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Tribal Chieftain

Philippe Starck explains his global plan to “invent the elegance of intelligence and the beauty of happiness.”

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Starck in the kitchen of the Soho loft he's vacating for his soon-to-be ex-wife.  

The designer Philippe Starck admits to being a “monomaniaque.” Or maybe he said “nomadique.” It’s hard to tell, since he speaks with such giddy, French-inflected restlessness. Both descriptions apply: Starck has seventeen houses around the world, all containing the same stuff. “The same music—only music I produce. The same books. The same organic champagne.” His latest plan, with real-estate scion Sam Nazarian, is to appeal to his “tribe” with a hotel network that will offer what Nazarian calls “short-term fractional ownership” to encourage “alliance to the brand.” Starck is also converting the J.P. Morgan building downtown into condos, which come with his signature juicers and mattresses. With Nazarian in tow, Starck walked from his Soho loft to the Mercer Hotel to talk to Carl Swanson.

How long have you lived in your Soho place?
Six, seven years. I love a touristic place. [The waiter approaches.] Have you a mix of ecstasy, cocaine, and lemon? Something a little strong—the jet lag . . . Just sparkling water, please.

So much travel sounds unsettling.
You must understand, I never live in a city. I don’t go to the movie theater. I don’t read the news. I never go to a museum. And if you should try to explain me something, I should never understand it. I am what my daughter called “modern autistique.” The only thing that interests me is my passion, my sentimental life.

You’ve done work for Target and Puma. Is it different designing a product rather than a building?
A product, you are out of the product, but you must go in. And the product must go in you also. But the goal is the same: how I make life better for my tribe.

How do you?
By doing the extreme. I make the Target baby bottle for $2 for the poor mother in the suburb of Atlanta. Or I make a boat that cost $300 million. But I never go in the middle. My strategy is like Robin Hood. I work for rich people, they pay the research, and I then take the idea—

[Nazarian interjects:] That’s where my money goes. R&D for poor people.

You’ve done projects like the J.P. Morgan condos before.
In Tel Aviv, in Boston, in Melbourne. The idea is to help people when they make the biggest expense of their life: their home. We have a system that helps people to recognize if they are more classic, or natured, or minimal. Do you use that system in the new hotels? It’s different. The average stay in a hotel is three days. I have to give you a strong experience. I want the [business] people to say to their wife, “I saw so many things that wake up my brain—I want a different life.”

Do you use that system in the new hotels?
It’s different. The average stay in a hotel is three days. I have to give you a strong experience. I want the [business] people to say to their wife, “I saw so many things that wake up my brain—I want a different life.”

What can you possibly do that’s new in hotels?
There are still so many things to invent. We invented, with Ian Schrager, the boutique hotel, and now the boutique hotel is absurd. Today the thing is not decoration, it’s concept. Something specialized for your need. I speak to the Smart Tribe. The people who can walk on the street and find the Picasso and pick it up and say, “Oh, look, it’s a Picasso!” I love people who recognize quality. I have not a lot of respect for people who buy the brand.

Yet you’re a brand.
Yes, but people don’t buy me to show they have money. They buy me because they understand the intelligence. We shall invent the elegance of intelligence. And the beauty of happiness. Or the beauty of tenderness. I’m sorry I’m so pretentious this morning.


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