Designer Philippe Starck designed two hotels for billionaire Kwek Leng Beng because 'it was love at first sight'

Iconic French designer Philippe Starck on how stays relevant in a competitive industry: "I'm never out of trend because I'm never in trend. I try always to not create trends with my work."
Iconic French designer Philippe Starck on how stays relevant in a competitive industry: "I'm never out of trend because I'm never in trend. I try always to not create trends with my work."ST PHOTO" SEAH KWANG PENG
The Galerie Pompadour in Le Meurice, where the sweet decor includes pink copper and marble-topped tables. Philippe Starck (left) says it was love at first sight when he met property and hotel magnate Kwek Leng Beng (right) because Mr Kwek understood
Philippe Starck (left) says it was love at first sight when he met property and hotel magnate Kwek Leng Beng (right) because Mr Kwek understood his style. PHOTO: M SOCIAL SINGAPORE
The Galerie Pompadour in Le Meurice, where the sweet decor includes pink copper and marble-topped tables. Philippe Starck (left) says it was love at first sight when he met property and hotel magnate Kwek Leng Beng (right) because Mr Kwek understood
A blob-like Squeeze bench (above) by Singapore designer Patrick Chia, whois the founder of the Design Incubation Centre at the National University of Singapore. PHOTO: COURTESY OF STARCK NETWORK

French design icon Philippe Starck gives his take on creativity, life and what people want

M Social in Robertson Quay is branded as a hotel for millennials. The rooms are divided into four knowingly titled categories: The Nice Room, The Nicer Room, The Big Room, The Bigger Room.

Digital convenience is taken as a given. Instead of a regular reception area, there are self check-in kiosks and in every room there is a smartphone with free, unlimited data for guests.

The decor is cool and whimsical - very good for sharing on social media. In fact, the in-house restaurant and bar on the ground floor is called Beast & Butterflies, a probable word play on the terms "social beast" and "social butterflies".

Techie touches include tablets instead of artworks mounted on the walls, with rotating images, and TV screens embedded in bar counter tops. This is the first M Social hotel, and there are plans to open other hotels under this label globally.

Behind this 293-room hotel's hip, gizmo-heavy aesthetic is the senior statesman of design: French icon Philippe Starck.

  • A life in design

    1949: Born in Paris.

    In the 1960s: Attends Ecole Nissim de Camondo in Paris, a private school of product design and interior architecture.

    1969: Starck is artistic director of fashion designer Pierre Cardin's publishing house in the United States.

    1976: Designs interiors for the La Main Bleue club and makes a name as a nightclub designer. Two years later, he does another club, the Les Bains Douches, which becomes a Parisian institution.

    1979: Starts his industrial design company, Starck Product.

    1982: French president Francois Mitterrand asks Starck to deck out the interiors of his private presidential residence at the Elysee Palace.

    1984: His interior design of Cafe Costes in Paris, inspired by a Budapest railway station, catapults him to international fame.

    1986: Starts working for Italian homeware company Alessi. In 1990, Starck dreams up the spaceship-looking juicer called Salif, which becomes one of his most famous products.

    1998: Makes the La Marie Chair for Kartell, which is the world's first completely transparent chair made from a single polycarbonate mould. It is now part of New York's Museum of Modern Art's collection.

    2002: Reimagines the classic Louis XVI armchair, and comes up with a lightweight, transparent version.

    2008: Is appointed artistic director for the French Presidency of the European Union, and designs stylish collateral such as pens, notebooks and bags.

    2013: Receives the Excellence Francaise Special Award in the Design Category, given to French personalities who have made an impact in their field.

He is 67 years young, showing up for his interview with The Straits Times in a cheerful interpretation of the athleisure trend. The black zip-up tracksuit top and sneakers are casual, but his green tie-dyed joggers are a punchy addition.

Like any self-respecting selfie taker, he knows his best angles. He refuses to be photographed seated and side profiles are an absolute no-no.

His attitude is a mixture of unapologetic confidence and bold abstractions about the power of design.

