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Philippe Starck is shown with one of his designs for Andreu World

Inside Andreu World’s new showroom in Milan, treasures abound. The space itself, designed by Patricia Urquiola and opened in time for Milan Design Week, is an ode to sustainability, with a chair display-wall crafted from colourful recycled plastic, compact stone floors made of recovered material, and towering FSC-certified oak screens throughout. The furniture is also eco-minded. It’s down-to-earth: no-fuss, artisanal and elegant.

Among the Spanish manufacturer‘s delights is an expansion of a collection by Philippe Starck, exemplified by the seemingly simple Olena chair, which is made of plywood and assembled via the ancient joinery system of clavettes, or clavets, instead of glue or screws. As Starck succinctly puts it: “3 pieces of plywood and 3 wood clavets, Olena is an eco-tech vision of the Middle Age chair.” The entire collection was envisioned “with the creative complicity of [Starck’s] son Oa Starck….and favours the use of the minimum possible material in order to create wood furniture without uselessly killing trees.”

The Olena chair by Philippe Starck for Andreu World, as seen from behind

We met with the French icon at the Andreu World showroom during Fuorisalone to discuss his latest collection, the past and future of design, why ecological manufacturing is a must and how AI might help or hurt us.

Let’s talk about the Olena dining chair first. It’s so seemingly simple and feels like it’s handmade or that it has something of the feeling of being crafted by people, whereas some of your work recently has employed AI, and other advanced technologies. So how do you approach something so simple?

Philippe Starck

For years, I have worked with plastic, with aluminum, with high-tech materials and I realized it was not enough. We need some nature also. But I love trees – and when you say nature, when you say wood, that means killing wood. And that I cannot do. That’s why I almost never made something in wood because it was all solid wood – until Charles Eames. I remember Eames would make things in plywood and it was very, very interesting. Plywood, it’s a way to make very strong pieces, very affordable with almost no wood. That’s why it’s a deeply modern and ecological product.

And to make plywood, I looked around me and I saw Andreu World: They’re the best in everything. They’re very good people. So when you speak about nature, when you speak about ecology, you have to speak about the minimum – the minimum of everything, minimum of materiality, minimum of act, minimum of everything. That’s why I focused on making a very timeless, comfortable, affordable chair with a minimum of pieces.

The armchair is made of two pieces. It’s astonishing. And also you need to bring elegance in how you do it. Today when you make a chair in wood, it’s not very elegant: you can see the screws, the glue, it’s not ecological. That’s why I went back to the very traditional, archaic, good way of doing it, which was Japanese, which was Finnish, which was also the same process for the French Gothic cathedrals. Clavette is what you see on the side of the chair, a lock so simple and elegant.

The beauty of wood is that it’s alive; as it continues to dry, the clavette itself will move and always lock the piece perfectly with the highest precision. That’s why there is a global beauty, a global elegance.

Me, I don’t really believe in elegance when it comes to clothes. But I believe in the global elegance, the relationship with the human community, with materials, production, and gesture. That is the idea behind this collection. Even to make the pillows, I asked to use kapok, a natural material that is completely ecological. Andreu World is a company based on honesty; I love this idea because honesty is also one of the most modern, avant-garde parameters for the future. Honesty.

Andreu World's Luba chair, by Philippe Starck, features a wooden form complemented by leather armrests.
Luba features a leather armrest that complements a wooden structure. The stackable chair combines the tradition of cabinetmaking with a sense of high technology.

Honesty, okay. And what does honesty mean in the world of design and manufacturing?

Not fake. Not something which is not structurally true. We are in a society where it’s very, very easy to become dishonest, because there is no memory. You can say anything today, tomorrow, nobody will remember. That means you can lie nonstop. That’s why I love the idea of really working on honesty because it’s not so easy.

I’m wondering, because you are a legend in this world–

Yes. I’m almost a living legend. [laughs]

You have been very prominent for many decades. You’ve seen a lot of the design world change and transform. What are you hopeful for about the future?

I am not a specialist of design. We [my partner and I] live very alone, far from everything. I work alone. I don’t know designers, I don’t open any books on design. I’m not a specialist, but my feeling is that when I met modern design, recent design – because, for me, design started with the Egyptians and when you see the famous Egyptian tomb of Ramses, it’s the best piece of design in the world – but if we speak more recently, after the war, the design was mainly Italian. The stars were, for example, Enzo Mari, who was a Communist, politically. It was incredibly boring, but it was incredibly honest. Then, design became a little more known to the public, more editable, or publishable. It became fashionable, and some designers think that design is fashion – and that’s a mistake. It’s a huge mistake.

Design is not fashion. Design can now be made by a fashion company, but that doesn’t mean design is fashion. Design by definition is to help people to have a better life, and to help people to have a better life means longevity. Longevity, durability, everything. It’s design that lasts for a minimum three, four generations. But, lately, design has become a victim of trends. Trends, trends, trends. It’s just comfort food, and you don’t build the world with comfort food.

And now that we have this absolute urgency to save the world, I think the new generation will be obliged to come back to the fight. To the ecological fight, the political fight, all the fights, all the challenges we have in front of us. That’s where design is helpful.

A view of the Alla occasional table and stool by Philippe Starck for Andreu World
The Alla table/stool is made of two symmetrical pieces of eco-friendly plywood joined with the modernized traditional clavet joint system.

You’ve designed a lot of icons, though, and so how do you feel about that idea of people collecting your work? Does that idea coexist with this idea of longevity and design as more than trend?

When people tell me, I have had your chair since 40 years, I’m very happy. I’ve done my job. I’m very happy to create a timeless icon with high longevity. But I am not interested if people collect it. I am interested if people use it. I never have exhibitions on my work: For me, my museum is the street, it’s where people live. I don’t need more.

You were one of the first people to use artificial intelligence to design. What do you think-

The first, I think.

The first, yes. How do you feel about AI now in terms of how it’s influencing design?

AI is like all the human predictions since forever: That it will have a very good part – an incredibly good part – and that it will have an incredibly bad part. Like the atom. The atom, it’s fantastic for a lot of things, but it also led to the bomb. With AI, there is more good and bad cause we’re still alive. That’s why I am an optimist. We shall use the incredible potential of AI to solve the incredible challenges we have in front of us. And after, if we are intelligent enough with the help of AI, we shall not make bad things with it.

But it’s the absolutely regular, normal way for humanity to evolve, right? We will become more and more intelligent, which creates intelligence, which has intelligence. If we don’t want see our line of evolution becoming flat, you need the help of a friend. Today, AI is a friend. But we’ll see if it becomes the enemy.

We shall see.

We have to never forget. The idea of AI taking over the world is a little science fiction. We still control everything.

A Q&A with Philippe Starck at Andreu World Milan, Where He’s Traded AI for Eco-Tech

The man, the legend: Philippe Starck eschews high-tech tools for his back-to-basics circular design collection for Andreu World, presented during Milan Design Week.

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