Philippe Starck is here ― but is Korea ready?When the famous designer Philippe Starck and his business partner John Hitchcox have traveled by private jet to work ― or relax ― around the globe, Korea has never been on their map.
But commercial air travel, apparently, is another matter. They surprised many on their recent one-day visit to Korea by arriving on a commercial flight from Hong Kong. Since Starck would soon speak about his “fight against elitism,” perhaps that was appropriate.
The near-legendary designer and his business partner were here to attend an event called “Experience the Starck Style,” held in two Seoul gallery spaces. A limited number of design industry professionals and VIPs got to meet with them at a lecture, a press conference and a cocktail reception, all arranged by two local non-profit design organizations, Korean Society of Interior Architects/Designers and Korean Association of Industrial Designers.
They were also here to announce the formation of Yoo-K, a joint venture between Yoo, a London-based real estate development company headed by Mr. Starck and Mr. Hitchcox, and Kolon Group, a Korean conglomerate best known for textiles and construction since 1960. A deal to start the new venture, a high-end real estate development company, was reached last December, according to Yoo-K’s chief executive officer, Choi Soo-il.
“The crossover is timely,” said Mr. Hitchcox, a Londoner who entered the world of real estate at the precocious age of 19. The simple logic he followed then was to buy old buildings at low prices, refurbish them and resell them at a profit. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Mr. Hitchcox built a reputation as a real estate mogul; he is best known for turning Victorian establishments into modern hotels and apartments and making New York-style lofts popular in developing sections of London.
While staying in Ian Schrager’s hotels, which were designed by Mr. Starck, Mr. Hitchcox says he discovered that he and Mr. Starck shared the same type of clientele, or “tribe,” as Mr. Starck fondly called them. In April 1999 he joined with the designer to start a global-scale company, and began forming partnerships with developers around the world. Yoo boasts a presence on every continent.
The lecture at Startower Gallery in southern Seoul began with warm welcoming applause for Mr. Starck and Mr. Hitchcox. Korean architects, industrial designers and professors, already familiar with the work and the public persona of Mr. Starck, were eager to hear and see what the celebrated designer had in store for them.
Wearing an otherworldly expression, Mr. Starck appeared somewhat detached from his audience. Dressed in what he calls his business uniform ― black cap, custom-made black jacket, black jeans and French army boots ― Mr. Starck began with his famous denial of his own importance:
“I’m not an architect, I’m not a designer,” he said. “Frankly speaking, I’m nothing... I’m here to help people find themselves.”
For years, perplexed media and industry professionals have tried to define or redefine Mr. Starck’s status and his ideas, let alone what’s said to be something of a rock star lifestyle. His mannerisms, his persona and his products have startled and inspired academia and public alike for decades.
Born in 1949, Mr. Starck started his career early as an artistic director of Cardin in France. By the early ’70s, he had created the nightclubs Le Main Bleue and Les Baines-Douches in Paris; by 1982, he was refurbishing French president Francois Mitterand’s residence.
His architectural projects ― Cafe Costes in Paris, the Manin Restaurant in Tokyo, prefabricated houses by mail order, the Clift Hotel, just to name a few ― are icons of modern innovation and imagination.
To the general public, though, he is better known for consumer products: a series of kitchen appliances for Alessi, suitcases for Samsonite, home furnishings for Target.
At the lecture and press conference in Seoul, Mr. Starck said his designs served a political purpose: a personal “fight against elitism.” He said he wanted to offer “inexpensive but beautiful objects” for everyone.
“Good life, good ideas and good design are not meant to be exclusive,” he said in accented English. “Each time the price of a chair I designed dropped, it was a great success.
“Young designers here today want to make a lot of money and buy a Ferrari or Porsche,” he said. “By making designs for people, for love and for tenderness, I made a lot of money that could buy a company and more.”
Such products as a flyswatter bearing the face of a ghostly woman, a stainless-steel pasta strainer in the shape of ancient pottery and a green building, “Nani Nani,” inspired by a Japanese monster have made him a studied cult figure as well as a huge commercial success.
Mr. Hitchcox and the Korean partners in Yoo-K are hoping that Mr. Starck’s name, as a brand, and the so-called “Starck Culture” will bring added value and attention to the joint venture.
Yoo-K has been planning to build luxurious homes, furnished with Mr. Starck’s designs, in Gangnam. Mr. Choi said that a unit would cost more than twice the price of a typical deluxe home; the company plans to target “Korea’s high class that’s way up there,” he said.
Particularly in the current economy, that could be a risk. Senior industry professionals such as Min Young-baek, the president-elect of the International Federation of Interior Architects/Designers, express concern that Korea may not be ready to appreciate such high-end design products and incorporate them into daily life ― at least, not for large sums of money.
That almost looked like it might have been beside the point to Mr. Starck, who, working his audience like a standup comedian, spoke in metaphysical terms about infinity and profound love for humanity. By the end, he was discoursing for his audience of designers about religion and the meaning of life:
“Your duty is to have the highest, farthest vision. To be part of this big human race, poetry and adventure, work every day to raise your eye level. Never believe in God ― believe in yourself, and follow your insticts.”
Designer as rock star, organic rice grower
From Phillipe Starck’s and John Hitchcox’s day of meeting the press, designers and VIPs in Seoul, some selected Q&A:
(To Mr. Starck:) You’re known as a rock star in the design field.
Starck: I always wear black because it’s simple to dress. I live in London because it’s convenient to work and travel between continents. I’m married to a gorgeous, sexy wife because it’s better than the contrary. I own a private jet because it’s convenient to travel from city to city. I own 15 homes and penthouses around the world because I like buying and decorating homes. This is the image I have on the outside. But, in reality, I lead a very quiet and peaceful life in nature with my wife and four children. I try to spend my time away from modern civilization to come up with new, fresh ideas. For example, a remote island where I stay can only be reached by boat within 15 minutes of the tides, twice a day.
What was your childhood like?
Starck: Just dreamed, dreamed, dreamed. I was trying to understand society, the world.
What do you think about Korean design?
Starck: I have absolutely no idea what Korean design is, but then, I have absolutely no idea what Italian, British and French design are. Design is not priority, life is.
You’ve been emphasizing the practicality of design products for everyone, but Yoo-K’s glossy brochure promotes your design as a “high-end brand for luxury living” for the Korean market. How does that work?
Hitchcox: What we’ve been trying to do is help people have a better life. Good design and good quality don’t have to be expensive.
What is the most valuable production you’ve ever created?
Starck: My second-generation and ecologically-friendly organic rice, which I’ve been developing.
(To Hitchcox:) Do you really carry around a guitar?
Hitchcox: Yes. I play both electric and acoustic. I’m too shy to play in public, except for once last month. Simon Le Bon, the lead guy of, you know, Duran Duran, made me play in front of a crowd at a big party in London, and so I did! We’ve been practicing guitar together for a while now.
I didn’t know about their music before, but now I’ve learned a few Duran Duran numbers, you know, “Rio” and others. Did you know that Duran Duran is making a comeback? I didn’t know they were in Korea before; when I go home, I’m going to ask him about it.
by Ines Cho