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From Analog Ideas to Digital Dreams, Philippe Starck Designs the Future With AI

philippe starck designs

The opportunity to work on a truly unique project is every designer’s dream, and new technologies can certainly provide the occasion to do just that—as one world-famous French creator and visionary can attest.

Philippe Starck—the mastermind behind designs for everything from furniture and household objects to hotels and even space travel—can add one more accolade to his impressive CV: designer of the world’s first production chair created by artificial intelligence (AI) in collaboration with humans.

philippe starck portrait
Philippe Starck. Courtesy of Starck Network/JB Mondino.

That chair, A.I, is the result of Starck’s collaboration with Italian contemporary furniture maker Kartell and Autodesk Research. Starck provided the overarching vision for the chair, and advanced generative-design algorithms output myriad design options to meet Kartell’s injection-molding manufacturing requirements. The A.I chair, representing a leap forward in human-machine collaboration, will be available in Kartell’s showrooms beginning summer 2019.

Here, Starck shares some of his thoughts on the present and future of design, including what it’s like to work with generative design and when technology will be able to achieve its own true brilliance.

As someone who doesn’t own a computer, how do you feel about using generative-design technology, where the computer becomes a design partner?
I do not have a computer because for my job—being a creative—I am faster than any computer on the market. And above all, my field of creativity is unlimited. The best creative person with the best program can exercise his creativity, his idea, only within the imagination, talent, and intelligence of the programmer. It is like an incredibly intelligent and talented fly flying inside an invisible glass cube. All these dreams are limited. Obviously, with the upcoming arrival of a talented AI, the situation will change. In a few years, it might be possible that I would be able to increase my creative potential with this tool.

How would you describe the A.I chair that you created with the use of generative design?
I have designed dozens of chairs that are fairly well made, intelligent, and diverse. But after all these years, I realize that they come from the same brain—a brain that belongs to the same animal species, therefore to the same intelligence and logic. In other words, even if I twist my brain in all directions—if everyone twists their brain in all directions—if we are all geniuses, all great designers, we will always come out with pretty much the same thing because our DNA, our “background,” our structure does not allow us to do it differently. I was getting bored, but I have great hope with AI to get out of this creative ghetto.

When I saw the great chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov beaten by a computer, I dreamed of being Kasparov beaten by a computer. Today, we are at exactly the same place: Kasparov was beaten under certain conditions; I fought under certain conditions. The A.I chair is the beginning of a great freedom—a great revolution—that human revolutions can no longer offer.

Courtesy of Kartell.

How does the A.I chair fit in with your personal ethos of “democratic design”?
Democratic design is not a style. It is a humanism that aims to increase quality in every respect—cultural, qualitative, technological—to lower the price and to share it with as many people as possible. AI should optimize all parameters of democratic design. And no longer coming from my brain, it will no longer please only people who have the same brain as me, but also a kind of universal brain.

What’s the most unique design challenge you’ve been asked to solve?
The programmers’ cultural memory [behind advanced generative-design algorithms]. It took me several years to try to chase away any human trace in AI’s reasoning. Finally, human reasoning gave way slightly to a vegetal reasoning that does not satisfy me much more but which, despite everything, is a vital beginning.

Given your work with architecture and interiors, would you apply generative-design technology to, say, a hotel project?
It is an interesting idea but incredibly complicated. In a hotel, the function is an obligatory one but quite easy to understand. The importance is the human and sentimental function, which is difficult for a human being to evaluate and which still seems difficult today to get evaluated by a generative intelligence. But this question is a challenge—why not try it?

Axiom habitation module by Philippe Starck
Well-known for traditional hotel designs, Philippe Starck goes extraterrestrial with designs for the Axiom commercial space station, its habitation module pictured here. Courtesy of Starck Network.

What’s the funniest design mishap you’ve ever encountered?
One day, I received a very poor-quality phone call from a person I love very much, but whose mother tongue is not English. He ordered a 45-meter sailboat. I developed it for six months. I was extremely proud until the day I introduced it to this friend. He had difficulty understanding and, for the first time, showed a rather appalling lack of enthusiasm. I then understood that it was not a 45-meter boat, but a 145-meter boat that he wanted. I’m still humiliated by it.

How do you know when a project or a design is done?
Designers understand that a project is well done in two ways: First, we feel it in our guts. There is something magical in it. Second, after some analysis, success is the perfect balance of all parameters that make a proposed design fair, good, and deserving to exist.

“The task of design … is to try to make daily obligations bearable so that we can love them.”—Philippe Starck

What makes you most excited or hopeful about the future of design?
The most exciting thing about design is to understand that it was a temporary activity that dates back, as we know it, to the middle of the 20th century and will disappear in the middle of the 21st century. The intelligent part of human production follows the strategy of dematerialization: We will have much more with much less. Today, the task of design, with great naivety, is to try to make daily obligations bearable so that we can love them. But that is not true; we will never love a coffeepot, well designed as it is. This announced failure will end when the coffee maker disappears, and so will we.

Do you think technology is capable of genius?
Today it’s not, because it relies on limited memory that is castrating. However, we only have to give AI a little time to grow in its heart, to make it capable of even more sophisticated feelings. The day when it will be in love, when it will be afraid, when it will have desires and dreams, it will have become a genius.

About the Author

Erin Hanson is Redshift's managing editor and a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She loves music, food, wine, and grammar (not necessarily in that order).

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