There is one image that overwhelms all others in Starck by Starck, the new compendium of Philippe Starck’s work just published by Taschen. It is of the designer himself. His picture is on the front cover, the back cover, the endpapers, and quite a few of the book’s pages, among them a six-page opening spread that consists of nothing but full-page views of Starck in a variety of poses, including one in which he appears naked on a rock outcropping facing the sea. There are designers who believe that their work speaks for itself, but Starck is clearly not one of them. Given the choice between showing his work and showing himself, it is clear where his priorities lie. (Not that his publishers would ever force him to make such a cruel decision. They gave him 576 pages, assuring that in between all the pictures of Starck there is more than enough space left over for a good number of images of objects he has designed.)
Starck is a brilliant designer, and this book shows us where his talent lies—and where it doesn’t. He’s obviously a self-promoter, but what of it? So is everyone else these days. What is much more troubling about Starck is how he has corrupted his initial vision, which I took as heavily surrealist, by his determination to position himself as a kind of design messiah, not to mention his eagerness to play in the fields of the celebrity culture at the same time. Starck’s finest works—his early designs in Paris such as the Café Costes, or his first hotels for Ian Schrager such as the Paramount, the Royalton, and the Delano—were astonishing. They were two parts Jean Cocteau to one part Bauhaus, with a pinch of Busby Berkeley. The mix was bedazzling. It was beautiful and decadent and sensual and altogether original. Starck celebrated Modernism and critiqued it at the same time.
Then he kept going, and going, and going, and started doing it all over the place—more Schrager hotels, stuff for Target, motorcycles, electronic equipment for Thomson, glasses, watches, toothbrushes, telephones, shoes, chairs, and the famous Alessi lemon squeezer. The Target products didn’t sell particularly well and neither did the things for Thomson, and it wasn’t merely because he was grinding them out too fast for his own good. Michael Graves churns the stuff out too, but it has a consistency, and it sells. Graves’s household products for Target manage to project an air of amiability and ease, two qualities that Starck aspires to but rarely manages to achieve despite the fact that, as the jacket of his new book says, “Philippe Starck wants to bring love and happiness into your life by designing objects, environments, and appliances that will brighten your days.”
Well, if you have to declare your childlike qualities, then it goes without saying that they don’t exist. The lemon squeezer in itself sums up one part of the Starck problem. It is an original object—striking to look at, especially if you like household items that resemble stainless-steel cockroaches—but its quality comes mainly from the fact that it looks a bit ominous. Starck at his best is slightly frightening, not childlike; he is Maurice Sendak to Graves’s Margaret Wise Brown. And of course the lemon squeezer doesn’t work terribly well. It is best as a kind of icon of design sensibility. You keep one on the counter to show everyone that you respect the cult of objects, and then you stash someone else’s version away in the drawer to actually use.
Now functional compromise as an aesthetic indulgence is no more unique to Starck than is his penchant for publicity, and I would let him have as much of both as he wants if it were not for the way he insistently presents himself as a kind of philosopher-king. “I no longer wish to talk about design,” Starck says in his book. “Nowadays it’s mainly the broad outlines of things that interest me. But the outlines are entirely personal, and all but fantastical….The only thing that I find real, tangible, and quantifiable is the ‘electric’ relations between humans…I now live in a different structure, one composed not of bolts, solder, structure, and collage but of entities linked by vectors of energy.”
Hmmm. I’m not even sure that’s good surrealism. It’s more in the realm of touchy-feely pop psychology. Starck believes he is designing from his innermost feelings and dreams, but what do we make of those feelings when they seem mainly to be about fame and popularity and his role at the very center of the culture? When Starck began, he seemed to be the Magritte of design, but he is ending up, sadly, more like the Salvador Dalí.