Exclusive Interview: Philippe Starck on Yacht Design

2020-09-14

Philippe Starck discusses the design philosophy behind the exteriors and interiors of his most famous superyachts, including Motor Yacht A, in this exclusive interview with BOAT International editor-in-chief Stewart Campbell

Philippe Starck is in a good mood, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. He hasn’t eaten for a week and he’s been stuck in a car for three hours, travelling from a joyless health retreat in the mountains above Munich to the site of our interview in Cortina, Italy. For a mind as famously restless as Starck’s, long, boring car journeys are purgatory. He once tried to play cards to pass the time while waiting for a plane: “After three minutes my brain became hot and I experienced physical pain.” Relaxation, he says, “does not exist”. Give him work or give him death.

One of Starck's creations: Motor Yacht A.

The closest thing he has to downtime is when he’s at the  helm of a boat. He likes to sail alone – and fittingly names all his boats Moi. “Because it’s designed for moi, and used by moi only. Nobody can go on my boats,” he says. He also used to fly planes in an attempt to unwind, but after two crashes he decided to hang up his goggles. “I cannot stop work and I always forgot things. One time it was an electric pump or something. Whenever I forgot something I would tie some tissue paper around the switch. Then one day I saw the dashboard was entirely covered in Kleenex. I said, ‘OK, forget it.’”

Boats, fortunately, are a little less tricky to control and his latest is a small four-metre plywood sailing boat that he designed with a simple philosophy: “I tried to reach the minimum of the minimum of the minimum.”

Starck’s Smart Wood furniture collection for Kartell illustrates his “less is more” philosophy.

He has a word for this reductive approach to design: “dematerialisation”. He can’t abide the unnecessary. “I try to make all my boats look like a computer design, like it was at the beginning when there were no details and no 3D,” he says. Motor Yacht A and Sailing Yacht A are exhibits A and B – despite being enormous vessels, their profiles are largely uninterrupted by windows or detailing that snags the eye. The boat he designed for Steve Jobs, 78-metre Venus, meanwhile, was designed to be “invisible by transparency”.

“I think it would be really, really difficult to make a boat like that now, mainly because [Venus] was created by two maniacs. Steve was the emperor of maniacs and I was the king of maniacs. Now he is dead, I am the emperor,” says Starck. The pair bonded quickly and spent almost six years designing the yacht. “We refined all the details millimetre by millimetre. You have to go on this boat to see what is meant by the term ‘God is in the details’.”

Today, Starck’s portfolio runs from superyachts to champagne.

Today, Starck’s portfolio runs from superyachts and champagne to glassware and chairs. But no matter the level of glamour, each project gets the same care and attention. “It’s a sickness. I make everything at the same time with the same quality and the same rigour of concentration. There is no difference between designing a toothpick and a megayacht – and I take the same pleasure in each.”

And now, there are also habitation modules for spacecraft. In 2024, Starck’s vision will be blasted into orbit on board a new module that will attach to the International Space Station (ISS). Called Axiom Segment, the module will become the world’s first commercial space station, allowing private individuals and organisations to spend time in space. When the ISS reaches decommissioning age, the segment will detach and become an independent space station. “My vision is to create a comfortable ‘egg’, where the walls are so soft and in harmony with the values of movements of the human body in zero gravity,” he has said.

Starck's Axiom Segment space module. Image courtesy of Starck Network.

He talks a lot about harmony and humanity in his designs – and thinks the superyacht industry is lacking on both counts. “Nobody has found the right balance between intelligence, elegance and humanity like it was on old yachts, which were warm, simpatico and full of harmony and history,” he says. But worse is the churn of white boats: “Except a few things, everything is the same. If high fashion was like that, it would collapse in two minutes! I do not understand how people can reproduce and reproduce and reproduce.”

Our mindsets need to change, according to Starck, not just in terms of design but in terms of philosophy. He likes the modern trend for tougher-looking explorer yachts. They have a point, a purpose, some fundamental meaning, and are not simply an expression of wealth. His favourite boats are the ultimate distillation of this thinking: they’re called FPBs (functional power boats) and are built by Dashew Offshore. “Every kilo of aluminium [on the FPBs] has a purpose. And it’s not 10 centimetres more than what they need. That is the intelligence of the future. When a boat like that arrives in the harbour, it’s not hated.”

FPBs are Starck’s favourite type of boat. Image courtesy of Ivor Wilkins.

“Be humble” is his ultimate instruction. “Don’t push your designer to make more and more to show his talent. When you see a yacht today, 40 per cent of the materiality is completely useless. Be intelligent. Also, respect your guests. Because maybe on a boat only the owner is happy. All the others don’t know where to sit; they don’t know where to go and a big boat is a sort of ghost town.” It might seem a little strange to hear that from a designer whose last boat measured 142.8 metres, but he was responding to a peculiar brief: “The owner asked for a galleon, a castle on the sea.”

The client, therefore, remains king, but one whose decisions can be interrogated. “I always listen,” says Starck. “I am super-open. If the client has a good idea, I am the first one to say, ‘Oh yes, that is a good idea, we have to do it.’”

Starck’s Xiaomi Mi Mix 1 smartphone.

And if the owner makes a mistake? “I say clearly, ‘No.’ I say it’s not good for him; it’s not good for the future; it’s not good for his karma. I explain why and people always agree. I never have any fights.” He admits to working on another big boat project, but is bound by confidentiality. “It’s bigger than a yacht; it might even create a new industry,” he says, smiling.

His mood seems only to have improved in the time we’ve been together. Perhaps the thought of returning to that white-walled clinic isn’t so bad after all. In fact, it seems to suit him. “I don’t understand society. I don’t feel well in the city. I have to be nowhere.” That’s true of his homes, too, which are dotted all over Europe – always “in the middle of nowhere”. He spends most time, though, in a house hidden among sand dunes in Portugal, with a view of the sea. Being away from it all is the only way he can achieve the level of concentration required to design a smartphone one day and a new hotel the next. “I am a monk,” he explains. A happy one.

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