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Designer's exhibition a redesign of the concept

Philippe Stark offers not his ubiquitous objects but funny commentary.

March 10, 2003|Kristin Hohenadel | Special to The Times

PARIS — For the last 20 years, curators have been trying to persuade designer Philippe Starck to help stage a retrospective of his work. And the prolific, ubiquitous Starck -- who has become a global brand name by molding classic French armchairs into transparent plastic, revamping high-end destinations like L.A.'s Mondrian and New York's Hudson hotels and reinventing a series of inexpensive toothbrushes and household goods for Target, plus countless "bits and bobs" (his words) in between -- has resisted.

"People have been asking me to do an exhibition for a long time, because everyone knew that an exhibition on Starck would work," says Starck, 54, sitting with arms folded in his light, airy offices near the Place de la Republique. Sparsely outfitted with Starck lamps, brightly colored plastic stools and tables, work spaces are divided by floor-to-ceiling white curtains (he has a glass door). "I saw no interest in having an exhibition for my own glory. I'm not wired to work on creating a mausoleum to my genius, to my talent, to my career. That didn't interest me at all."

So it seemed only natural -- having eventually been persuaded that it would be more fun to stage a retrospective alive than dead -- that Starck would have to start by reinventing the concept of an exhibition. Which is how there came to be precisely zero objects in Starck's first-ever retrospective, which runs at the Pompidou Center until May 12, and will travel throughout Europe, Japan and most likely to Los Angeles thereafter.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 11, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Philippe Starck -- Designer Philippe Starck's last name was misspelled as Stark in a headline accompanying an article about him in Monday's Calendar.

"We thought if we mounted the objects one after another, the public wouldn't learn anything," says Pompidou design director and show curator Marie-Laure Jousset. "We didn't want to turn the museum into a showroom. These are objects that are meant to be used, not displayed. But if the public wasn't going to see any objects, they had to gain something else -- Starck's direct commentary on his work, without any filter or intermediary."

Starck argues that it would have been boring to assemble a mass of his designs, especially since, given his penchant for mass production, "almost everyone has one of my objects at home." Of course, it wasn't clear that the 5,000 people who lined up for last week's opening night were expecting anything more than seeing Starck's popular creations.

The French are fond of calling Starck "une rock star," and recently, on opening night, he certainly demonstrated his ability to attract a crowd. Les groupies were out in force -- standing by the dozens in a snaking line, teenagers trying to crash the door. Some 5,000 Parisians passed by between 3 and 11 p.m. When Starck arrived at around 9, flashes burst, autographs were requested and given.

Outside the curtained entrance to the exhibition space, a screen filled with Starck's white clown-painted face called in a mock circus ringleader's voice: "Come listen to the great pretender who says he's done everything! Come on in -- there is nothing to see, and everything on offer."

Visitors entered a dimly lighted, 80-foot circus-like round stuffed with nothing but Parisians (and a few dozen nondescript cane chairs). They gathered around 11 talking bronze busts, onto which video of Starck's oversize head was projected in a constant loop. He provided some five hours' worth of commentary on a slide show of his life's work playing above on a small screen (with English-language subtitles, for anyone planning to be in Paris before May 12). Music composed by Laurie Anderson for the occasion animated the background. A spotlight created a shadow -- a symbol of the unconscious that Starck says is the motor behind all his work.

"People go into a totally empty space and see those 11 totally voluntarily ridiculous statues," says Starck, dressed all in black, his curls clipped short, his eyes so bright they seem electrified. "And there, the moment I ridicule myself, I relativize myself, I break the icon, I break the star effect, I break the idea that creation is a divine right done by superior beings. And at that moment when I break my image, at that moment we can begin to talk between friends."

Stories behind the designs

Starck spent five days in the basement of the Pompidou clamped into a fiberglass shell with head vises and wrist straps, recording an unscripted, non-chronological, well-considered, funny, self-consciously self-deprecating commentary to accompany the slide show. He reminisced about his father the airplane builder, his mother's glamorous resourcefulness, his American wife and his children, the birth of his 2002 Louis Ghost chair, his feelings about office furniture.

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