Ask him about how he knows what millennials want in a hotel, and he says: "I don't care about what millennials want. I care about what people need. Mainly, they need life. Often, there is good architecture and beautiful things, but it's incredibly boring.

"We're in a society where people are more separated than together. We have to make architecture that brings people together - to exchange ideas, to work, to love and to fight."

The Paris-born designer is an unabashed romantic with an excellent ear for the effective sound bite. For example, he calls M Social a "love shack" or a "cabana on the river".

Throughout the conversation, confident declarations abound.

On how he stays relevant in a competitive industry, he says: "I'm never out of trend because I'm never in trend. I try always to not create trends with my work."

"I don't want to be pretentious, but when we go to the Milan Furniture Fair every year, my work is always the most innovative concept. I still have that revolutionary spirit."

Starck talks big, because he is big - arguably the most successful living designer in the world.

The son of an aircraft engineer father and painter mother, he has done hotels, restaurants, bars, clubs, furniture and bathroom fittings.

Over a five-decade career, his name has come to be synonymous with futuristic objects and a flamboyant style.

One of his most iconic furniture pieces is the clear plastic Louis Ghost Chair that he did for Italian company Kartell in 2002. Simple yet playful, it gives the illusion that the user is floating.

Another Starck classic is the Rosy Angelis floor lamp he designed for lighting label Flos in 1994. The three-legged stand resembled a tripod, over which a lampshade is loosely draped.

Although most of his objects are high-end, he is an advocate of "democratic design", making products accessible and affordable.

In 2002, he had a line of homeware products for Target, a discount retailer in America.

He completed his first Singapore interior decor project last year: The South Beach, a 654-room five-star hotel, which is part of the 3.5ha mixed-use South Beach development in Beach Road. He also decked out some of the interiors of the heritage buildings on site.

There is plenty of drama in the design. For example, The Grand Ballroom has an installation of 11,520 lights dripping like icicles. And one of the restaurants features giant black teapots suspended from the ceiling.

How did Starck start his connection with Singapore?

The answer is veteran property and hotel magnate Kwek Leng Beng, 75.

Mr Kwek is chairman of Millennium & Copthorne Hotels, which owns M Social.

He is also executive director and executive chairman of City Developments, which has a joint venture in the South Beach development with IOI Group.

He first came across Starck's work when the designer started collaborating with boutique hotel pioneer Ian Schrager in New York and London in the 1980s, on projects such as the iconic Royalton hotel in New York.

Some years ago, he asked to meet Starck in Bordeaux, in south-western France. Though the designer was very sick, he attended the meeting.

"Nobody can resist Mr Kwek," says Starck, who is known to be picky about whom he works with. "He's so smart, quickly understands my style, so fun and full of energy. It was love at first sight - good to make a love shack."

Mr Kwek, in turn, tells The Straits Times: "Starck's avant-garde design sets the tone for a hotel and turns a boring space into something interesting that people will remember."

Starck's wife, Jasmine Abdellatif, 43, was also in town for a pre- opening event at M Social.

The couple, who wed in 2007, sport identical tattoos on their arms - a single line of dots, one for each year that they have been together, and a dash for the birth of their daughter, Justice. Ms Abdellatif is Starck's fourth wife.

His other children have unusual names, too: Ara, Oa, Lago and K. These names, he once said in an interview, were computer-genera- ted.

The press conference was held in Beast & Butterflies, where Starck fielded a question about Marriott International's possible rebranding of The South Beach hotel.

Marriott International, Inc will likely manage The South Beach hotel, which will then be rebranded as JW Marriott Singapore.

Starck remains stoic about the possible changes. Gesturing to the restaurant's loud interiors, Starck says he is merely setting the stage with his designs.

"Without the right movie director, all of this will never work. You will never have what I promised - life, fun and beautiful children."

He does not plan on slowing down anytime soon.

"When you are young, you want to survive and show yourself. But me? My ego is quiet and I can concentrate on making good things for my friends.

"Creativity is a drug addiction and a mental sickness. You can't retire from that."

