For the last 20 years, curators have been trying to persuade designer Philippe Starck to help stage a retrospective of his work. And the prolific, ubiquitous Starck -- who has become a global brand name by molding classic French armchairs into transparent plastic, revamping high-end destinations like L.A.'s Mondrian and New York's Hudson hotels and reinventing a series of inexpensive toothbrushes and household goods for Target, plus countless "bits and bobs" (his words) in between -- has resisted.
"People have been asking me to do an exhibition for a long time, because everyone knew that an exhibition on Starck would work," says Starck, 54, sitting with arms folded in his light, airy offices near the Place de la Republique. Sparsely outfitted with Starck lamps, brightly colored plastic stools and tables, work spaces are divided by floor-to-ceiling white curtains (he has a glass door). "I saw no interest in having an exhibition for my own glory. I'm not wired to work on creating a mausoleum to my genius, to my talent, to my career. That didn't interest me at all."
So it seemed only natural -- having eventually been persuaded that it would be more fun to stage a retrospective alive than dead -- that Starck would have to start by reinventing the concept of an exhibition. Which is how there came to be precisely zero objects in Starck's first-ever retrospective, which runs at the Pompidou Center until May 12, and will travel throughout Europe, Japan and most likely to Los Angeles thereafter.
"We thought if we mounted the objects one after another, the public wouldn't learn anything," says Pompidou design director and show curator Marie-Laure Jousset. "We didn't want to turn the museum into a showroom. These are objects that are meant to be used, not displayed. But if the public wasn't going to see any objects, they had to gain something else -- Starck's direct commentary on his work, without any filter or intermediary."
Starck argues that it would have been boring to assemble a mass of his designs, especially since, given his penchant for mass production, "almost everyone has one of my objects at home." Of course, it wasn't clear that the 5,000 people who lined up for last week's opening night were expecting anything more than seeing Starck's popular creations.
The French are fond of calling Starck "une rock star," and recently, on opening night, he certainly demonstrated his ability to attract a crowd. Les groupies were out in force -- standing by the dozens in a snaking line, teenagers trying to crash the door. Some 5,000 Parisians passed by between 3 and 11 p.m. When Starck arrived at around 9, flashes burst, autographs were requested and given.
Outside the curtained entrance to the exhibition space, a screen filled with Starck's white clown-painted face called in a mock circus ringleader's voice: "Come listen to the great pretender who says he's done everything! Come on in -- there is nothing to see, and everything on offer."
Visitors entered a dimly lighted, 80-foot circus-like round stuffed with nothing but Parisians (and a few dozen nondescript cane chairs). They gathered around 11 talking bronze busts, onto which video of Starck's oversize head was projected in a constant loop. He provided some five hours' worth of commentary on a slide show of his life's work playing above on a small screen (with English-language subtitles, for anyone planning to be in Paris before May 12). Music composed by Laurie Anderson for the occasion animated the background. A spotlight created a shadow -- a symbol of the unconscious that Starck says is the motor behind all his work.
"People go into a totally empty space and see those 11 totally voluntarily ridiculous statues," says Starck, dressed all in black, his curls clipped short, his eyes so bright they seem electrified. "And there, the moment I ridicule myself, I relativize myself, I break the icon, I break the star effect, I break the idea that creation is a divine right done by superior beings. And at that moment when I break my image, at that moment we can begin to talk between friends."
Stories behind the designs
Starck spent five days in the basement of the Pompidou clamped into a fiberglass shell with head vises and wrist straps, recording an unscripted, non-chronological, well-considered, funny, self-consciously self-deprecating commentary to accompany the slide show. He reminisced about his father the airplane builder, his mother's glamorous resourcefulness, his American wife and his children, the birth of his 2002 Louis Ghost chair, his feelings about office furniture.
