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Reach for the Essential

Philippe Starck on democratic designs and intelligent structures

Philippe Starck working on the design of the stainless steel SUMO table in his studio, Paris, 1998.

How did you meet Benedikt? How did your collaboration with TASCHEN start?
I can’t remember how or when I met Benedikt Taschen, because the meeting seems anecdotal and meaningless compared to the person. Before everything, that person was an extraordinary voice, a voice that raised the dead, a voice from beyond the grave, a voice that made women from all continents fall. The dream voice. A voice so deep that sometimes we couldn’t hear, as there was only bass and infrabass.

I didn’t want to make books. Actually, it’s been 12 years since our last book—it’s my fault I am unable to finish the one in progress, which shows my degree of urgency. I used to find coffee table books—these big, heavy, expensive art books—quite anti-democratic. For me, they were social representations that no one really browsed through, only displayed to show we have wealth, culture, and a sturdy coffee table (well designed by a famous creator) that can support them.

When I discovered by chance TASCHEN Editions, I also discovered that their prices were exactly in line with my work on democratic design. I thought that with these prices, TASCHEN books were actually like TV at that time: going everywhere, reaching everyone, with no social discrimination. That is the reason why, on the day we met, I signed with him.

He still is the only one I have signed with. It must be said that Benedikt is an incredibly special person and an incredibly loyal friend. When you’re friends with Benedikt, it’s for life. What I like about Benedikt is that he is a man of very few words. He listens. Each “non-answer” is a deep acquiescence: not out of courtesy or disinterest, he simply agrees. And we always agree.

What was the inspiration / impulse for the SUMO bookstand?
I don’t precisely remember the inspiration that reigned over the creation of the SUMO bookstand. But when I see it now, I understand that I wanted to create a useful object that would show an extremely intelligent foldable structure. That, I didn’t design; I am not that clever. It is a structure that already existed among ancient Egyptians. It is without doubt the most intelligent foldable structure ever made. I was not interested in creating a beautiful object, but in showing this intelligence.

What was the design process?
The design process is always the same: reach for the essential with the minimum of energy, the minimum of matter, and try to prove more than the simple function of the object.

How did you approach the BABY SUMO edition?
I can only like the new BABY SUMO because it connects with my obsession with democratic design, democratic production: being smaller, I suppose, it will cost less. All that is beautiful and less expensive is a mark of respect to people who don’t want to or can’t spend their money on an object that is great yet secondary to survival.

Besides your very own book and the design of the bookstand, you created the architecture for the first TASCHEN stores (Paris 2000, Miami, Beverly Hills, New York, London...). The first store, in Paris, took a radical new approach to presenting books; what was your idea?
My idea was extremely simple: TASCHEN books are not expensive but accessible to all, from all social classes. Thus, paradoxically, I wanted the time of purchase to feel like a privileged, exceptional moment. I wanted the boutiques to be artistic, even luxurious. I couldn’t stand the idea of selling these wonderful books on plywood panels. I wanted to subconsciously give an added value to the purchase of these books, especially since they are almost always gifts.

How do you describe the collaboration with Benedikt?
My collaboration with B is that of old friends. Even if we don’t see each other often, we have always shared the same thought form: the best for everyone with a touch of folly, excess, poetry, fantasy and above all an enormous and permanent laughter. When B laughs, which happens rarely but deeply, window glass splinters and foundations tremble.

Your book with TASCHEN was a huge success. What did it mean to you? Did the book reveal / illustrate anything new about your work?
I didn’t know my book with TASCHEN was an important success. I am very happy about it because I spend 10 hours per day creating Christmas gifts for everyone, and I am pleased when gifts are appreciated. My books are not meant to show how handsome I am (that would be a failure); to show how talented I am (that would also be a failure); to show how genius I am (that, I am definitely not). They are meant to show that the sky isn’t the limit; that imagination is the greatest power; that we have the duty to invent always with the highest vision, rigor, and honesty; that everyone can do it, as creativity isn’t genetic or of divine order but it is a will, a choice of life: to dedicate one’s life, to only exist to the benefit of the dream.

What does TASCHEN mean to you? What does TASCHEN stand for?
TASCHEN is a fantastic educational tool. Almost everyone can have access to almost every existing form of culture. With such editorial quality, TASCHEN should be reimbursed by the Social Security.

What’s your favorite TASCHEN book?
All of them, as each complements the others. Each book gives a facet of humanity, so they’re all interesting to me.