Philippe Starck’s Politique

When Philippe Starck premiered his Gun collection for Flos at Milan’s Salone de Mobile, there were two distinct reactions: those who found the 18-karat gold replicas a brilliant statement about war and greed, and those who dismissed the products as a crass publicity stunt. But a month later at New York design store Moss, where over two dozen of the golden weapons are lined up like sentinels in the shop’s windows, the Frenchman insists that controversy was not his aim. “The press say that I’m a showman. Me, I’m not a showman. I live in the middle of nowhere, I never go to cocktails. Did we meet one time at cocktails? Never.”

But as with Peter and that wolf, it’s hard not to be skeptical of Starck. After all, since his start in the 60s, founding a company that produced inflatable objects, to his punky nightclub designs in the 70s, to the surreal, up-market boutique hotel interiors he designed for Ian Schrager in the 80s, to his forays into property development in the 90s, Starck has been a full-on marketing force. But he also has been a court jester: a fop who pokes, provokes—and prompts a niggling sense that he’s getting the better of us. That he’s giggling at us from the corner. Then laughing all the way to the bank.

Blame this sense on the image he projects: Which other designer would send out a publicity photo of himself shirtless, belly hanging over the edge of his sarong, gleefully grinning? Blame it on how he names his products: How ridiculous would you feel asking for a “Miss K” (lamp), “Dr. Von Vogelsang” (sofa), or “Hot Bertaa” (kettle)? And blame it on his audacious branding: Does the world really need a slew of eyeglasses, shoes, boats, cutlery, motorcycles, electronics, watches, furniture, lamps, toilet brushes, food stuffs, and even Olympic torch holders “Made by Starck”?

But then again, there’s his conscientious side. In 1998, after the birth of his son and conversion to vegetarianism, Starck produced the Good Goods catalog for La Redoute; this collection of “non-products for the non-consumer,” as he called it, was ecologically sensitive, ethically sound, and politically correct. Declaring consumerism passé, he began advocating living with less, and announced a policy of not working for “religious institutions, weapons manufacturers, alcohol companies, tobacco producers—in fact, anyone who makes ‘dirty money.’” He also swore off using leather in his designs, explaining that it was “barbarian” to kill animals. (The “Dr. Skud” fly swatter he created for Alessi later that year was an aberration, he claims.)

So all this said, why did Starck create a line of lamps that glorify guns?

“The first thing for us to remember is that creativity has a duty of political action,” he says, tapping a finger on the table. The two of us are downstairs at Moss, taking a moment away from the crowd swarming around the exhibit upstairs. “And now we have forgotten that, and young designers just think about being a star and making money. They forget their duty to society. Everything you do must be in relation to your civilization, your society, yourself, your life: without that the objects you make are just objects. That’s why I try to wake people up a little and say everything you do is a political vote.”

The lamps, he explains, are a “memorial” for those killed in the name of political progress. “[Our governments] create dictators, we sell them weapons, they kill people of their country, and we try to kill them when we cannot use them any more,” Stark says.

“These are our weapons,” he continues. “Our governments produce them and we agree.” He shrugs. “I understand we are not obliged to act against that, okay? But if we do nothing, we can [at least] pay a little attention to the people who die for us.”

To drive home our culpability, Starck chose different guns to represent different nations. The Beretta symbolizes the responsibility of western Europe; the Kalashnikov, the suffering caused by the former USSR; and the M16, the havoc created by the United States.

Media pictures of Saddam Hussein’s gold-plated gun, recovered when America and its allies attacked Iraq, inspired the line, which contains floor, desk, and bedside models. The guns are coated in gold leaf to allude to the military-industrial complex, while their black lampshades signify death. Small, smoked crosses line the inner portion of the shades, miniature graveyards that remind users that the next passing could be their own.

Starck claims the Gun collection is his most obvious—but not most pointed—political statement to date. That honor he divides among his Residential by Mail Order pre-fab house, Good Goods catalog, and—strangely—the Attila gnome stool/table he created for Kartell.

But as if to allay fears he’s lost his sly humor, Starck mentions another recent project: a design center in Hornberg, Germany for bathroom manufacturer Duravit. To communicate the complex’s purpose, he drafted and installed a 7-meter-high resin toilet in the building’s front façade. He says the choice was pragmatic, not scatological: “Because the factory is close to the highway and people go by it quickly, we put a big toilet there so they know what [the center] is about.”

Starck’s future plans include working on his clothing company and a brand of hydrogen cars; continuing to design boats and nautical furniture; pursuing condominium work, including his second Icon project, Icon Brickell, in Miami and a new 26-story building in the Victory Park section of Dallas; and collaborating with producer and real-estate developer Sam Nazarian on the Ritz Plaza in Miami and a chain of properties in Los Angeles. Plus Starck will host a political chat show, “Gnack,” for French TV channel Canal+, which at press time was slated to start in September.

Although he has progressed from chasing novelty to promoting a more considered world view, Starck is still restless. And despite his protestations, he’s far from finished with design. Of course he insists design is boring: He tells me he regrets not being a scientist, politician, or composer, occupations he considers real vocations. “I think you must have a job which gives the possibility to deserve to exist,” he says ruefully. “To deserve to exist you must serve. You are not obliged to be a genius, but you are obliged to participate and bring what you can.”

Categories: Cities