•M Social's promotional room rates start at $218. Go to www.msocial.com.sg


Philippe Starck hotels

Royalton, New York


PHOTO: COURTESY OF STARCK NETWORK

Opened in 1988, this hotel was formerly a residential building built nearly a century ago. The 90 apartments were turned into 168 hotel rooms .

Although it was the first hotel for which Starck designed the interiors, the outrageousness and cheekiness of its aesthetic would become his signature for the rest of his career.

In the lobby, there were supersized armchairs, and light fixtures modelled after ram horns.

The hotel was owned by hotelier Ian Schrager and late entrepreneur Steve Rubell, who were famous for their glamorous club Studio 54.

Many hotel insiders credit this first Starck- Schrager partnership with pioneering the designer- boutique hotel craze. The pair later worked on other hotel projects such as Paramount Hotel, also in New York.

But by 2007, its new owners had had enough of Starck's designs and renovated the interiors.

Starck was not happy about it and told The New York Times: "I think if you are lucky enough to own an icon, you shouldn't kill the icon."

Mondrian Hotel, Los Angeles


Asia de Cuba restaurant. PHOTO: COURTESY OF STARCK NETWORK

The 16-storey building was formerly an apartment complex in 1959, and was transformed into a 245-room hotel in 1984. Starck was brought on board in 1996 to redesign it

It became a well-known hangout for celebrities and has been featured and referenced numerous times in pop culture. For example, several episodes of the HBO series Entourage were filmed there.

All about the supersized object, the hotel featured 9m-tall mahogany doors at its entrance; and large terracotta flower pots lined up beside tables at the trendy Asia de Cuba restaurant, which is now closed.

In its minimalist lobby, there was a Singaporean connection: a blob-like Squeeze bench by Singapore designer Patrick Chia, who is the founder of the Design Incubation Centre at the National University of Singapore. Mr Chia got his big break when Starck bought the piece for the hotel.

In 2008, Puerto Rico-born interior designer Benjamin Noriega Ortiz was brought in to refresh the hotel's look. He kept some of Starck's designs.

"The design of the hotel is so adored in the industry that I've heard the word Mondrian used as an adjective," said the designer in a press release from the hotel at that time.

"I didn't want to eradicate Philippe Starck's original vision, I wanted to build on it; I wanted to enhance it."

Le Meurice


The Galerie Pompadour in Le Meurice, where the sweet decor includes pink copper and marble-topped tables. PHOTO: COURTESY OF STARCK NETWORK

Located in a prime spot between the Louvre and Tuileries Garden in Paris, this 181-year-old institution invited Starck to rework its interiors in 2007.

As it stood, the 160-room hotel was influenced by the style of Louis XVI. Starck designed the public spaces.

To this stately hotel, he added contemporary, whimsical touches such as turning the top of a grand piano into a bar counter, and creating an art installation out of hand mirrors and white candles in a glass cabinet.

Recently, he had a second go at refreshing the hotel and unveiled updated interiors for one of its restaurants and bar last month.

At restaurant Le Dali, he introduced a copper-toned palette. Lampshades are decked out in light-coloured natural silk and tables clad with Arabescato marble tops.

The adjacent Bar 228 evokes comparisions to a cigar room, with dark wood and caramel-coloured leather seats. For a touch of drama, the ceiling has been handpainted to mimic the evening sky.

Hotel Metz, Metz


PHOTO: DEIS

The outline of this hotel in Metz, a city in France's north-eastern Lorraine region, seems quite regular at first glance.

A 38m rectangular tower block rises from above the trees surrounding the property.

But it is not topped by typical architectural features such as a swimming pool or a roof garden.

Instead, Starck has capped the building with a 19th century- styled villa.

He was inspired to highlight the city's old architecture after walking around the imperial quarter of Metz.

In an interview put out by Agence France-Presse, Starck said: "Normally we put the past below the future, here we were doing the opposite."

The hotel is slated to be completed in 2018.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 11, 2016, with the headline 'Starck on Starck'. Print Edition | Subscribe