Since starting his practice nearly 40 years ago, Philippe Starck has proven so cross-disciplinary, making what he claims to be roughly 10,000 different creations, that he’s hard to pin down. Some of his latest projects—an organic beer with Brasserie d’Olt, a line of fragrances—are just the most recent examples of his unpredictable approach to design, though he asserts he’s neither a “capital D” designer, nor a genius. Surface caught up with him during this week’s NeoCon design fair in Chicago, where he showed his Caprice and Passion chairs for Cassina, now a part of the Haworth Collection with a number of new finishes and bases to choose from. Here, an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
You always seem to be exploring new territories. What are your main focuses right now?
There are so many. I work in the range of two hundred projects a year, and I make ninety-seven percent of the things myself.
Last week, we just launched the biggest private-selling boat in the history of humanity—140 meters long, 150 meters high. It cannot go underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s made with the most advanced technology ever. The boat we did for Steve Jobs—the one that looked like a submarine—was really advanced, but this one is truly astonishing. I don’t imagine that someone can now, for another generation, make a boat with more invention than this. It was seven years of work.
We’re also very passionate about our new perfume company. You know, I’m a professional dreamer, and I’m always sad that my dreams usually become a chair. That’s not very fun. When you make perfume very seriously, it’s abstraction that’s incredibly powerful. It’s multisensory—it creates a place where you are more secure, more comfortable, where you are better, where you feel more sexy. I took this very seriously. We have molecules that have never been used before. It’s very complex, very sophisticated. It’s almost old-fashioned, the quality of it.
We’ve also created an organic beer. It took four years of work to make it perfect. Alain Ducasse and Jean-Louis Costes have both said it’s the best beer.
Why perfume? Why beer?
Because perfume is a strong vehicle for emotion. And beer, it was just for fun. I’m not really a beer drinker, but when I want one, I want it to be good for my health. I was interested to challenge myself to make the best organic beer in the world. I think I have done this, which was not so easy.
It’s refreshing to see that you’re still going in directions beyond furniture design that are more accessible to a wider group of people.
I never said I’m a designer. I repeat: I’m not a designer. Which is true. I’ve never said I don’t like design, but I’ve said that I also make other things. My job is not to produce materiality; my job is to try to make a better life for my friends. That’s all. As the English say, there are different ways to skin a cat, and there are different ways to help my friends to have a better life.
Me, I have no style. I have ethic. And I stick to my ethic. How am I still on the stage after more than forty years? There are a lot of designers who are—or were—more stylish and trendy than me. But for me, it hasn’t been about trends or design; it’s been about ethic, ethic, ethic. Which is a little boring. But I’m boring. [Laughs]
How would you describe your personal ethic?
You have to understand that you need to find your own way to deserve to exist. Me, I’ve chosen to serve—to serve my community. When you’re born, you sign a contract with your community. You have to help your community, you have to help your society, you have to help your civilization. We’re living in this beautiful history of four billion years. In the next four billion years, it will disappear. It’s a beautiful story, and we’re all actors in it. Nobody is obliged to be a genius, but everybody is obliged to participate in this beautiful story.
So your mission is to make the world a better place one yacht, perfume, or beer at a time?
No. Me, I am not a genius. I’m no Einstein. I’m no Ptolemy. I’m no Hawking. I’m not a guy who is able to make big revolution. But one life is long, and when you’re a workaholic like me, working fourteen hours a day every day, alone, small pieces come together. Separately, nothing I do is important, but finally, when you add it all together—and these things go deeply in the lives of a lot of people—that changes the world a little bit. I’m doing it in my own way. Not like a genius, but like an ant.
What are some areas you’re interested in contributing to right now that could help make the world a better place?
Politics, sexuality, gender theory. Housing. I’m obsessed by the scandal that people work first for food and second for a roof. Today, you have to pay so much to put your family out of the rain and out of the cold. When you compare the price of a house today and what it is to the price of a car, you understand that housing has to become industrial or it won’t work. Millions of people need a roof. If we take the technology of the car business to make a house, everybody could have an incredibly better house for the price of a car—$20,000. Today, a house is more like $200,000.
So, if you had your way, you’d re-outfit Ford plants to make houses?
Exactly. We can keep the same workers, the same engineers, the same machines, and build houses in these factories. In the future, we will not need cars. But we will still need houses. And we’re not ready for that.
You mentioned sexuality. What work could you do in that realm?
Sexuality as we know it today is obsolete. The simple box of a man and the simple box of a woman is not enough. There are twenty-two official different sexualities. Not two, three, or four. This means that there are a lot of people who suffer today because they can’t find their place in society. We have to work on this. Why I speak a lot about this is because I know nobody will make anything, but when I say it will become a huge market, some people wake up and listen.
How do you view your role in treating this societal issue?
Well, there’s the perfume. We’re launching nine, and we’ve launched three so far. One of the three is called Peau D’Ailleurs—“skin of somewhere else.” It’s made for these other people. This perfume has absolutely no reference for man or woman. We’ve been obliged to promote this all over the world, and almost every time—Moscow, Tokyo, Beijing—there is somebody we find who doesn’t classify themselves as a man or a woman. They would smell it and immediately spark. When they say thank you, I know I’ve done my job.
You also mentioned politics. In today’s world, it’s hard to even say what the global political environment will be tomorrow. How can you handle this in your work?
I have some ideas to improve politics. But being a politician is a real job with rules. I don’t fit into that. It’s better for me to just forget these ideas forever. [Laughs] Around twenty years ago, I did the Good Goods catalogue of non-products for non-consumers in tomorrow’s moral market. After the big success of it, some people proposed to me, “You could start a political party with this!” I said, “That’s not my job.” I love to increase the horizon of my job, but at some point you have to know there is a limit.
Other than being a politician, what are your limits?