Legendary designer Philippe Starck — with no pretty slides behind him — spends 17 minutes reaching for the very roots of the question “Why design?” Along the way he drops brilliant insights into the human condition; listen carefully for one perfectly crystallized motto for all of us, genius or not. Yet all this deep thought, he cheerfully admits, is to aid in the design of a better toothbrush. (Recorded March 2007 in Monterey, California. Duration: 17:07.)
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Transcript: Philippe Starck, TED2007
Philippe Starck: Why design?
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You will understand nothing with my type of English. Is good for you because you can have a break, after all these fantastic people. I must tell you I am like that [shakes hands], not very comfortable, because usually, in life, I think my job is absolutely useless. I mean, I feel useless. Now, after Carolyn [Porco], and all the other guys, I feel like shit. And definitively, I don’t know why I am here, but — you know the nightmare, like you are an impostor, you arrive at the opera, and they push you, “You must sing!” [gasp!] I don’t know.
So! So! Because I have nothing to show, nothing to say, we shall try to speak about something else.
We can start, if you want, by understanding (it’s just to start, it’s not interesting) how I work. When somebody comes to me and ask for what I am known, I mean, yes, lemon squeezer, toilet brush, toothpick, beautiful toilet seats, and why not, a toothbrush. I don’t try to design the toothbrush. I don’t try to say, oh, that will be a beautiful object or something like that. That doesn’t interest me.
Because there is different types of design. The one, we can call it the cynical design, that means the design invented by Raymond Loewy in the ’50s, who said, what is ugly is a bad sale, La Laideur se vend mal, which is terrible. It means the design must be just a weapon for marketing, for producer to make product more sexy, like that, they sell more, it’s shit, it’s obsolete, it’s ridiculous. I call that the cynical design.
After, there is the narcissistic design; it’s a fantastic designer who designs only for other fantastic designers. [laughs]
After there is people like me, who try to deserve to exist, and who are ashamed to make this useless job, who try to do it in another way, and they try, I try, to not make the object for the object but for the result, for the profit for the human being, the person who will use it. If we take the toothbrush — I don’t think about the toothbrush. I think, “What will be [finger in mouth] the effect of the brush in the mouth?” And to understand what will be the effect of the toothbrush in the mouth, I must imagine: Who owns this mouth? What is the life of the owner of this mouth? In what society this guy live? What civilization creates this society? What animal species creates this civilization? When I arrive — and I take one minute, I am not so intelligent — when I arrive at the level of animal species, that becomes real interesting.
Me, I have no power to change anything. But when I come back, I can understand why I shall not do it, because today, it’s more positive than “do it,” or how I shall do it. But to come back, where I am at the animal species, there is things to see. There is things to see, there is the big challenge. The big challenge in front of us.
Because there is not a human production that exists outside of what I call the “big image.” The big image is our story, our poetry, our romanticism. Our poetry is our mutation, our life. We must remember, and we can see that in any book of my son of 10 years old, that life appears 4 billion years ago, around — 4 billion point 2? [voice off] Yes, point 5, OK, OK! I’m a designer, that’s all, of Christmas gifts.
And before, there was this soup, called soupe primordiale, this first soup [bloop bloop bloop!], sort of dirty mud, no life, nothing. So then [pshoo-shoo] lightning [pshoo] arrive [pshoo-shoo], makes life [bloop bloop], and that dies. Some million years after, [pshoo-shoo!] [bloop-bloop] wake up! At the end, finally, that succeeds, and life appears. We was so, so stupid. The most stupid bacteria. Even, I think, we copy our way to reproduce, you know what I mean, and something of — oh no, forget it.
After, we become a fish; after, we become a frog; after, we become a monkey; after, we become what we are today, a supermonkey, and the fin is, the supermonkey we are today, is at alph of the story. Can you imagine? From that stupid bacteria to us, with a microphone, with a computer, with an iPod, 4 billion years. And we know, and especially Carolyn knows, that when the sun will implode, the earth will burn, explode, I don’t know what, and this is scheduled for 4, 4 billion years? [looks offstage] Yes, she said “something like that.” OK, that means we are at alph of the story. Fantastic! It’s a beauty! Can you imagine? It’s very symbolic. Because the bacteria we was had no idea of what we are today. And today, we have no idea of what we shall be in 4 billion years. And this territory is fantastic.
That is our poetry. That is our beautiful story. It’s our romanticism: Mutation. We are mutants. And if we don’t deeply understand, if we don’t integrate that we are mutants, we completely miss the story.
Because every generation thinks we are the final one. We have a way to look at Earth like that, you know [raises hand over head] “I am the man. The final man. You know, we mutate during 4 billion years before, but now, because it’s me, we stop. Fin For the end, for the eternity, with a red jacket …” I am not sure of that. Because that is our intelligence of mutation and things like that. There is so many things to do, it’s so fresh.
