Increasingly, so are Starck's streamlined designs. As the Mick Jagger of the design world—flamboyantly outré but populist enough to appeal to the masses—Starck has put his stamp on everything from chic hotels (including L.A.'s Mondrian, Manhattan's Royalton and the Delano in Miami's South Beach) to toilet-bowl brushes and fly swatters on sale at stores like Target. "He is constantly reinterpreting objects that we all take for granted," says Pilar Viladas, design editor of The New York Times Magazine. "He's not the first designer to do that, but he's the first to become a pop culture hero."
Which is an image the 53-year-old French designer—with his florid, accented speech, outrageous opinions and rock-star lifestyle—gleefully cultivates. Sure, the 300-ft. yacht he recently designed cost $150 million, but his toothbrushes retail at $5. "Good design can and should be part of everyday life," he declares. "I'm always looking for magic in reality."
Starck's reality is most folks' idea of Wonderland. With 11 residences around the world—including a New York City apartment, an oyster farm near Bordeaux and a house on a nudist island on the Seine outside Paris—he and his wife, Nori, 38, are "like ghosts—everywhere and nowhere," he says. A staff of around 20 sees that each house is set up with "the same sheets, the same books, the same clothes—my made-to-order shirts, of which I have about 70," says Starck. Adds Nori: "We're home wherever we are."
They're now joined by their 10-week-old daughter, the minimalistically named K. Her dad has two other children—daughter Ara, 24, whose mother, artist Brigitte Laurent, died of cancer in 1992, and son Oa, 6, whose mother is Paris-based photographer Patricia Bailer. "My first child's name is three letters, the second, two," he explains. "So the third is just one, and now I'm in the clear." (Not if Nori has her way: "We're going to have at least two children," she insists.) Starck's work is as mobile as he is. "I have special plastic paper, made for me—indestructible because I travel all the time—and a pencil, and that's it," he says.
At the Paris loft that serves as the family's home base, the style is "king of the Gypsies," says Starck. Translation: A red-velvet lounge chair mingles with wooden African statues alongside a garden-gnome stool. "Things arrive, they settle, eventually they're replaced," he says. "People try to finish things and don't realize that what they're finishing is their tomb. You always have to leave room for chance and necessity and relativity."
All three have played a role in Starck's evolution as a dauphin of design. The Paris-born younger son of renowned airplane designer André Starck, who died two decades ago, and homemaker Jacqueline, 78, Starck was heavily influenced by his father. "Besides airplanes," he claims, "my father also invented the lipstick tube you twist." (Older brother Gerard is an ex-racecar driver.) Yet despite his privileged upbringing, "I was completely unable to adapt to society and school," says Starck, who often skipped class to sit alone in the woods—even in winter. "I spent my youth escaping."
Design provided a refuge. After an apprenticeship in the early '70s with Pierre Cardin ended ("He went on to make million-dollar furniture of repulsive ugliness for a market which did not interest me," says Starck), he landed an agent who helped promote his work. He got his big break in 1982, when the late French President Francois Mitterrand asked him to help design his private residence at Paris's Elysée Palace. Soon after, Starck's fanciful design for Paris's Café Costes, with its Hollywood-musical-style staircase, pioneered the now de rigueur notion of eye-popping eateries. "Suddenly all restaurants had to be stylish," he says. "Toilets became special."
In 1998 Starck met the Louisiana-born Nori Vaccari, a former New York City public school teacher. "At the end of one room, I see two eyes," he recalls of their first meeting at a Manhattan party. "I can't say they were particularly magnificent eyes, because Nori has small eyes that are close together. But schpoof! The world crumbled. " At dinner later that night, "he told me his whole life," says Nori. Later "we start walking down Madison Avenue, and he takes me by the shoulders," she recalls, "and gives me the biggest kiss."
A passionate three-year courtship followed. "It's like I lived 20 years with him in three," she says. "We danced in Buenos Aires until 4 in the morning, we had a boat, we bicycled. It was like a binge." They married at a Paris town hall in April 2000. "I don't ever get involved in his work," says Nori, who is developing a line of maternity clothes and runs girlztogirlz.com, a virtual community for women. Still, she acknowledges that their union—she calls him Pumpkin; he calls her Bab ("It means 'mister' in [Hindi]," he notes)—has influenced some of her husband's designs. "I see purple, my favorite color," she says. "I see things that are sexy and romantic."
Last month the couple arrived in the United States, where Starck is developing two new health-food restaurants as part of his Bon chain. He is also at work on his own design label, which will encompass everything from shoes to sheets—all of it guided by the same principle that drives his own opulent existence: "I want everybody to have the best."
Cathy Nolan in Paris