Designing furniture in the fast lane

It was while seated at a lounge in Tokyo that French designer Philippe Starck sketched out one of his latest successes -- a folding table with ``baroque tendencies'' -- on the back of a coaster. Pleased with the result, he immediately telefaxed the drawing to the Italian furniture firm of Driade. That simple sketch was produced almost unchanged for the latest furniture show in Milan, where the designer recalls it drew rave reviews. Says Mr. Starck: ``I design things very, very quickly.''

Considering all the projects he has designed, and all he has in the works, the 36-year-old Starck has to design quickly. Within a few minutes, he rattles off a list of projects which includes a train bridge in southern France, the set of a science fiction movie, and a ``bizarre'' new pasta shell.

While he is still best known for furniture, his credits also include a nightclub in Dallas (known as the Starck Club), caf'es in Paris, shopping centers in Singapore, and the private apartments of French President Franois Mitterrand at the Elys'ee Palace.

With his designs acclaimed in Europe, Japan, and the United States and his products breaking onto the mass market, Philippe Starck is among the brighter stars in the design world today.

A recent profile in the Paris weekly Le Nouvel Observateur described him as ``one of those visionaries who help give an identity to our time, because they fundamentally change the essentials of life, in other words its details.''

Driven as he is by a bubbling store of creativity, Starck would probably agree. He accepts his success calmly, but not without a hint of braggadoccio. ``For any person who uses his head,'' he says, ``who tries to be creative, who considers his job as a service for others, who is honest, who is a little hysterical, who is a little agitated, who doesn't mind spending his life in a plane and drawing all night, there is no reason why it shouldn't work out.''

While Starck refuses to accept any label or school for his style, his lean, simple lines do represent something of a reaction to Italian or Memphis-style formalism. His furniture, for which he is best known, is almost a revival of the art deco styles of the 1950s.

``There is a sort of sobriety and purity . . . that is breaking through in France and elsewhere,'' says Philippe Vindry, a manager at the Paris department store Au Printemps, which has been showcasing Starck furniture for the past year. ``There is a [general] tendency to return to [the] simple d'ecors that Philippe Starck does very naturally.''

Starck, a round-faced man with tousled curly hair, a wispy goatee, and a kindly smile, says he tries to impose a logic on his designs rather than follow a fashion.

``There is no Starck style, there is a logic in the face of a problem,'' he says. ``There is a constant between all these things. There is the same mind imposed on them.''

He strives, he says, to make products that are useful, durable, and creative, while meeting a dozen other criteria imposed by current times.

Whereas once a designer could concentrate on creating a chair for a person to sit on, Starck says there are now many more considerations. Ecologically, for instance, the designer ``must know that the production of a piece of furniture will hurt neither the earth, nor the people who make it.''

There are also concerns about the semantics of an object, about its portability in a mobile society, and even about its ``mediagenic'' qualities. Says Starck: ``It must be mediagenic because that is the only way it can become known by the public and can penetrate the public and be of service to the public.''

Recent flamboyant designs of the formalists have lost their ``freshness,'' he says, as designers simply substituted one color for another or one shape for another. The results are ``things that are expensive, that are culturally cut off from the masses, that go out of style and that once again prevented people from living in their generation,'' he says.

At Au Printemps, Starck bookcases start at $300, and chairs at about $100. Starck sells other designs through a mail-order catalog, often at lower prices.

Perhaps the more unusual of Starck's chairs is a sort of ``kneeling stool,'' marketed under the name ``Mr. Bliss.'' The angles of the kneeling pads and of the seat are intended to give a person good posture.

Starck says he borrowed the idea from an American design, and adds it will become part of a trend to create especially comfortable furniture in the computer age.

``Computerization will make furniture more comfortable because people will use it for longer periods, since many of them will be working at home,'' he says.

So then he is a modernist or a futurist, right? No, Starck just doesn't like his work to be considered part of a trend.

``I don't have a great consciousness of all these movements,'' he says. ``I do -- instead of theorizing . . . instead of writing books about architecture -- design architecture. I consider that fundamental, and I think a lot of people should do what I do.''

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