And here is something: Nobody is obliged to be a genius, but everybody is obliged to participate. And to participate, for a mutant, there is a minimum of exercise, a minimum of sport … The first, if you want, there is so many, but one which is very easy to do, is the duty of vision. I can explain you. I shall try.
If you walk like that [looking straight down, small steps], it’s OK, it’s OK, you can walk, but perhaps, if you walk with the eyes like that, you will not see, oh!, there is a hole. And you will fall, and you will die. Dangerous.
That’s why, perhaps, you will try to have this angle of vision [looking forward 45 degrees] OK, I can see, if I found something [whistle, steps around imaginary obstacle], and they continue, up up up. I raise the angle of vision, but it’s still very selfish (selfish? egoiste? yes, selfish). You, you survive. It’s OK.
If you raise the level of our eyes a little more [looking straight ahead] you go, “I see you, oh my god you are here, how are you, I can help you, I can design for you a new toothbrush, new toilet brush, something like that, I live in society, in community.” It’s OK. You start to be in the territory of intelligence, we can say. From this level, the more you can raise this angle of view, the more you will be important to society. The more you will rise, the more you will be important for the civilization. The more you will rise, to see far and high, like that, the more you will be important for the story of our mutation. That means intelligent people are in this angle [75-105 degrees off the ground] That is intelligence. From this [105 degrees] to here [180 degrees], that, it’s genius. Ptolemy, Eratosthenes, Einstein, things like that. Nobody’s obliged to be a genius. It’s better, but nobody.
Take care, in this training, to be a good mutant. There is some danger, there is some trap. One trap: the vertical. Because at the vertical of us, if you look like that, “Ah! my god, there is God. Ah! God!” God is a trap. God is the answer when we don’t know the answer. That means, when your brain is not enough big, when you don’t understand, you go, “Ah, it’s God, it’s God.” That’s ridiculous. That’s why — jump, like that? No, don’t jump. Come back. Because, after, there is another trap. If you look like that [205 degrees], you look to the past, or you look inside if you are very flexible, inside yourself. It’s called schizophrenia, and you are dead.
That’s why every morning, now, because you are a good mutant, you will raise your angle of view. Out, more of the horizontal. You are an intelligence. Never forget: like that, like that. It’s very, very, very important.
What, what else we can say about that. Why do that? It’s because we — if we look from f
ar, we see our line of evolution. This line of evolution is clearly positive. From far, this line looks very smooth, like that. But if you take a lens, like that, this line is ack-ack-ack [makes jagged motion]. It’s made of light and shadow. We can say light is civilization, shadow is barbaria. And it’s very important to know where we are. Because some cycle, there is a spot in the cycle, and you have not the same duty in the different parts of the cycle.
That means, we can imagine, I don’t say it was fantastic, but in the ’80s, there was not too much war, like that [a little], it was … we can imagine that the civilization can become civilized. In this case, people like me are acceptable. We can say it’s luxus time. We have time to think, we have time to I-don’t-know-what, speak about art and things like that. It’s OK. We are in the light. But sometimes, like today [dives down] we fall, we fall [diving sounds] so fast, so fast to shadow, we fall so fast to barbaria. With many, many many face of barbaria. Because it’s not, the barbaria we have today, it’s perhaps not the barbaria we think. There is different type of barbaria. That’s why we must adapt. That means, when barbaria is back, forget the beautiful chairs, forget the beautiful hotel, forget design, even, I’m sorry to say, forget art. Forget all that. There is priority, there is urgence. You must go back to politics, you must go back to radicalization, I’m sorry if that’s not very English, you must go back to fight, to battle.
That’s why today I’m so ashamed to make this job. That’s why I am here, to try to do it the best possible. But I know that even [if] I do it the best possible (that’s why I’m the best!), it’s nothing. Because it’s not the right time.
That’s why I say that, I say that nothing exist if it’s not in the good reason, the reason of our beautiful dream, of this civilization. And because we must all work to finish this story. Because the scenario of this civilization, about love, progress, and things like that, it’s OK, but there is so many other different, other scenarios of other civilizations. This scenario, of this civilization, was about becoming powerful, intelligent, like this idea we have invented, this concept of God. We are God now. We are. It’s almost done. We have just to finish the story. That is very, very important. And when you don’t understand really what’s happened, you cannot go and fight and work and things like that. You go to the future back, back, back, back, like that. And you can fall, and it’s very dangerous. No, you must really understand that.
Because we have almost finished, I’ll repeat this story. And the beauty of this: in perhaps fifty years, sixty years, we can finish completely this civilization, and offer to our children the possibility to invent a new story, a new poetry, a new romanticism. With billions of people who have been born, worked, lived, and died before us, these people who have worked so much, we have now bring beautiful things, beautiful gifts, we know so many things. We can say to our children, OK, done, that was our story. That passed. Now you have a duty. Invent a new story. Invent a new poetry. The only rule is, we have not to have any idea about the next story. We give you white pages. Invent. We give you the best tools, the best tools, and now, do it. That’s why I continue to work, even if it’s for toilet brush.