressed with lemon juice and scribbled some thoughts on a napkin that is now preserved at the Alessi Museum in Omegna. Its design has proved to be one of the most versatile and compelling influences on an entire generation of consumers.

Early domestic projects included the refurbishment of the interior of the newly elected President Mitterrand’s apartment at the Élysée Palace (1983). This was followed by the interior design for the iconic Café Costes in Paris, for brothers Jean-Louis and Gilbert Costes (1984), which also featured Starck’s now celebrated leather and bent wood, Costes Chair.

In the late 1980s Starck designed various environmentally sensitive buildings, including the strikingly original, Nani Nani in Tokyo (1989). Following his conviction that a structure should be both ethical and humanist, the building is covered with living material contributing to, rather than detracting from, its environment.

By 1990 his credentials as an avant-garde architect were confirmed by the Asahi Beer Hall in Tokyo.

In 1997, he was commissioned to design the new control tower for Bordeaux’s airport and in 1998 he delivered a new wing for the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

From the late 1990s and into 2000s Starck became deeply involved in the revitalisation of the hotel sector with various signature projects. These included Ian Schrager’s Paramount Hotel in New York, The Delano in Miami, Hotel Le Meurice in Paris, and The Sanderson in London. The latter, at 50 Berners Street, is housed within Reginald Uren’s 1950s Grade II listed building, previously the showroom of Arthur Sanderson’s fabric business deep in London’s Rag Trade district.

From the 1980s onwards, Starck has worked closely with the Italian furniture business, Kartell. In an effort to reduce retail prices, they have collaborated to make several hugely successful ranges of chairs, including the Louis Ghost Chair (2002) and the Masters Chair (2009), as well as sofas in injection-moulded, eco-friendly and recyclable polycarbonate plastic. The weather-proof Starck designed, Bubble Chair, was famously featured in the US TV drama series Boston Legal with William Shatner and James Spader.

In 2007, in Rio de Janeiro, Starck re-designed the interior of the Faena Hotel and both the interior and exterior architecture of the Fasano Hotel, an eight-story hotel on the famous seafront. In homage to the Brazilian designers of the 50s and 60s, Starck used wood, glass and marble to echo the sophisticated and relaxed spirit of the city while maximising on the spectacular beach views.

Starck is responsible for designing first-class waiting rooms for the Parisian and London terminals of the Eurostar. Between 2006-7 he had the opportunity to revisit a childhood interest in space travel with the role of artistic director at Virgin Galactic.

His interest in all things nautical has led him to create some of the world’s most stunning yachts. In October 2012, the Starck designed 78m long Venus was launched. Sadly, Venus’ owner, Apple Computer boss, Steve Jobs, died in October 2011 and did not see his commission realised.

Russian billionaire, Andrey Melnichenko, commissioned Starck to build two yachts, the Motor Yacht A and Sailing Yacht A. In 2008, the 119m Motor Yacht A, which took four years to build, was launched at the German yard of Blohm and Voss. Sailing Yacht A is the biggest sail-assisted motor yacht in the world. She was first seen under full sail in 2017. These unconventional designs do much to re-write the norms of naval architecture, yet they are as graceful as they are revolutionary.

In more recent years Starck’s interest has returned to some more fundamental design challenges. His design philosophies have been seen in various products that reflect his commitment to the ecological movement including wind turbines, solar-powered boats and hydrogen-powered vehicles.

In 2012 he developed, apparently without charge, the Pibal bicycle, Bordeaux’s equivalent to the Boris Bike. Ever conscious of the need for his products to be primarily functional, Starck is quoted as having said, “I wasn’t interested in the aesthetic at all. It’s a workhorse; this is a rustic bike.”

In 2014 Starck designed a range of four battery-powered e-bikes in partnership with Moustache Bikes. These ‘Starckbikes’ are customised to the environment of their use and include ‘snow’ that features a warm fur wrap used to protect the battery from extreme temperatures and ‘sand’ that has oversized tyres to cope with the shifting terrain. Matching sunglasses, helmets, leather backpacks and gloves complement this practical stylish collection.

When I lived in Paris, the Metro and their aboveground sister bus company operated a simple and cost-effective integrated travel card called a Carte d’Orange. In 2013 Starck redesigned this pass, which was renamed Pass Navigo. A potent symbol of design democracy, the sleek and elegant pass permitted the egalitarian designer to demonstrate, once again, just how beautifully designed objects can be enjoyed by all.

With Paris hosting the 2024 Summer Olympics, it has fallen to Starck to design medals for the event. Echoing the game’s translated motto Made for Sharing, he has designed medals that can be divided into four to enable the successful athletes to ‘share’ their success with their families and friends.

Many UK TV viewers will recall the 2009 BBC2 reality TV series fronted by Starck called Design For Life. Over several weeks, selected UK Design Students were encouraged – and sometimes berated by the Gallic Starck – to revive a British passion for design. The weakest were eliminated and the winner was given a six-month placement at Ubix’s Paris office. Arriving on set with his wife, Jasmine, who rode pillion on his classic motorbike, Starck clearly engaged with the audience. Although a fluent English speaker, his elaborate pronunciation left the viewer wondering whether it was part of his act. It was excellent and inspirational TV.

Philippe and his wife constantly travel, immersing themselves in environments that fuel his passions for design, ecology and technology. He owns a property in Comporta on Portugal’s Troia Peninsula, South of Lisbon, near one of the last unspoiled beaches in Europe. His neighbours are said to include Madonna and fashion designer, Christian Louboutin.


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