Vikas Shah, Thought Economics, October 2010
In their book (first published in 2000) entitled "Philosophies of Art & Beauty", Hugh Bredin and Liberato Santoro-Brienza ask us to, "Imagine a world without any animate life, apart from human beings: no birds or fish, no mammals, insects, no bees above the ground nor worms burrowing beneath it. this strange and silent world would soon become even more silent, for the human race would in a short time come to a whimpering end in the midst of a universal desert." They continue this analogy asking us to imagine a world without art. "Here we would have a different kind of desert, one without music, literature, cinema, theatre, painting, sculpture or architecture. Everything even remotely artistic in character would disappear, anything whose ingenuity and skill might awaken in people the shock of the sensuous... None of our possessions would have anything about them of decoration or style. there would be no pictures of any kind, nor any sort of visual patterns or structures... We can see at once that a species thus denuded of everything artistic in its culture would be, not just the human species deprived of its art, but a species that was no longer human." As Bredin and Santoro-Brienza identify, "Our entire lives, even the poorest lives, are shot through with aesthetic judgements, even if we have never heard of the word 'aesthetic'. Every object, every action, every habit, every ritual that has emerged in the course of human history and culture has aspects of structure and content that are shaped and manipulated in ways that are characteristically artistic.... All artefacts are artistic to some degree, even a log of wood used as a garden seat. When we choose a particular colour of paint for the kitchen, or a tie to go with a jacket, or a certain way of arranging furniture, these actions incorporate aesthetic judgements. They aim to achieve a certain kind of 'rightness' which is neither utilitarian nor ethical, but which is a constant and inalienable feature of our everyday lives. We are all, innately and necessarily, aesthetic animals."
Given how deeply rooted this aesthetic is within or culture, it is unsurprising therefore that many of the 'artefacts' we encounter in life (ranging from kitchen utensils, to tools, our cars, homes, workplaces, and so on) combine the 'utilitarian' (their end purpose- for example a knife to cut) with the 'aesthetic' (a knife need not be attractive to perform its function, but it often is). We see this inextricable link mirrored through nature where one is faced with 'artefacts' such as the rose, which need not be beautiful to perform its primary function (reproduction) but almost universally is regarded as aesthetic. Many would even argue that the beauty of many forms in nature (including the humble rose) do, in fact, create inefficiencies in their primary purpose- often inefficiencies which are not easily explained through our (as yet) elementary understanding of evolution and the story of nature.
As we observe these aesthetic patterns in nature, and within our own behaviours, we cannot help but ask the question, "Why do we design?".
In this exclusive interview, we talk to Philippe Starck, one of the most prolific designers of the last half-century. We explore the very fundamentals of why we design, exploring the relationship of design to our history, culture, and experience of our world. We discuss how major global issues such as climate change, technology and economics influence design, and look at essential nature of beauty itself.
Philippe Starck was educated in Paris at the École Camondo and in 1968, he founded his first design firm (which specialized in inflatable objects). In 1969, he became art director of his firm (Starck) along with Pierre Cardin. His remarkable journey since has led him to become recognised as "undoubtedly the world’s most revered living designer." who, "For four decades, he has liberally spread his creativity and ideas across the design landscape, putting his mark on everything from toothbrushes, motorbikes, sanitary ware, restaurants and even the presidential Elysee Palace." In 1998, Starck joined forces with John Hitchcox to establish yoo. Their aim: to create truly extraordinary living spaces. Since 1999, yoo has worked with international developers, designing landmark residential and hotel projects throughout Asia, Australia, Europe, North and South America and the Middle East, and having been involved in the design of more than 10,000 homes in 27 countries
Q: Why do we design?
[Philippe Starck] For many reasons, depending on the time and the person. First you must understand that design is just an application of the mental sickness called creativity. It is exactly the same process whether you wish to make music, dance, or anything else. Firstly, you create to have the feeling of existing. For somebody like me, who had the fortune (and misfortune) to be born structurally in the era of Einstein's relatively- for me, nothing exists- even me. That means I have no feeling or conviction that the things I see exist. For me, a table, a lamp, my wife, it's the same combination of atoms and things like that, but made with a different architecture. That may seem a little intellectual, but it really is not. This is a real feeling- which means I have no consciousness of my life or death- I don't know the limit- I don't know if I live. That's why it's sometimes very uncomfortable, and you can feel lost- especially when you are young. When you have this type of feeling, you become invisible for society- that means you don't know if you exist- you are nowhere. It's more and more uncomfortable. That's why, if you don't want to become crazier than I am, you try to find what can help you to survive- to not be a drone. Finally, for somebody like me- the easiest way to do this was creativity- because I had that sickness. It means first you create in order to have the feeling of existence and then to have the result, in our society, of being loved. After that, when you become a little older, you start to have some ideas, visions, concept- and you wish to speak- and you have different ways to speak. You can sing, you can write, you can design- and me, perhaps because my father designed his own planes and things like that- design became my tool. Definitely I regret it was not the best tool to do what I want to do. Even now, I have no big ambition, no big dreams, and perhaps this was not the right tool for me! as design is a very weak tool.
