Starck's Reality

His first museum retrospective

Your body of work is mass-produced and widely available in stores. What do you put in your first museum retrospective? If you're Philippe Starck, the answer is, Nothing. At the Pompidou Center in Paris, chief design curator Marie-Laure Jousset took a Starckian approach to the just-opened retrospective of France's—if not the planet's—most flamboyant designer. (The exhibition runs through May 12.) Instead of a white-walled gallery, imagine stepping into a 1,300-yard arena—what Starck describes as "something like a bull ring"—lined with dark-beige velvet curtains. Inside there are no bulls, only a circle of 11 bronze statues of the design impresario himself. Each figure is animated by projecting a moving, talking image onto its face. There he is, Philippe Starck, almost live and in person, carrying on 11 one-way conversations with his audience. Why bother filling a museum with objects when you can personally deliver your message to the public?

Starck has spent his entire career conducting a dialogue with his audience. Visitors to any of his hotels walk into a theater set, a place for acting out on a spectacularly dramatic stage. Starck, director of the mise en scène, demands that you assume a part: How else can one respond to the 30-foot Alice in Wonderland-scale doors that greet you as you pull into the driveway at the Mondrian in L.A.? Or the oversized chess set at the Delano in Miami? Visitors turn into performers the minute they perch on an outdoor bed, provocatively strewn with pillows, that invites martini-laden guests to mingle, to strike a pose.

Starck's products are just as provocative. The infamously dysfunctional Juicy Salif, a juice squeezer for Alessi, sits on the kitchen counter like a tall, spidery creature from another planet. The problem is, when you squeeze lemons, the juice ends up all over the counter. Never mind, Juicy Salif looks great and, despite its shortcomings, has become a design icon. Perhaps Starck is invoking the irreverence of Oscar Wilde: "It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances."

At the Pompidou, above each talking head is a monitor displaying many of the hundreds of objects and interiors Starck has produced. He describes the process of designing a boat or a toothbrush or a chair, and how he felt making it. He also talks about how some things have failed (a teapot for Alessi that doesn't function) and his goal as a designer, which is to make fewer, but more "emotional," products. In his role as design's chief provocateur, Starck challenges clients and consumers alike, charming and cajoling them into producing and then sitting on chairs that tip over or teapots that scald. "People will see the statues as megalomaniacal—or ridiculous," says Jousset. "That's what I love about him: He's so comfortable in paradox."