For the creator Philippe Starck, it is a declaration of intent, the metaphor of an evolutionary goal moving towards the progress that is a necessity of humankind.
For the entrepreneur Claudio Luti, president of Kartell, it is essentially a technological and industrial challenge that began back in 1999 and has led to a recordsetting product, another case of his company’s talent for making history in the world of design. Transparency. It is hard to believe today, but it was just 15 years ago that this physical property of matter made its entrance on the scene of domestic objects industrially produced in plastic. And while polycarbonate is the material that has made the synthetic translation of a quality that always belonged to glass possible, Kartell is the company that has taken an important step in its big mission with this innovation: to make plastic a noble material in the design industry. We met up with the protagonists of this tale, Philippe Starck and Claudio Luti, during an encounter in the Kartell showroom in Milan. A few weeks before the Salone del Mobile 2014, it is time to plan new products to update the established collaboration between the design star and the company from Noviglio. On the worktable: drawings and prototypes of a new padded chair made with polycarbonate, and a set of accessories for the table. But the real news is elsewhere, of the kind that cannot be expressed in forms, but in numbers: a length of 1.8 meters, height of 95 cm, almost 29 kilos of weight. Which for a seat in transparent polycarbonate, made by injection in a single mould, represent an absolute record. Claudio Luti: “With the Uncle Jack sofa designed by Philippe Starck, which we will be presenting this year in the transparent version, we have achieved an important technological breakthrough. I don’t think any other company in the world would be capable of making this type of product on an industrial scale. We have reached the maximum of the possibilities that can be offered by one mould, thanks to enormous investment of human and economic resources. Already back in 1998, when we made the La Marie chair designed by Starck, it seemed like we had achieved unthinkable results. Even General Electric could not guarantee the total feasibility of the injection moulding of a polycarbonate chair weighing 3.5 kilos. We gradually moved on to bigger and heavier products, like the Ghost Buster bedside unit that weighed 18 kilos, and represented a true adventure due to its variable thickness. Then we made the Invisible table by Tokujin Yoshioka, which is still bigger, and raised further difficulties due to the flat surface, which precluded the possibility of even the slightest flaws. Finally, we reached the sofa and armchair of the Aunts and Uncles family, certainly the high point of our research on polycarbonate.” Philippe Starck: “This project marks a new phase of a process of innovation that began with Anna Castelli Ferrieri (the wife of Giulio Castelli, founder of Kartell, ed.), who was the great forerunner, the person to have the vision of noble plastic. Nothing so complicated to make has ever been seen before… We’ve been working on the prototype of the sofa for over a year and a half. One of the designers in our studio has been working only on this, 24 hours a day, for 18 months; he works on the lines, studies them, perfects them, so they will be compatible from both a physical and a ‘spiritual’ point of view.” What does transparency mean to you, in a design sense, but also from a more philosophical and personal standpoint? P.S. “Transparency is the result of an important process of evolution, inscribed in our DNA, which narrates our mutation. We have been amoebae, bacteria, fish, frogs, apes, super-apes, and we don’t know what we will become, according to clearly defined and recognizable lines of evolution. One of these guidelines is dematerialization, or the diminishing of matter in favor of an increase in the intelligence of the things produced by man. Today we are living in a situation of great fragility; the lack of balance and instability of the ecosystem make the human species run the risk of vanishing in the future. The extraordinary thing is that for the first time we can truly predict our epilogue, measure it, and come to grips with the history of past civilizations that vanished due to ecological causes and bad management of resources. From this viewpoint transparency – in keeping with an approach that goes beyond the purely visual meaning – is the effect of the vanishing of many products, determined by human intelligence, though many others ‘resist’ because we still do not know how to eliminate or replace them with an alternative. For example, we have not yet found a way to do without furniture. But it is important to make people aware of what will happen, and one way to do that is to apply a visual metaphor of dematerialization. Not a challenge, but the reception of a clearly marked line of evolution.” Back in 1999, how did the La Marie project happen, the first chair in polycarbonate, which introduced the idea of transparency in the world of furnishings? “The idea was to reduce my intervention on everything, to radically do ‘as little as possible.’ That meant also reducing style, which vanishes completely in this project. La Marie is the expression of what you can produce with a mould, with minimum human and cultural intervention, and minimum design. La Marie is not designed; it is defined by the flow of liquid plastic in a mould. It also makes use of a minimum of material, which we intentionally weighed gram by gram. Even its presence is minimum, because it is a transparent chair that can be perceived only at ‘second glance’: to see it, you have to make a choice.” From an expressive viewpoint, what has this innovation meant to you? P.S. “It was a sort of obligatory step, because you cannot construct anything without returning to the ‘fundamentals.’ La Marie is a ‘fundamental principle’ that has allowed me to become aware of an important fact: after eliminating any material aspect, what remains is the intangibility of the relationships between people, sentiment and affection. So once La Marie had been invented, I went back to the idea of immateriality and I added an affective dimension through collective occidental memory. This led to the Louis Ghost, which is simply a La Marie enriched by the collective memory of all the millions of people who have lived in the past and present.” After the famous Louis Ghost with the oval back and its 18th-century overtones, then came Mr Impossible with the two-tone chassis, another seat designed by Starck for Kartell that marked a technical and linguistic evolution of polycarbonate in the world of design. P.S “They are versions of the same concept of the minimum introduced by La Marie: Louis Ghost adds the sentiment of the past; Mr Impossible the sentiment of the future.” C.L “In general, the collaboration between Kartell and Philippe Starck has led to many innovations that have to do with the aesthetic conception of plastic. With the Dr Glob chair in 1985, for example, we experimented for the first time with the pairing of two different materials, but also the matte finish of the plastic, the making of angular forms and bigger thicknesses than those used in the past. We also worked on the touch of the plastic, achieving a softer effect, and on the coloring, convincing the producers of the raw material to get away from their standard charts and to develop different colors, specific for each product. When we presented the Dr Glob everyone was pleasantly surprised, because plastic had taken on a completely different identity.” What are the material concepts that interest Philippe Starck the most today in design? P.S.“First of all, the materials that are still not known today and will constitute the ‘post-plastic’ era. We all know that petroleum is going to run out in a span of 25-35 years; this might not be important in terms of energy, given the development of new energy sources, but it will have an impact on petrochemicalbased plastic products, which cannot be replaced. At the moment there is no alternative to polycarbonate to make the Louis Ghost or La Marie. Today we can make chairs with recycled plastics and salvaged materials, which I have already done, but we are not able to achieve the structural quality and transparency of a Louis Ghost. And this is a very big problem. Plastic, as we know it today, will vanish, and be replaced by plastic materials of much lower quality. They will not be able to offer the same performances, the same services. The most important task for manufacturers, then, is to conduct research and to invest in the post-plastic materials.” For Kartell, on the other hand, what are the most important challenges of the present and the near future? C.L. “At present Kartell operates in 140 countries, with a collection that includes over 150 product families, created by the most outstanding international designers. Our mission is to continue to expand the productive vision, keeping faith with our industrial character. The two main goals are: to widen sales channels and to widen our product offerings, because today there is not only retail, but also contract and online sales. Luckily our company can afford to invest, so we are looking around to find the many opportunities the world offers us today. The market has never been as big as it is now. Even though Italy and southern Europe are going through a serious crisis, the challenges of foreign markets are many, and a strong trademark on an international level like Kartell certainly cannot miss the chance to meet those challenges.” What is the next innovation Philippe Starck would like to develop with Kartell? P.S. “Today we have to meet a challenge connected with a major paradox: on the one hand, we want industrial products that have all the qualities only industry can offer, while on the other we desire individual objects, because we are all different and we would all like things tailor-made for us. It is a problem that needs solving. The other challenge, of course, is that of the post-plastic era. What will Kartell do in the post-plastic era? Will it continue to exist? Of course it will. But it will have to work and to invest, to be ready for change.”