Philippe Starck has said that he can design a chair in two minutes and a hotel in a day and a half. Preferring to work alone, sometimes “naked in the bedroom,” the Frenchman has devised thousands of products, interiors, and buildings for clients ranging from Microsoft to Baccarat. HBR: What’s the secret to working so quickly and productively? Starck: I am sort of a modern monk. My wife and I have a collection of cabins in the middle of nowhere, and we stay out of everything. We don’t go to dinners. We don’t go to cocktails. We don’t go to movies. We don’t watch TV. I don’t use my energy on other people.
I just work and read. I live with myself in front of my white page. Of course, for much of the year I have to travel, speak to journalists, engineers, things like that, and it’s the worst. But from the 15th of June to the 15th of September, I live completely secluded, locked in one of my houses, working from 8 in the morning to 8 at night, or making my own biorhythm: work three hours, sleep 45 minutes, work three hours, sleep 45 minutes, for 24 hours, without eating. It’s a little sick. But I’m like Dr. Faust. I signed a contract with the devil to sell my life for creativity.
It sounds as if you don’t like working with others. I never collaborate—not because I don’t like other people but because I am not able to do it. I’m one of the fastest organic computers on the market, but I need to be alone. Do you ever talk to customers or end users? No. I don’t read architecture or design magazines. I never go into the shops that sell my things or to fairs. I don’t speak to other designers or architects. I am a lonely guy—earnest, rigorous, an incredible worker—and I just make what I can, how I can, when I can. But to manage so much, you must need to delegate some things.
My way is to not delegate. I design everything very precisely, so when I give my team a project, nothing is in doubt. They receive it completely finished; there is nothing to do except crystallize it: put it on the computer—because I work with only paper and pen—and make the prototype. Then I see the prototype, and I check everything. I’m sort of a control freak. I have a very, very precise idea: the shape, the weight, the texture, the cost. And until an engineer explains to me that for technical reasons there is a problem, I don’t change a thing. Of course, if there is a real technical problem, I do change.
I come back home, alone, and naked in my bedroom where I work, I redo it. I have no problem with that. But I don’t accept it if somebody tells me: “Oh, you did it in pink, but my wife prefers green. ” I say, “I’m sorry. I’m not your wife. You pay me for my know-how. If I think it has to be pink, it’s pink, and here’s why. ” I explain the difference between pink and green, and all the types of pinks and all the types of green, because I know my job. How do you pick the people on your team? I have very few people—a nanoteam—because I believe in staying as light as possible. Creativity is something light.
Some people I’ve had for 30 years, and I chose them first just by intuition. I love something inside them. They might have no background in design, but they have an intelligence, elegance, honesty. I just took on a new guy I met on the sidewalk. He came up and said, “Mr. Starck, can I shake your hand? ” like a thousand people every day. But I got a feeling. I said, “What do you do? ” He said, “I’m an architect. ” I said, “Come tomorrow to my office and we can speak. ” And I gave him a project worth $1 billion without checking if he was good or not. I can teach people until they are good.
After six or seven years, they start to know how to work with the same rigor and efficiency as me. And until then, I explain by sketch or through my wife by e-mail or when I see them. Tomorrow morning I’ll have one hour to work with two of my team members before I fly from Bali to Mumbai. We’ll be at the hotel bar next to the swimming pool. Are you a good boss? I manage by absence. I go to the office two, three days a month, and those are the worst days for me. So the people on my team do what they want, when they want, but the results have to be perfect, crystal perfect.
I cannot accept laziness or something that is not intelligent or any type of delay. If we say we will deliver a project on the 20th at 5 PM, on the 20th at 5 PM we shall blow the minds of the people we’re presenting to. What qualities do you look for in your clients? First, ethics. Thirty years ago, when ethics was not so fashionable, I decided that I wouldn’t work for weapons, alcohol, cigarette, tobacco, gambling, or oil companies or religious organizations. That’s a hard position to take, because it’s a big group, and they’re the people with the money to buy you—to buy your virginity.
