“Last year, he had a turnover of almost €8 million but if we include the amount of money that his work has produced we get roughly €1 billion. Per year.” One can only imagine what the numbers are now, almost 10 years later.

In Italy, the generation of 40+ has often been complaining about the weight of the Great Maestros – those who more or less dominated the market for 40 years or more: it is difficult to make a name for yourself when companies have eyes only for them. In France, young designers had Monsieur Starck to deal with.

Not an easy task. It may well be rather expensive to get him on board in the development of a project (he rejects 90 per cent of offers) but once a company manages to obtain the honour of coupling its logo to that of Monsieur Design, commercial success is almost guaranteed. What room does that give to new creators?

Admittedly, not much. Yet, whether people like it or not, design would not be where it is today if someone like Philippe Starck had not existed. Especially in France.

France is, indeed, a country in which design today really matters. Here, companies know that a good design (or one that is perceived as such by the public) has a great influence on the purchasing choices of consumers.

One of its largest domestic appliances manufacturer, Groupe Seb, churns out every year ‘signed’ collections for all its brands – Krups, Moulinex, Rowenta and Tefal. Decathlon, the sports giant, has for years relied on his creative director Philippe Picaud for the development of innovative clothing solutions and the creation of ad hoc sub-brands (all very successful). And, interestingly, even a large distribution chain such as Carrefour is now leveraging on Picaud to move forward and upgrade its positioning.

Last, but not least, the once minor event of home decor solutions, Maison Objet in Paris, has turned in recent years into a major international appointment for European designers and brands of the furniture and accessories sectors.

France itself has a lot to do with pervading the whole of society with design consciousness. It is interesting, in this respect, to remember that Philippe Starck owes his fame to the interest that François Mitterrand showed in his work: the former president came across the then very young designer’s work by chance and asked him to create for him some pieces for the Elysée interiors, namely the famous Richard III chair (produced by Baleri Italia) and the Lola Herzburg sink (produced by Rapsel).

Ever since the beginning of the 1980s, France has been investing money and efforts in identifying new talents and supporting them. It was 1979 when the Valorisation of Innovation in Furnishing (VIA) was created.

This not-for-profit organisation set up by the French Furniture Industries Development Committee, with the support of the Ministry for Industry, was established to valorise and promote contemporary creation in furnishing, both in France and abroad.

Each year, the VIA selects the best talents and supports them in the development of prototypes of innovative value that are then shown in an overall exhibition.

“We’re a laboratory,” says Patrice Juin, communication director. “Every year, VIA puts its money where the mouth of so many other design-promotional associations are by actually financing through a grant scheme the realisation of projects by young designers, and in doing so reveals new creative talent.

"Many of the new generation of French designers to have emerged over the last few years, which includes such well-known names as Philippe Nigro and Inga Sempé, and before them Erwan and Ronan Bouroullec, had their early projects funded by the VIA.”

When the institution celebrated its 30-year anniversary in 2009 with a large show at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, it was astonishing to see that he was right and all great French names (Philippe Starck, Martin Szekely, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Ronan et Erwan Bouroullec, Matali Crasset, Mathieu Lehanneur, François Azambourg, Philippe Rahm, etc) had all had their first prototypes produced thanks to the VIA.

But not everyone is waiting for the generous help of the VIA to start moving. While, on the one hand, large corporations have already absorbed, years ago, the value of embedding design into their creative processes, now a whole new array of experimental realities are
being born that promise to take the profession one step ahead through small, innovation-focused production.

Despite the world economic crisis (or possibly because of it?), in the last few years many small design editors have risen in France, all focusing on extremely high quality: Petite Friture, Moustache, Superette, Specimen, Goodbye Edison. They join already established and highly innovative ones such as Tools Galerie and Kreo.

“They all chose names that are easy to retain,” says Cédric Morisset, curator of the exhibition Nouvelle Vague in Milan at the last Fuori Salone, a show thoroughly dedicated to young French talents.

“It’s odd, it all seemed to have happened in the worse possible economic scenario. Yet, never before as in the last three years has France seen such an entrepreneurial fever in the design field: not only are there new companies but also new galleries such as Ymer & Malta, Next Level, Fat Galerie, BSL, Gosserez.

"In a very short span of time, their work of identification, production and commercialisation of objects and furniture has made it possible to create a new window for a whole generation of young designers.

"They are self-confident, have no complexes, speak several languages and, above all, have an entrepreneurial spirit: the young designers dare to risk, they self-produce whenever they have the chance, and look outside France towards the world as a whole.”

But are these the heirs of Philippe Starck? Quite the opposite, according to Anthony van den Bossche, journalist, curator and creator of Duende, a very out-of-the-ordinary press agency.

“We are actually experiencing today the first generation of designers who have not been directly influenced by Starck. Jean-Marie Massaud, Matali Crasset, Patrick Jouin: all the previous ones had all – sooner or later in their careers – worked for him.”

The breaking point, according to van den Bossche, occurred in 2000. “This is when Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec came on the scene: they were the first ones who did away with Starck-like tricks and developed a personal style as well as a new way of experiencing the profession.”

At the centre of what the Bouroullecs do is, as a matter of fact, not so much the style, the looks and the communication but the object itself – all of which made Philippe Starck’s success in the last two decades.

“Theirs was a risky choice, financially speaking, since we all know that money is mainly in packaging and interiors. But its honesty and moral standing soon turned them into a model for a whole new generation of 30-year-olds who now look at them as a synonym of success.

"Young French designers have a more modest approach – they are geared towards quality-focused production rather than towards impressive style statements. They are, in short, more reasonable and down to earth.” 

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