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Philippe Starck on "Phantasmagoric Universes" and Eating Organic

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Welcome back to Dining & Designing, in which journalist Julie Earle-Levine profiles and explores the design of restaurants. Earle-Levine, who has contributed to The Financial Times of London, New York Magazine, and the New York Times, among others, has both a passion for real estate and a passion for eating. This will be fun.

Photos courtesy of Starck

Philippe Starck, the prolific French designer whose stylized, streamlined work spans everything from his famed Juicy Salif citrus squeezer to a beer hall in Tokyo, not to mention an ever-growing list of dizzyingly chic restaurants, hotels, and super-yachts, is a world-traversing figure. Some say he’s just too everywhere, and too over-the-top: “Not another Starck hotel!” But we love his unstoppable pizzazz. Among his best-known hotels are the Royalton and the Hudson in NYC, the Delano in Miami, the Palazzina Grassi in Venice, and the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills. His restaurant interior design work ranges from the Felix restaurant at The Peninsula Hong Kong, Katsuya and XIV by Michael Mina, both in L.A., José Andrés' The Bazaar at SLS Beverly Hills, and La Corniche in France. He has also spent the last two years revamping Paris' stunning Raffles Royal Monceau "for globetrotting executives and jet-setting billionaires who seldom get to sleep in their own bed," he told the New York Times, which called the revamped space a "pleasantly odd experience." We caught up Starck in Paris, where his design agency is headquartered, and spoke with him about phantasmagoric universes, eating organic, and why his hotels are like movies.

Is it true that you don't know the alphabet, nor division or subtraction?
Yes. I am a monster of intuition. I have two types of activities. One is real work, which is dreaming. My subconscious delivers me all of the concepts, finished, completely done. That is my real work. My other job is communications and meetings. I’ve spent my life in airplanes, traveling for obligations (work). I clearly prefer mental travels through books, poetry, or a good dream.

The Raffles Royal Monceau was a $100M-plus renovation. Tell us about your work here.
I did the entire property—the hotel, five restaurants and bars, a cinema, and apartments. It reflects the French and Parisian spirit. My influence here was not style, culture, trends, aesthetics, but only the essence, and spirit which gives birth to the concept of ‘mental space.’ Influence is not something you can describe, or name. It’s just the magic of a special quality of air you’ve never known before, like the sound is a word created by waves. Like perfume creates another sentimental or phantasmagoric universe, we have created a space where somebody is living with you, but you cannot know who, and when.

Someone is living with you in the hotel? In your room?
Yes. The guest rooms are not empty, they are full of a feeling, a spirit, a presence, as if someone invisible is welcoming you. For the public spaces, I created many fertile surprises that shall awaken people, whether they spend three minutes or three hours, while in the rooms it is quieter. I let the rooms have space so that guests can create their own egg in an inhabited space.

Who did you have in mind when you redesigned this historic palace?
I never make architecture for architecture. I am not interested by stone, aluminium, glass or concrete—I am interested by life. That is why a hotel for me is a movie. I imagine what people will feel. I hope for them they will feel more creative, more intelligent, more elegant, more sparkling, more poetic, more foolish, more in love.

What happens in this movie?
This movie is about the cross of many roads. These roads shall bring different tribes from all around the world—very diverse tribes—other roads shall bring the Parisian tribe. Some of this tribe shall be artists, managers, stars, nobodies, old, young, diverse and rich like life must be. Paris is very exclusive and this open boiling bucket of intelligence and energy shall be new and useful. I created here what I think is a new concept: mental space. It is no more about interior design style and trends. It is more making air in vibration like music, giving to the air spirit like a perfume.

Tell us about the restaurants.
The Italian Il Carpaccio (lede photo, right) has oyster shell ‘grotto’ walls. It is part grotto, part solarium with seashells embedded in the walls, ceilings, and chandeliers. The contemporary French La Cuisine (lede photo, left) is open-dining with a spacious, 16-seat shared table and cathedral ceilings. I wanted it to have the atmosphere of a large family room on a scale of cathedral. In the lobby bar, Le Bar Long (second photo) there are colored Parisian vintage glasses, sourced from flea markets. Guests can choose a glass. They have a drink, and then, the glasses are washed and re-positioned exactly as they were displayed. The layout seating here extends perpendicularly from the bartender’s station, rather than parallel to it, for face-to-face action by those seated at the table, rather than side-to-side conversations that take place at most bars.

What are your favorite restaurants in the world and why?
I actually do not care about food as long as it is organic. I’ve eaten organic all my life, from pasta to Champagne and wine. Now my battle is to refuse sulfites in wine. My choice on restaurants is based on honesty—honest food. Amongst them: Da Romano, on the island of Burano, a real perfection through a line of family members who welcomes you like family.

Do you like to cook?
I am not a great cook, but I can cook anything with the leftovers in the fridge for 30 people, and everybody has a lot of fun.

When designing restaurants, do you collaborate with owners and chefs on design?
I take into consideration their needs, of course, especially in terms of urbanism.

How about hotels? You’ve designed all kinds of hotels—everything from sleek and modern, to simple, wooden houses in Slovenia, to inflatable houses. What would you like to design next?
I strictly have no desire to create more materiality. I wish I could mainly dedicate to political actions. I’ve worked for 30 years on democratization of design, then more recently on democratization of ecology with my personal windmills and ecological architecture without going through the objects. My passion for now is to focus on my laboratory on fundamental research, on creativity and its derived creativity school.

What else has been interesting you these days?
We will launch in a few months D.E.A.R.S: Democratic Ecological Architecture with Riko by Starck. Theses are prefab wooden ecological houses with the utmost technology starting at very affordable prices. The first one shall be our house in the countryside around Paris. I’m also working on several Mama Shelters in Europe, my concept of the “jeans of the hotels”. A port in Palma de Majorca that shall open early next year. We are also finalizing an electric car and of course I am working on several boats including a gas-and-solar mega yacht. I am amphibious and have a real passion for the sea—that is my element. If it is a house, it is always by the water.

How many homes do you own? You told me once you owned many “shacks.”
With my wife we mainly live in places in the middle of nowhere: in the middle of the forest, or the islands of the Venice laguna [Burano] or another island in the southwest of France where we have an oyster farm. The idea is to live far from cars, from everything to remain pure and awake. And indeed, they are shacks but in the closest environment to humanity, in the primal mud.

· Starck [official site]
· The Kooky (and Pricey) Royal Monceau Reopens in Paris [NYT]