You can’t imagine how much money I’ve lost because of it. But I shall not change. Second, the project has to be good not just for me and the client but also for the final user. When you work for that human profit, you will have success. Third, I have to fall in love with the client. If you want beautiful children, the parents must be in love. For me, working on a project is like preparing a gift for a loved one. There’s nothing better than to bring your gift and see that person smile. Clients come for something they love in me, too. So there are never problems or hurt or greediness, because it’s always a sentimental relationship.
That said, I never have dinner or lunch with them. Today I’m in Indonesia, and we’ve worked all day with three very fine, charming guys, but now it’s 7:30, and I won’t eat with them, because our only relationship is work. What’s been your biggest frustration about working with large companies? When you sign an agreement and before the project is finished, the person in front of you has changed two times. You start, everything goes well, then suddenly the president moves to another company, and you’re in the middle of the river alone, and everything is bad.
The few failures I’ve had in my life were because of this. That’s why now I don’t work with big companies or I ask for a guarantee that when I sign with someone, I’ll have that person until the end. Big companies are useful for their power, their know-how. But my strategy is to be a friendly enemy inside, to make the company better for the people. The clients sign with me to use my name, to boost business and their image. So we use each other. But the profit still goes to the final user. How do you persuade reluctant clients to embrace your more-radical ideas? I’m very good at explaining.
I don’t work like a diva. I don’t say, “Oh my God, that must be pink,” and refuse to discuss it. I arrive with something that is always well-thought-out, very seriously done. I am cuckoo, yes. I am the king of intuition. But I am also a serious guy. I explain in a clear way. And then, even if it’s something that looks completely different than expected, something completely against mainstream thinking, clients understand. I explain that it might look strange but why, given the two to five years it will take for development, it will for so many reasons be exactly the right thing to do.
If there is no surprise, the project doesn’t deserve to exist. But I’m very, very precise in describing the timing and the parameters. And then the clients agree, always, 100%. How involved are you in the business of your company? I don’t make business. I make projects, and they give me money. But we try to avoid problems, and for this, I have one of the best lawyers in the world—definitely one of the most costly lawyers in the world—who has worked exclusively for me for the past 16 years and is now like my brother of brain.
I just tell him, “Hey, Philippe”—he’s called Philippe, too—“there’s this guy who wants to make something with us. Can you see him? And Philippe sees him, and that’s it. I don’t know what they say. I don’t know what’s in the contract. I don’t know the money. We just work. Sometimes, for my clients it is not very comfortable, because they are so happy to bring me the royalties. They say to Philippe, “Look, look, it’s a success! ” And I take the [profit statement] and never look at it again. And they are disappointed. This is also all possible because of my wife.
I don’t know where my bank is. I don’t know my addition, my subtraction. I have no idea how to make multiplication or division. I hate to speak on the telephone. I don’t know how to send an e-mail or even read an e-mail. With absolute beauty and intelligence, my wife organizes everything for me, which is complicated because we are so, so, busy. But she puts oil in and makes sure the machine is working. One of your first jobs was working with the fashion designer Pierre Cardin. Yes, I was 17. I was nobody, from nowhere, and I wanted to make furniture.
The star in fashion at the time was Pierre Cardin, so I went to see him to show him what I wanted to do, and he took me immediately. But very fast I realized we were complete opposites. My idea was to make a million chairs at $1, and his idea was to make one chair at $1 million. So I left after three months. Then you went on to launch your own business and design nightclub interiors. How did you progress from that early stage of your career to where you are now—Philippe Starck, the brand? I didn’t have the intelligence or the presumption or the ambition to try to create a brand.
It’s just the sum of all my work—clear logic, clear ethics, clear creativity—that has created it. We are high-tech, rigorous, honest, avant-garde, always going in the same direction. And we have vision. Everything we said would happen 26 years ago has happened, and now it’s clear we’re absolutely not trendy. We are timeless. Your father was an aircraft designer. What did you learn from him? Creativity and rigor. If you want to see the plane fly, you have to create it. If you don’t want to see the plane fall, you have to be rigorous. I am both.