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French designer makes a new mark on Miami

The interior of the SLS Brickell Hotel & Residences.
The interior of the SLS Brickell Hotel & Residences.

French designer Philippe Starck made an indelible mark on Miami and modern-day hospitality in 1995 at the Delano with his surreal Alice in Wonderland-inspired dreamscape. Over the past two decades, he has designed countless hotels and restaurants around the world with his signature touch of fantasy and whimsy.

After collaborating with sbe founder and CEO Sam Nazarian on SLS South Beach (directly across the street from the Delano), his latest contribution to Miami’s hospitality landscape is the newly opened SLS Brickell Hotel & Residences.

The 55-story property, developed by Jorge Pérez’s Related Group and designed by Arquitectonica, boasts 124 hotel rooms and 450 condo residences with restaurants by James Beard Award-winning chefs José Andrés and Michael Schwartz.

We talked to Starck — who has a flair for the philosophical — about his creative process, the future of design and his Miami legacy. (To paint an accurate picture, imagine his responses in a French accent.)

What role has Miami played in your creative process?

Alors, there are different ways to consider. The first one is, the world has changed. The world is no longer geographic. Before, Miami was in Florida, Florida is in the U.S. That meant a certain type of thing, but now every country is the addition of different tribes. We can say in Miami there is the tribe one, two, three, four and five. In Milano, the same, one, two, three, four, five. The same in Paris, in Tokyo, and that’s why, finally, you don’t dedicate a hotel to a place. You dedicate a hotel for a tribe. If we say SLS is a hotel of tribe No. 1, Faena will be for tribe No. 2 and everybody has his own tribe because everyone recognizes the aesthetic he loves, the philosophy he loves. That’s why we don’t need to make some pastiche just to say we are here in Miami. We are in Miami. It’s clear when we sit at the window, we are in Miami. We can tell by the difference in the climate and things like that. But it’s not a big thing.

What’s unique about the SLS Brickell project?

[SLS] is a special brand because it was created by a special person. Sam [Nazarian] is the last ogre, the last monster, the last big boss of his generation. He’s very young, full of energy with incredible intelligence, vision and he loves people. He wants to bring love, fun, sexiness, creativity with high quality intelligence — that, is SLS.

When Sam meets Jorge Pérez in Miami, that changed something because we now have two ogres, two monsters. We know Jorge is a famous entrepreneur and things like that, but he is cuckoo of art. Because they are partners, they are saying, ‘I want art everywhere,’ which is good for me because I don’t like decoration. I prefer art. Jorge, he sees an opportunity to move this design to art. That’s why SLS Brickell is not the new SLS in Miami. The location is in Miami, but before anything it is the realization of the vision of the life of Sam and the art of Jorge.

What is your favorite aspect of the hotel’s design?

I love the hotel restaurants. I love José Andrés who is really a piece of poetry, of craziness, of surrealism. We have this Spanish artist [Sergio Mora] who has made for us all of the blue tiles with so much poetry and fun. We have gold fake lobsters, the black bull with the Mexican mask, the big fish heads — it’s a dream, this place, a dream! It’s nice, it’s white, it’s sexy, it’s clean. It’s fantastic food in a sort of ‘coo-coo’ Spanish Alice in Wonderland. I love it. I also love the spirit of Michael Schwartz, very natural, very ecologic. The walls are trees. It’s all in wood with a big fire.

How does your approach differ between interior design for a hotel and interior design for a home or condo residence?

For me there is a big difference because I don’t do interior design for home. I think it’s not the right thing to do and not the right thing to promote. I think you have to assume for yourself and you have to build your own home, your own life, and who cares if it’s not so beautiful to make the cover of a magazine. I prefer people who make their own mistakes than the mistakes of somebody else. I have not a lot of respect for people who want to make a home like a museum just to show how they’re rich or how they’re smart. That’s why I don’t like interior design. The difference is, in a home people stay. In a hotel, people move. That’s all. You have to make a home for three generations. You have to make a hotel for three days.

You first made your mark on Miami at the Delano in 1995. What does it mean to you today?