When you start to express your ideas, after a time you realise that the final goal is to "try to deserve to exist". When your born, you sign a contract with your animal species, your civilisation, your society, your country, your village, your street, your friends, your family and yourself- and the purpose of your life is to stick to this contract, this ethic, which you have signed yourself up-to.
There are many ways for different people to deserve to exist. For me, perhaps because I received very heavy religious education, it was evident- and still is now- that I must serve. The question of my life is, "how can I serve?" and in a very humble way. I regret today that I have not served more, but we will come back to that. If I was not a creative person, I had strictly no problem to become a maid- to clean and make the beds of the people I love- because I love people. Serving for me, is therefore enough. Every level of society can help in many ways- nobody is obliged to be a genius- everybody is obliged to participate- everybody is obliged to serve and help. That may sound a little ridiculous, but I would prefer to sound ridiculous than cynical.
Afterwards, though, I realised the only thing important was to participate to the "big image". The big image is our evolution- which is the most beautiful story- the most beautiful romantic poetry that I never heard or read. How, one day, a creature (I don't know what) was eating grass in a field, and suddenly looked at the sky and said, "I have an idea" and all his friends, eating grass, tell him "but what is an idea?" and he said to his friends, "I have no idea, but I shall find out". This was finally the answer of Einstein who said, when asked "what was your life?"- "I had intuition, and I spent my life to prove it." - there is your beauty- why was there one animal somewhere, someday who decided to become intelligent. Why did this guy, and his friends, make the crazy project of taking control of the speed and quality of their evolution. Today, we are the only animal species we know of, who take control of the quality and speed of their evolution. When I realised this, many years ago, I decided (because it looked evident) that there are two types of human action. The useless- meaning the actions which are out of the frame, and don't help evolution and the useful- which help evolution, and bring anything (even small things) together- consolidating and continuing this fantastic trip. This is the backbone of my life, my spine. This is why I continue- and why I am sad. When I was younger, and it was time to go to school, I could not understand school, or society, and I was not able to learn- and I escaped to the woods- spending my youth, like I continue, hidden in the woods- and that means that I never received the level of education, perhaps, that I would need today to make something more interesting and useful than a toothbrush. Today, it's my biggest problem- because times are changing, which we will come back to, and we are now in a period of extreme urgency. There has been the sudden, incredible, violent comeback of 'barbaria'. I feel I have done my job well, but even if I feel I am the best at my job, I must realise that my job is nothing. That means I have spent forty years of my life to make the best that I could, inside a useless bubble- during this interview, people are dying for a lot of reasons- and I have spent my energy, my life, my intelligence- for nothing which can avoid the deaths of these people- and that will only get worse and worse. It is interesting to follow the "why" and "how" of life- but this is the beginning of the answer.
Q: How does design relate to history and contemporary culture?
[Philippe Starck] We have to take care. Design is- like everything today, 'too trendy'. Before, there were fashion victims, now there are design victims, and people think a chair is more important than a human being. We have to take care and remember that design is almost nothing. I do think, though, a strong correlation between design and us, and society, and civilisation. This is somewhat like a beautiful bad dream- which is very human. It's a very 'human' thing, which means we can try to work to make a better world. Everyone who has an opinion like that- thinks he can be good, can be useful- to make a better world. If you start to have some powers, you can start to think about the best world. Speaking about a better world is nice, normal, generous- but very fast, you start to think about the best world- and immediately it is a totalitarian state. The frontier between a nice project to help people have a better life, which is what I try to do, and a totalitarian state- is very thin. You are now sitting on the best selling product in the whole history of design, "Louis Ghost". That means that everyone loves it! that means it is a good product! it is a perfect product when you look at price, comfort, everything. It is very easy to tell me that everyone must have this chair, it is the best chair.
All these things, design, architecture, and other things- can become totalitarian. That is why I am always very careful- and all my life I have always destroyed everything I have made. I have always mixed everything to be sure that I give richness of choice for people, and never a final solution.
