The Hot Seat in France Belongs to Brash Designer Philippe Starck

updated 01/26/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/26/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

When the grubby, chubby, helmeted biker in frayed jeans drops into Paris' superchic Café Costes, owner Jean-Louis Costes offers a surprisingly effusive welcome. The visitor is flamboyant French designer Philippe Starck. It is Starck's futuristic interior—tripod armchairs, a monumental green V-shaped staircase and high-tech bathrooms—that has made the café the city's trendiest hangout and a must-see tourist attraction. "It is beautiful," raves Costes. "Right down to the locks of the toilets."

Starck, 37, is the hottest name in interior and furniture design. Named De-signer of the Year for 1985 at the Paris Furniture Show, he earned $2 million in fees last year from projects as extreme as a drugstore in Zurich and a fashion boutique in Tokyo. Clients have included French President François Mitterrand, for whom he styled two rooms at the Élysée Palace, and a French food-manufacturing firm, for which he designed a new shape of pasta "to really hold the sauce." Observes Starck: "Buildings, chairs, pasta—same combat. I'm like a war correspondent. I go where the action is." The "action" is inspiring him to design bathroom scales, clocks, china, ashtrays and carpets as well.

If diversification is important, so too is self-promotion. His press clippings weigh 15 pounds and are written in six languages. Hailed as the catalyst behind France's current New Wave design renaissance, Starck enjoys the adulation. He cheerfully calls himself "a rock star of design," noting, "I have a limo, bodyguards and 4,000 people showing up for a furniture show."

Such clamor is caused by his furniture, which is characterized by strict geometry, elegance and austerity. His interiors are known for being angular, spare and scattered with witty symbolic details. "Today there is a new interest in furniture and decor as a creative means of expression," he says. Says French interior designer Andrée Putman, "Philippe is quite remarkable and inventive." Décoration International was less reserved, saying, "He is truly becoming one of the greatest designers of contemporary furnishings."

To be sure, the creator of curved backrests and a Richard III armchair (minus the stuffing) has detractors who find his furniture cold and uncozy. Proclaimed the New York Times: "Visually strong, if not entirely comfortable." Starck is unmoved by the grumble. "I believe that if you make people sit in interesting seats, they will say more noble things."

If that's true, the French may soon be the most noble-tongued of nations. Lower-priced versions of his furniture pieces and products are available through a popular mail-order catalog, something Starck insisted upon. "You can sit on a Starck for as little as $60," he says proudly.

For other clients, who prefer the luxury editions, the price tag is higher. Mitterrand has several Starck-styled chairs, one of which sells for $1,260 in America. Starck was one of five French designers chosen by the Socialist President in 1983 to redo his private quarters in the palace. Starck submitted a sci-fi design theme, complete with "bookshelves that looked like radio waves, lead curtains and a carpet reproducing space signals for extraterrestrials." Though amused, Mitterrand asked Stark to design his office instead. "He uses the bedroom for visiting statesmen, and he didn't want Reagan going in there and saying, 'This guy Mitterrand is cracked,' " Starck laughs.

A child of privilege, Starck grew up in the affluent Paris suburb of Neuilly, the younger son of an airplane designer. Always somewhat of a rebel, he was booted out of nearly every high-class private school around Paris. Finally he enrolled at the prestigious Camondo School of applied arts in Paris. He cut classes, became an outsider and suffered more isolation from his peers. "I made other people totally uncomfortable," he says. "They found everything I said bizarre. Everything I do now, it's to be loved. When people buy one of my chairs, it's proof of love to make up for the incredible lack of it at that time."

Eventually his talent won out, as did his male identity. He met his wife, Brigitte Laurent, 35, now a lawyer, 18 years ago "while trying to put the make on her sister." They wed in Las Vegas during a trip to the U.S. in 1977. His first real job, at 19, was as an artistic director for Pierre Cardin's furniture collection. He lasted only a few months. "Cardin had very bad taste," he says. "Couturiers should stick to their jobs. He was very important in fashion."

In the early 1970s Starck began designing interiors. But it was only after converting a cavernous warehouse on the outskirts of Paris into a New Wave party pit called La Main Bleue (The Blue Hand) that he began to win industry-wide recognition. Next came Starck Products and later a club in Dallas that bears his name.

Now there is little time for anything but work. "I've gone from being a total reject to being completely overbooked," he says. He's currently spending about two weeks each month in New York discussing interiors for an old hotel that Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, onetime owners of Studio 54, hope to open next year. "If I can be as creative and maniacal about details as I was with the Café Costes, then the collaboration will give birth to the most personal hotel in the world," he boasts of the as-yet-unnamed establishment.

The grueling schedule leaves little time to enjoy his 18th-century ivy-covered house outside Paris, where he lives with Brigitte and their daughter, Ara, 8. "All I do," Starck often declares, "is design, sleep and drink champagne." Don't take that as a complaint. "Philippe wants to be a star," says one French designer fondly. "Fortunately, he was born with a big head; he didn't have to develop one."

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