I love the Delano. I visited it last week, and I was amazed because nothing has moved. Everything is perfect. Nothing has changed. The Delano is a story. It’s a good part of the story of Miami. When we started to work on the Delano, Miami was a desert and the good thing of the Delano was it was alone in the middle of nowhere. It was garbage. The stone of the swimming pool was in the lobby on the street side because there was a hurricane. When we visited it, there was one foot high of dead birds on the floor. We spent months to kill all the fleas that covered it. It was a real adventure, which was nice. It meant we could start from scratch.

How can we redefine the elegance of the beach? And the evolution of the Delano was this intuition I had which said, on the beach, under the sun, we have to make the contrary. Before, people made [hotels] all white. It has to be white. I don’t know why. But when there’s a rainy day, this white becomes grey and everything becomes really sad. Finally, all that’s logic. When it’s logic, it’s not spicy. It’s not erotic. That’s why I said, I shall make it contrary. I shall make it a dark castle in Scotland. When we shall go on the beach in the sun, in our small bikinis, we shall come back in this castle and it will be incredibly sexy. It will be a little disruptive to be almost naked in the middle of an Irish or Scottish castle with a fireplace and fur covers. That was the idea and it works. Before, there was something saying that on holidays you don’t need culture. It’s not true. On holidays you have time to appreciate culture. That’s why I put the Salvador Dali chair and all the art. It was very, very chic and it was ambitious for Miami at this time.

You mentioned Alice in Wonderland earlier in relation to José Andrés, and the Delano draws inspiration from Alice in Wonderland. Your work is often described as whimsical. Where do you draw your inspiration?

I do not take inspiration because I am too lazy. I am a lonely worker. I work alone without any connection. We live alone in the middle of nowhere in a lonely, lonely place and we don’t speak to anybody. No, but Alice in Wonderland is poetry of surrealism, and poetry is one of the most important things in life. As for the whimsy, I think whimsy has a relation with humor and we have to remember that between us and a cow, a cow is the animal, the only difference is our brain, is our intelligence. And one of the most interesting things of human intelligence is humor because humor means you have understood and you can play. Humor is one of the beauties of us.

How have you grown or changed as a designer over the arc of your career?

I am strictly the same since I was born. I have the same obsessions. I am strictly the same. I have not changed because I have not enough intelligence to change and I have not finished what I have to say since I was 13. I just continue. I try to be creative with myself. I try to produce less and less materiality and more and more service, more and more concept, which can directly help my friends.

In your 2007 TED Talk, you’re very self-effacing about the role of the designer. At the end, you imply that at certain times in history, the designer and even the artist become obsolete. Do you have any thoughts on the current political climate and the role of the designer and artist?

I don’t want to speak about the political. It’s a losing time to speak about that because nobody knows. We must wait and see. Everybody, when he’s born, signs a contract with his animal species, with his civilization, with his tribe, and this contract is a mandate that you deserve to exist. You have to be a part of the evolution, of the mutation. That’s the one thing you cannot change. You can choose different ways to find your destiny, to exist. Me, for some reason, I’ve decided to serve my community in the best way possible by raising the quality of everything around them, around us. And I think this is for everybody. That means that can be good for a designer, it can be good for an artist, it can be good for a journalist. That’s why it is the duty of any producer of a concert, a product, ideas, service, I don’t know what, to direct your tribe to a better life by raising the quality of vision, of thinking, of philosophy.

How do you view the future of design?

The future is dematerialization. I will be sad to have spent my life producing things, but I’ve tried to do right. Clearly, everything has to be ecological. Clearly, everything has to be political. Clearly, everything has to be sexual. There is a lot of things to say about that because the evolution of sexuality has not stopped. We are on the way of giving up the small box of man and woman. In the end, in 10 years, we shall say, we were speaking like that? What were we, prehistoric? We were animals.

I just launched my perfume company Starck Paris with three perfumes that clearly speak about what it means to be a woman now, to be a man now and what will be the future out of the small box … the gender theory.

And for design, there is no future for design because the intelligent part of human production will go to bionics through dematerialization. That means in 10 years, the computer that we see today will look prehistoric because all the computers will be inside us. If all the services we need, all the competencies we need to become more intelligent — more memory, more communication — is inside our body, that means the next designer is our gym coach, our dietitian our surgeon. Everything will disappear. We shall become more human, trans-human, but I prefer to say more human, with no more useless materiality around us. It’s the end of design.

Shayne Benowitz is Miami.com’s hotels & travel editor. You can reach her at Shayne@ShayneBenowitz.com.

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