Q: What is the relationship of design to our experience of the things we design?
[Philippe Starck] It depends on how you do it... There are a lot of different designs, and a lot of different designers! You have the narcissists, who design for themselves- showing yourself, and other designers how good you are. This can make beautiful products, but have no connection to real life- and are therefore useless. On the other hand, you could be a venal designer. The venal design was invented by the first designer of the world, Raymond Loewy who said, "ugliness makes a bad sale". When he said that- he killed design- and invented it- at the same time. The reason? it meant that designers would only make beautiful products- so that people will like them more- sell them more- produce them more- and make more profit. It is the exact contrary of what we need to day- we need less. We need just honesty, respect, and less! You also have people like me, who are strangely very humble, and try to understand why we need at all, why we don't need, and how we can show what is cynical, venal, and bad- and how we can show "the way", maybe even the future. I speak of democratic design- which means people should share ideas and products. I speak on dematerialisation, which is also very important. I speak on Bioism, which is vital, about sexuality- and many more topics which we have to consider with our ideas. That means- if you are a designer who likes 'design' and who likes his products- you don't do your job well- you are completely absurd. If you, like me, as a designer, have no idea why you do this job- and try to be forgiven, and try to make the best possible by helping your friends and those you love- I think you can have influence, very small- but better than nothing. That's why we have to replace the design where we have to be at the right place, at the right time- with a new way of thinking. This requires awareness of the final goal, which is not materiality, or product and we must always remember that the final goal is... us
Some people think design is just to make nice products. Me? Before I take my pen- I take time. Sometimes this can take forty years. First you have intuition, which brings vision, which builds an ethic, which will give birth to a concept, and finally, perhaps, which will make a product. The product is at the absolute end of the process, and never in reverse. That is why, perhaps, I make things which have a little more echo than others.
Q: What is aesthetic beauty?
[Philippe Starck] Nothing. Nothing...
Beauty, first- does not exist. It's just an opinion at 2:39pm in London today, for example- and that's why I have no respect for this word- "beauty". It is too volatile, which means it's nothing. You can change, whatever time you like, your opinion of what beauty is, and what is beautiful. Today, this encourages vanity, cynicism, marketing, business, advertising- and everything like that. Beauty is definitively being turned into greed, to make business work, and to give some fake reason for people to buy more and more useless things. That's why I cannot accept beauty in it's current form. For me, beauty is an obsolete word, from a time which was clearly bourgeois.
I would, though, prefer to speak about coherence, harmony and balance of parameters. Sometimes you see a place, a painting, an action, a project- anything- a child, a cat- anything at all- and you have a very strong structural feeling, which is very incredibly emotional. For me, I have had this feeling less than five times in my life- but in front of you sometimes, during one second or less you can feel this emotion and say "it is". It's because the light was perfect, the temperature, the angle of view, your view- everything- all of the hundreds of parameters made this "thing" well balanced. Some people call that beauty- we can call it harmony. We have to consign "beauty" as an obsolete word, as it is now a prostitute.
Q: What is the impact of globalisation, climate change and technology on design?
[Philippe Starck] You can deal with everything in two ways. Firstly, you can feel deeply impotent, powerless- and, like we've seen before, you could say my tool or my weapon, is not powerful to deal with the challenges we face today- and believe me, we have a lot of challenges. Secondly, we can be more positive (like I am, although I live both positions) and understand that we think we are unlucky because we are the generation, in this accident, who will live through the end of occidental civilisation. We know that everything has a birth, a life, and a death- and plants, cats, you, me, we shall die- civilisation is the same. We have a lot of examples through history of this, Mayan, Egyptian, and so forth. We know, it's not a surprise, that all the energy of this world will move from our occident to Asia and South America. It's done- we were the masters of the world- we are no more in that position. We can have a nervous breakdown, and get depressed- or we can say wow! fun! we have everything to re-invent! we shall be poor!. Can you imagine? we were mainly fed-up of fat in our society- and we had a fantastic opportunity to become skinny, foolish, creative and a little lost. We have, in front of us, an incredible wide new territory in which we can re-invent- and we have to invent. This means- if we do nothing, if we stay depressed like old, fat European or occidental civilisation, we shall die, like the Aztecs, the Mayans, and never come back again. If, instead, we ask "Ok, how can we invent our new aesthetic, our new style" what will be the style of our new poverty? what will be the rules