It's fun to take risks, to be alive. Without risk you don't deserve to live." It's a compelling philosophy that has served design supremo Philippe Starck well during his 40-year career, one that has spanned businesses as diverse as boutique hotels and haute-couture luggage, to motorcycles and organic foods. Recently gracing our TV screens as the front man for BBC 2 reality series Design for Life, Starck, now in his 60th year, is ready to share his experience and wisdom with a hand-picked posse of aspiring, young hopefuls, one of whom will secure a job as his apprentice in his Paris studio. As with all reality shows, it's a master class in self-promotion, although Starck would probably agree that designing his own celebrity has been one of his greatest achievements.
Born and raised in Paris, Starck's creative calling has been life long. Much of his childhood was spent beneath his father's drafting table, cutting, sticking and pasting together all manner of household objects from toys to kitchen gadgets. He credits his father, an aircraft designer, with giving him the "fire in his belly to invent", but it was ultimately his mother, an artist, who encouraged him to harness that passion and further his design studies at the École Nissim de Camondo.
His foray into interior design in his 20s, notably his louche 70s Paris nightclub makeovers, was followed by a stint as art director for Pierre Cardin. It wasn't until 1982 however, when he was commissioned by French President François Mitterand to bring his private chambers in the Elysees Palace back to life that his creative brilliance truly began to shine through. Now, with the fickle world of residential real estate beckoning, he is working his magic again, this time on Dwell95, a portfolio of exclusive residences in collaboration with Yoo, the international design and investment company he co-founded in 1998 with property developer John Hitchcox.
First bite of the Big Apple
Stateside, his first New York project comes with the kind of dynastic pedigree you'd expect from a designer who gets a kick out of tickling investors' fantasies. Located on Wall Street in the bustling Tribeca district, the sleek architectural lines of Morgan House, the one-time financial headquarters of American banking conglomerate JP Morgan Chase and Co, have been rehoned into "Downtown", a futuristic "paradise island" of 326 individually designed homes.
Spread over 42-storeys, layout floor plans from studio units at $650,000 to sprawling three-bedroom penthouses for $4.5m-plus have been given the inimitable Starck treatment down to the Swarovski chandeliers, Venetian glass mirrors and matching glass sconces.
"Standard" essentials range from white quartz counters and stainless steel Jenn-Air and Bosch appliances to bespoke design fittings and fluted light fixtures, while bathrooms take centre stage with their refuge areas, Thassos marble floors and stainless steel vanities. Typical of Starck's meticulous approach, beneath the building among the vast system of bank vaults, lies a giant bowling alley – "a bit like a vertical playground," adds Hitchcox. As landmark projects go, Downtown is gamely serving its purpose – upping the desirability stakes in a new-look Lower Manhattan. But for Starck, the project's significance is more about opportunity than personal kudos, a core aspiration he sees as lacking in today's society, one in which nobody dreams and where scope is limited.
Much of his restless creativity can, it seems, be explained by a longing to improve the human condition by reshaping living environments. While he readily admits that a lot of his earlier work in the 80s and 90s was influenced by fashion and novelty, his design values now champion the core essentials of longevity and durability; a transition helped by seeking insight from scientists, physicists and cosmologists. "For me designing a toothbrush or a property interior is the same thing – the key is that the object or space gives a bit of life to whoever uses or inhabits it. Everything I do must fit within the bigger picture of this human story. Everything outside that frame is absolutely useless. Of course I don't always succeed. I can make mistakes and occasionally I can be stupid, but I must use my tools as a designer to serve my fellow humans."
Committed to equipping homeowners with the essentials to define their living environment, Starck is spearheading the crusade for democratic architecture, creating prototypes for new-build homes – concepts for living, he explains, that will make it easier for people to avoid costly mistakes and create their own home and life.
"As a designer of a restaurant or a hotel, my role is like that of a film director, I have to tell a story and print the strongest memory of the place on everyone who visits. For private spaces, it's the opposite.
"I provide people with a space that has the best-quality plan, the best proportions, the best volumes and the best materials. In private space my role is to protect the energy and love of the young couple or family. Their job is to get on with their life."
A serial homeowner himself, securing best-quality space is a philosophy he wholeheartedly embraces: his multitasking abodes serving as both sacred family retreats from his manic schedule and as high-octane workstations. Happiest and, he adds, "at his most productive" stretched out in bed with a pencil and pad in hand, his loyal entourage of personal assistants have grown accustomed to his irreverent work practices. For Starck however, being comfortable means being ready to work, irrespective of location. "My real job is dreaming. I have the same drawing paper, the same drawing pad I have used for 25 years. I do everything entirely alone." Idiosyncratic he may be. But it's allowed – every genius has his edge.