He outlined the rationale behind his 1998 "lazy working sofa," a couch with built-in plugs and tables for your laptop. ("Society doesn't need people in offices, pretending to work all day," he says. "You're better off resting and thinking things over.") He revealed that his 1990 series of "Mississi" lamps were designed for those who just want "a lamp that doesn't ask questions." He confessed his motivation for designing sleek travel clothes ("I understand very well this current obsession with being comfortable," he says. "I don't want to seem like an ultra-elegant man who's shocked by this, but let me tell you that 200 tourists dressed up in multicolored sweats in the most beautiful landscapes in the world -- that's real pollution.")
He told the stories behind the hotel lobbies, the restaurants, the beds, the chairs, the organic rice, the mineral water, the luggage, the baby monitors, the yachts, the do-it-yourself house-building kits ("A house should portray only the beauty of its inhabitants"). The commissions and inspirations. And the visitors at this non-exhibition stood in a kind of trance for as long as 2 1/2 hours for this surprisingly engaging and exhilarating spectacle that is by turns a self-portrait, a mission statement, an audio memoir, a political manifesto and a winking offensive against those who would dismiss Starck as a vainglorious self-promoter.
"Instead of making a static mausoleum," Starck says, taking a sip of St. Georges spring water, whose retro bottle he designed, "I made a dynamic machine with a precise goal -- to destroy myself in order to reconstruct the other. I recount the real reasons why we make things or don't in life; why we create or don't; why we do some things and not others; why an object exists and why it doesn't.
"I don't give intellectual, aesthetic, cultural explanations. I explain the simple reasons behind things so that people can say, 'There's nothing special in what he says. Why not me? Why shouldn't I also transform my worries into creativity?' So the principal goal of the exhibition -- it's an enormous machine to give enthusiasm to people who have lost it. Regularly, I hear a lot of people say, 'Yes, me too! I want to do something, but life isn't easy,' and bla bla bla. I want them to come out of the exhibition saying, 'I can do something!' "
He also wants people to choose to be non-consumers. Not to accept only predigested, prefabricated images. To think about tomorrow. To admire ourselves. To know that we are mutants. That we don't have to kill to survive. To refuse propaganda and manipulation. To read between the lines. To remember that one dictator can hide another.
Not that Starck is trying to come across as anything that anyone in these inflammatory times could call anti-American, mostly out of concern for his American wife and daughter. "I don't think you could accuse me of cowardice," he says. "Of prudence, a bit. But when I say 'a dictator can hide another,' I think I'm relatively clear; I'm clearly political in what I say."
Jousset says that she is pleased to work for an institution that gave her the leeway to help Starck create a retrospective that corresponds to the audacious creator who doesn't like to repeat himself, and has always made it a goal to reach as many people as possible. "We wanted to do a very experimental exhibition, for the public," Jousset says. "But we had to have a lot of nerve to do it. I think that the people who don't like Starck won't like him any more afterward, and I think those who do will be happy they've learned things they didn't know."
She says that Starck, whom she has known for 20 years, is not like the others. "I don't know if we can say he's nice or not nice," she says. "He's a force. It's very impressive to see such a power. He's very modern, he's interested by tomorrow. He knows we are in a post-industrial period; he knows we don't need another chair or spoon. But he is interested in objects that create emotions, that give us pleasure, that tell stories, that carry a message."
Gas guzzlers unwelcome
Starck lives between various houses in France and Venice, among other places, all purposefully chosen spots where there are no gas-guzzling cars (he prefers bikes and scooters -- and motorcycles and planes, he says). Tonight, he is jetting to Hong Kong for an obligatory dinner, though he says he hates to travel. He has kept a reporter waiting a half-hour only to nearly double the accorded half-hour interview -- having been burned by journalists in the past, he says, he has taken the step of tape-recording it. He signs a reporter's copy of "Starck Explanations," a 300-page pocket-Bible-sized baby-pink transcript of the show's commentary printed with magnifying-glass type and no images, with a heart.
"It's a very risky exhibition," Starck says, his own tape having run out and not been replaced. "Because I'm overexposing myself -- and you know the French spirit is very critical. But I've spent my life taking risks. Here I took an enormous risk, knowing people might take me for a megalomaniac. But it's important to use this exhibition to say, 'Wake up, stop being a spectator. You must absolutely become an actor, a rebel, to think about your existence. And above all, don't give up.' "