of our next dignity? how will we re-invent our lives with completely new incomes . If we take control of this very interesting and fun job, perhaps we shall come back in maybe twenty years- and we shall ride with new values, which will be so interesting for us- but so interesting for the new masters of the world- who will have the opportunity to make our cycle a lot faster, and who will be, in twenty years, in the position we are today- fat. They will need us then, and we shall come back- not like masters of the world- we don't need or want that- but as good, new, fresh, intelligent partners. That's why when I see people speaking and crying about crisis, I am sad for them, they are losers. This crisis is just an extreme symptom of something which is a lot deeper, and a lot heavier. The only thing I don't understand is why politicians don't speak about this? People in France, US, UK, everywhere- kill themselves in stupid small wars- almost civil wars- for stupidity! If Obama, Sarkozy, and all of them said, "it's not your fault", "it's not the fault of your country- you don't have to fight for the last year of your life for retirement- that's not your fault- it's just a regular civilisation cycle." We have to be intelligent enough to see this cycle in front of us, clearly- and work on that. I really wish more people would speak openly like this. Today, everyone speaks of a sickness of society. I understand these people who are sad- they CAN be depressed, they don't remember from where we come- they don't remember the beautiful story of mutation- they don't remember we were bacteria, fish, frog, monkey, and super-monkeys (as we are now). They don't know where we go- nobody seems to know that the sun will implode in four billion years and this world, as we know it- will be destroyed. We have everything to invent between these events. How can people understand, therefore, what they want unless they understand that? Of course you will be depressed!
Q: What is a 'brand' and how does that relate to design?
[Philippe Starck] We are in a society of too-much. Too much of everything. We are in a society of incredible richness of choice- which is good, and very bad. Too many proposals kill the proposal! Too many products, kill the product. In TED, last year, a man spoke of how choice is a source of deep frustration and makes people unhappy when they buy something. I feel it, I live it. Now, you buy a car, a pair of jeans, an ipod (actually, not an ipod, that is always good), a dress- whatever it is- you always have the feeling there was one better. First, because there are so many to choose from, a better one the day after, or a better cheaper one two days later. That is why buying is before everything now, a source of sadness. That's why the brand- if it's well done- if it's not a big brand with strong power of manipulation- if it's a brand with genuine thoughts- with fresh ideas- or a new idea- with a sort of ethic or different angle of view- you can refer to that to make you comfortable. If I take example from my own world. I become more of a brand, naturally, organically- not by activity. We are very well balanced. Half of the world hate us too much- half of the world love us too much. This means, we will forget those who hate us- but for the people who love us, it is interesting. If they need a chair, they read my interviews, seen my face on television. They know me. Finally they think, I hate this guy- I shall never buy something from him- because he is not a believer- or I understand and love what he is, what his brand represents, and now if I have a choice between two chairs- same comfort, almost same look, and almost same price- I will go to this person, because i feel more comfortable. That means a real brand (not a manipulation) is a sort of insurance, a comfort for when you buy things- and also allows you to comfortably live with the product- and in that sense, brands are not so bad. When it is just the result of millions of dollars of advertising with huge technical manipulation- it means nothing. But when you see a guy who has made some new shoes, a new brand- because he has made shoes from natural rubber- you can say, it's stupid, or not, but you will love the brand. During the years, I used to buy Sony products- because they had always made an effort in design. Their products are always very smart. I wouldn’t buy Sanyo- because Sanyo make business. I shall choose Sony, because it has spirit.
Q: How does technology impact design?
[Philippe Starck] There are different ways to look at this. One part will do, for design, what napster did for music. Today, you have 'superstar' designers, and then other professionals who make projects for important people- and then millions of people who stupidly want to make the same thing- but cannot. Definitely today, with the internet (and sites like mydeco.com) there is the possibility (which should be encouraged) to give the opportunity for people to collaborate. We have a young guy in Australia, who has designed a product for Alessi in Italy, or a young guy in China who designs the bedroom of an old woman in London, directly. Like in napster- where everyone can make their own album- everyone can now become a 'Starck' which is fantastic. But we shall see how it goes..
To develop the product itself, the computer mainly helps if you inject plastic. Using a computer for metal or wood, and so forth is useless. If you design today, a sophisticated plastic chair, you need a big computer and a lot of know-how. When we made 'Mr. Impossible' I can tell you, without computer, it would have been very difficult.
