In a Philippe Starck Retrospective, The Designer’s Early Work Reads As Both Vintage and Prescient

Before Philippe Starck became a mega-famous household name, producing everything from countertop juicers to opulent hotel lobbies and Bond-villain yachts, the French designer conceived of Postmodern furniture that feels distinctly of its time yet continues to fascinate and compel us. Starck’s work from the late ’70s and ’80s is now getting its first retrospective at the Ketabi Bourdet gallery in Paris. In a way, it’s the next step in the ongoing re-evaluation of designs from that era and a continuation of the conversation the gallery opened up last year with an exhibition of the visionary Italian designer Paolo Pallucco.

Defined by edgy geometries, angles, and negative space, and a largely black and silver palette, the look is sleek but not glib; you wouldn’t exactly call these pieces soulful, and yet, they’re each imbued with a life of their own. In the book Starck Mobilier 1970-1987, Starck is quoted as saying: “My furniture often has curious names… They are taken from Ubik, a novel by Philip K. Dick which fascinates me by its very real intuition of modernity.” Starck named almost 60 pieces after characters and locations in Ubik, though in some cases he slightly twisted them, changing a letter or switching genders. If you’ve read the difficult-to-summarize speculative classic — involving telepathy, psychic powers, corporate espionage, time slippage, cryogenics, and questions about the nature of perception — you can see how astonishingly well Starck’s pieces embody Dick’s futuristic, sci-fi aesthetic. Published in 1969, the book takes place in 1992 (or at least starts there), and to read it in 2023 is kind of like being pulled into a time warp where the past, present, and future collide and get mixed up. Which is not unlike experiencing Starck’s early furniture now. It registers as both vintage and prescient.

Take the seating, which sounds like the dramatis personae of a noir movie: The Lola Mundo is a femme fatale in chair form, with its sinuous silver legs and body of ebonized wood. And the mesmerizing contours — rounded and sharp — of the tubular powder-coated and welded steel Wendy Wright chair catch you off guard. The smooth black leather seat and polished steel hind leg of the Ed Archer render it stiletto-like. The 1983 Dr. Sonderbar goes wide in tubular steel and perforated sheet metal while the 1982 Miss Dorn chair balances a round upholstered seat amid circular and linear tubing. The Lila Hunter (that curving back rest) and Francesca Spanish (those quarter-circle arms and plastic orange seat) round out the cast.

There’s often something alluringly askew and off-kilter in these early designs, both figuratively and literally. Bookshelves are slanted, like the John Ild modular piece of lacquered wood and metal supports from the late ’70s. The sculptural Ray Hollis ash tray in polished aluminum has a tilting lid, like a creature with one wing. It’s imaginative furniture that takes you into an altered reality, even as you’re still standing (or sitting) right here on Earth.

The Philippe Starck retrospectvive runs through February 18th.