magnify Click image to view more.

Philippe Starck

Ted Gachot - November 2002

Food Arts presents the November 2002 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Philippe Starck, the oracular teddy bear of a French designer who returned poetry and wit, humanity and verve to hotel design.

Born into gray postwar Paris in 1949, the son of an aviation designer who favored a cowboy hat, Starck began almost as an infant sketching strange aerodynamic forms and distilling the language of modern art into a vernacular for everyday use. He founded his firm in 1979 and almost immediately became a public figure when he was selected by President François Mitterand to refurnish the private apartments in the Elysée Palace (1982). Since then he has designed everything from pasta to motor scooters. And his restaurants—beginning with Café Costes (1984, now Le Café), with its three-legged chairs designed to ease waiters' access, enormous train station clock, late afternoon palette, and distorted perspective—have proven each more deliriously engaging than the next.

But exactly because restaurants have always welcomed a degree of decorative phantasmagoria, Starck has had an even greater impact on hotel design. After the Second World war, the American hotel industry clung to the sort of advice hotel designer Henry End was dispensing in his 1936 primer, Hotels and Motor Hotels: "Using abstract paintings such as might be found in the Guggenheim Museum would in most hotels be dangerous.... Once over the bounds of good taste, there is no return."

Rather than background design as a neutral element pandering to a generic customer and his credit card, Starck, in his collaborations with hotelier Ian Schrager, pushed it to the fore as an amenity that could beguile guests into accepting miniscule accommodations and spark a clublike atmosphere, rather than cool desolation, in the hotel's lobby. More "dangerous" than anything in the Guggenheim, the Royalton's (NYC 1988) lobby, with its crazy tiny round vodka bar and blunted ithyphallic bull's horns protruding everywhere, proved a resounding success. The Paramount (NYC 1988) showed that there was appetite to sustain the approach on a larger scale. But it was the Delano Hotel (Miami 1995), gathering incongruous elements with bright Alice in Wonderland cheer and a madhouse sense of proportion, that permanently broke the mold and paved the way for a revolution in the hotel industry.

Standing in a class by themselves, Starck's hotels have been a stimulating tonic against the too often offensive inoffensiveness of hotel design. His are always hotels with a profile. And his effect on the industry has been inestimably wide: spawning the "hip hotel," providing the model for the boutique hotel revolution and new chains such as W and the Kimpton Group, even redefining modern opulence for grand dames like the Peninsula Hong Kong.

Awarded the Légion d'Honneur in 2000, this incidental paterfamilias to a more varied and soulful hotel deserves a tip of the Stetson from the hospitality industry as well as a resounding toast of "Vive le Stark!"