This also brings me to one point about the future. If we said the computer mainly helps win the battle of democratic design, insofar as it raises the quality and kills the price, and gives design to everyone- we have to know that in thirty or forty years, there will be no more oil, and while this is not a problem for energy for cars as we will have electricity, hydrogen, cold-fusion, and so on... the reality is, no oil- no plastic. We have to prepare, today, for the post-plastic era. Nobody is thinking about this. Nobody is speaking about this! Nobody realises the incredible impact this will have on society- and the few people, like me, who are concerned- know there is no solution. Eighty percent of the 'first comforts' of people in the world are plastic basins. They have built in Africa, for ten cents, shelter where- in the morning they wash their children, make their food at lunch, and at night- escape civil war. Without plastic, they have no more comfort.
If we think that in thirty years there is no more oil for cars- in fifty years, there will be no more oil for plastic- maximum. That means, only the rich will have access to the type of products which can be made only in plastic- this touches medicine, and a lot of other things. That's why there is a new type of 'middle age' which is coming- without plastic. Some stupid people will say "no problem, we shall have bioplastic- we shall make corn, and make bioplastic." No way! All the scientists said the next famine will come around 2020/2022- that means today we kill the forests to make fields of corn, and other crops- to put gas in our cars and make a new Starck plastic chair? No way. We are an ethical company since day one, and we refuse to use this technology. Every day there is a new bio-plastic, and we have a question they cannot answer. Can you eat the component which made this plastic? yes? or no? And mainly- it is yes. And if you can eat it, we don't do it.
Today, things are becoming more complicated. There is a great company who makes plastic from oil a crop which cannot be eaten- but you have to make fields for this oil- and these fields could be corn, which could be eaten. Today, there is strictly no solution for the post-plastic era.
It would seem that design has two intrinsic and entwined dimensions.
Firstly, design is the experienced (utilitarian) manifestation of human ingenuity and imagination in the continual process of improving our lives (be that through better tools, scientific, economic, social and technological innovations, better furniture, cleaner vehicles, and so forth) and secondly, design is the aesthetic of humanity- the visual evidence that we exist.
This latter element, humanity's aesthetic if you will, is the more profound and visceral. Humanity has, since our pre-history, been fascinated with the 'why' of our existence. Asking the question of whether we exist at all, Philosopher David Lund suggested, "I argue that I have direct awareness of myself - that 'I' is a referring expression and that when I use it to refer to myself, I refer to a subject known to me by acquaintance. This is the ground of the unity if my experiences at a time, as well as across time... Their unity consists simply in the fact that all of them are mine..." meaning- we know we exist by virtue of the fact that we are aware of having experiences ourselves (as principals rather than observers). Moving to the question of 'why' we exist, we must change our perspective from 'principal' to 'observer'. In Kantian metaphysics, this is described as the distinction between 'things' as they are in themselves (noumena) and as they appear in our experiences of them (phenomena). To apply this to humanity, the sensation of existence, and our perception of our world is considered 'phenomena' and the nature of humanity itself, and it's place in nature and within 'the grander scheme of things' (whether you believe it to be mechanical, or spiritual) is 'noumena'. Arthur Schopenhauer accepted and developed this thought process, "In my experience of myself" he argued, "I can observe myself externally- that is, as a material body subject to the laws of physics. But to know myself as a subject is to know my very essence, and thus to know myself as noumenon rather than phenomenon. Furthermore, my essential self, everyone's essential self, the self as such, is Will- a will to live, a will to exist. The appearance of the external body and it's behaviour is simply the phenomenal appearance of my will." We could argue that humanity's aesthetic, therefore, is the phenomenal appearance of a deeply intuitive will- that being our dichotomic need to both assert, and understand our existence.
If we refer back to Lund's explanation of existence, we see his rationale to be highly intuitive- insofar as we, as beings, 'know' we exist. This answer is instant, conclusive, and requires no real thought to justify it. This is the test of intuitive thinking- answers without questions.
We humans, though, have never been ones to settle for answers like that- and instead, prefer to ask deep questions of even the most intuitive parts of our existence. This primal need to question is, paradoxically driven by intuition itself. The intuitive sensation that we don't know enough, that we must question- a sense which is perhaps just as important as sight, sound, touch, and hearing- as without it, we wouldn't be human.
As Philippe Starck said, "First you have intuition, which brings vision, which builds an ethic, which will give birth to a concept, and finally, perhaps, which will make a product. The product is at the absolute end of the process, and never in reverse. That is why, perhaps, I make things which have a little more echo than others."
For us, as humans. The 'need to question' is our intuition, our imagination is our vision. Our culture becomes our ethic- our beliefs, values, desires, sensibilities, modes of expressions and behaviour? those are our concepts- which manifest in the ultimate product. Us.
That is why we design.
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