Philippe Starck has checked out of his hotel and into a SoHo loft, where he's dreaming up the housing of the future and -- with Peter Gabriel's help -- planning to launch a satellite."You know, I've been a New Yorker for twenty years," Philippe Starck is saying, cradling a cappuccino in his mighty hands at Balthazar. "I was always here one week a month. But I hid. I never, ever left my bedroom at the hotel." Starck -- perhaps best known for designing the Royalton Hotel -- used to hole up there or in the Gloria Vanderbilt penthouse atop the St. Moritz. "And then, when I met my fiancée, Nori Vaccari, she took me downtown. I didn't even know downtown existed because I never knew New York. I was a ghost; I was nothing. Suddenly, I discovered New York. And New York discovered me."
The 50-year-old design genie has decided to spend more time here, ensconced semi-permanently in a SoHo loft when he's not exploring the town on the back of his Yamaha motorcycle or at the helm of a 44-foot Fisher powerboat he keeps moored in lower Manhattan. And there's certainly no shortage of projects to keep him busy: After doing five hyperstylish hotels for visionary hospitality honcho Ian Schrager, Starck is at work on five more. But he's also working to extend the reach of his populist touch. For years, Starck has made chairs, lamps, toothbrushes, and toilet brushes; the $64 lemon juicer he created for Alessi in 1990 looked like something from The Day of the Triffids but ended up in scores of Manhattan kitchens. His fascination with the quotidian culminated this past year in Good Goods, a catalogue that sells everything from telephones, clothes, and sheets to kayaks and scooters. His line of OAO organic foods will be sold at Bridgemarket's new Terence Conran Shop, presaging the opening of Bon, Starck's organic-food restaurant debuting in Paris in April. Now in New York, he has been tapped by materials wizard George Beylarian and his partner Michele Caniato, who help design-world talents forge strategic partnerships; Starck is already said to be close to signing a deal with the chain store Target, following the tracks of architect Michael Graves.
When New York's Wendy Goodman caught up with the French tornado, he had moved on to more global concerns, like YOO, an idea he has that stands to shake up housing as we know it, and a satellite-communications venture with Peter Gabriel that may change the way we deal with each other.
New York Magazine: So how does the city look through Philippe Starck's eyes?
Philippe Starck: New York was a little bit boring until, with our motorcycle, we went to the Bronx, we went to Queens, and I had a shock! My life changed when I discovered really what is New York. New York is definitely not Madison Avenue, SoHo, downtown, and uptown; those are parks for rich people. I've found some places that are like ready-made theater sets for the most beautiful dramas I have ever seen. The most incredible are in the Bronx, where there's a building with a huge statue at the corner like the angel in the movie Wings of Desire. It's like an opera set without actors. You see really the weight of New York. The drama. The tension. When we have one minute, we take the motorcycle to Harlem, because it's here you see real life. With the boat, we duck into all the small inlets of the East River -- City Island and Rikers Island, near La Guardia Airport. It's absolutely incredible -- a huge, huge floating jail with thousands of people in it just a few miles from here. Gray, and at six-floor height, with no windows. It's on the water, and you say, "How can people live in that?" You have got the worst place in the world -- the Inferno -- perhaps seven miles from Balthazar. And then you find Roosevelt Island, with all the beautiful castles, completely destroyed like that. It's so romantic!
Have you ever wanted to try your hand at public housing?
"Something which costs ten times less is more beautiful, the best design I can imagine. I have tried to give the best to the maximum number of people. I believe the rare is vulgar and multiplication is aristocratic."
That is absolutely my dream. I try to be a responsible citizen -- what we call in French a citoyen. A person who has a real consciousness of his duty to society. I am well known; I don't need more money. I don't have to work. But there are still things to do in design, ways to give people a home that is affordable, that they don't have to work all their lives to pay. I have in front of me, what, five, six, eight years left with a good brain? Which is short. Which is why I have tried to express myself, to make a statement all my life through chairs, lamps, toothbrushes, toilet brushes. It's not so easy to speak through a toilet brush. That is why now I try to expand my frame. I have found my final weapon.
Which is what?
With the singer Peter Gabriel, I am creating a TV channel -- a satellite station -- which will be on the air worldwide in the next eight months. The new masters of the world are not political people; they are the owners of satellites. We are a civilization of communication, and all communication will go through the satellite. Tomorrow morning, you will not need to put somebody in jail; you'll just have to disconnect him, and he will be dead! He will have nothing to say. Out! With Peter Gabriel, we shall have Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Jean-Baptiste Mondino -- people like that.
Mayor Giuliani tried to close a museum because he feels one man is misrepresenting the Catholic Church with his art.
Look, when you have a satellite -- when you have a channel -- you can fight that directly. Immediately, you can open the museum on the channel.
Why are product designers suddenly getting some measure of renown?
I think it's because people have decided to re-interest themselves in their own lives. Strangely, it was something they forgot over the years; people were interested in symbols like movie stars, where they could project a dream. And they were interested in clothes -- symbols that you wear. But after a time, they said, "Okay, but all that is not my life; perhaps I should make something of my life." And one way to work on your life is to think about the symbols around you which are called your home. That's why people have recognized some symbol producers. This sign producer becomes shaman of the tribe.
Could a Martha Stewart exist in Europe?
No, because we don't need that -- we don't need it because this quality of life, we have naturally. But Martha Stewart is a good thing here, a good entrance ticket.
So you're no elitist?
For me, something which costs ten times less is more beautiful, the best design I can imagine. Always, I have tried to give the best to the maximum number of people. I believe that the rare is vulgar and the multiplication is aristocratic. To give everybody the best, almost every two years, I have made a point of slashing the prices of my product. My first successful chair cost something like $800. Two years after, I make the Louis XX for Vitra, which cost $400; immediately after, I made the Dr. Glob for Kartell, which cost $350. Then came the Lord Yo, which cost $140. Then the Dr. No, which cost $120, and the La Marie, $80. My next chair, the Slick-Slick, will cost $60, and I shall never stop going down until I get to the absolute right price, which is when the piece costs the weight of the material -- the real cost.
So you're not interested in opening a Philippe Starck store?
Never. Never! Even though everybody everywhere has offered me everything to open a Starck Center. We have created a new company to build houses to give people a new way to live -- called YOO, because we do it for you.
Explain the concept of YOO.
YOO is a company I've started with a genius named John Hitchcox, who founded London's Manhattan Loft Corporation.
I shall never, never design residential interiors; I don't want to, because it is not healthy for people to live in the fantasy of their interior designers. I will only ever design public spaces. But when, if you have some money, you have the choice to call an interior designer, I can be the friend who can help you. We will create the building and floor plans and will sell apartments. Afterward, we will present a book to help people figure out what type of person they are: nature, culture, classic, or minimal. And people will recognize themselves. They may say, "Me, I'm more classic." Okay, if you are more classic, you can have this for the floor, this for the walls, this for faucet, this for the lighting. We will help them make selections of all the best furniture and accessories in the world. The project has worked so well in London, we now plan to build in Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong, Sydney, New York, Paris, New Orleans, Tel Aviv, and Germany.
Do you have a space picked out in New York?
The first will be downtown -- I don't know exactly where. It will not be ready for at least another year. The catalogue will also be on the Internet, and will be sold like a magazine at the newsstand.
So people will have the chance to choose designer furnishings from everyone across the board?
It's all the best things from all over the world -- all the best products. It's really a manual, a guide to help people have a better life.