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French designer Starck moves into Parisian flea market utopia

  • Though born in Paris, Starck says he has only got to know the city recently, having lived much of his life abroad.

PARIS: For Philippe Starck, Paris’s famed flea market is a utopia of sorts, a colorful micro-society he yearned to be part of – and now is, after designing a restaurant and buying a trader’s booth in its heart.

France’s best known designer – and one of the world’s most prolific, having put his name to projects ranging from trains to hotels, furniture and foodstuffs – Starck cites the market on Paris’s northern rim, “Les Puces,” as a kind of anchor.

Visits with his father to the sprawling network of antique stalls are among his clearest childhood memories, the 63-year-old told AFP.

“For me Les Puces has always been deeply ingrained,” Starck said, as workers put the finishing touches to the eatery “Ma Cocotte,” his latest project, which opened last week in an industrial-style building at the market entrance.

Though born in the French capital, Starck says he never really knew the city until recently, having lived much of his life abroad.

“All that time I spent away, when I thought of Paris, I thought of Les Puces,” said the designer, who with his wife Jasmine often heads straight there when they land in Paris, “even at six in the morning.”

“I feel comfortable here, it’s a model of the way I would like to live,” Starck said, adding that he sees the market and its boisterous community of traders as a kind of “successful Utopian society.”

“There is an architecture on a human scale, streets on a human scale, people full of humanity, culture, intelligence, who have their own language – both eloquent and sharp, street-wise Parisian.

“These people have known each other forever, they all know each other’s qualities and failings. They have all traded with one another, they have all fallen out and made up again – that’s what I love about this place.”

But one thing kept nagging at him.

“From noon to 1 p.m., the traders all pull out a table – their saucisson and bottle of red – and have a laugh and a game of cards,” Starck said. “My dream has always been to be around that table with them – and sometimes I was invited – but I never really felt like one of the gang.

“I always found it terribly frustrating, so one day my wife said, ‘Why don’t we buy a booth, with a big table in the middle for our friends, and we can make it our base.’”

The couple duly hunted down and acquired a booth in the heart of the market, which they plan to open to the public late this year, although what exactly will be on offer – food or antiques – remains a “surprise.”

But from that idea grew another, that of a full-fledged restaurant in a neighborhood that sorely lacks dining options.

For the project he approached Philippe and Fabienne Amzalak, owners of the Starck-designed restaurant “Bon” in Paris’s swanky 16th district, who agreed to put up the cash – 5.5 million euros, as it turned out – for the project.

Starck designed the exterior to look like “an industrial ruin from the future,” with an ivy-covered red-brick ground level beneath a grey zinc first floor.

Roll-back garage-style windows open in summer to let the air flow through the space, while chimneys dot the space to warm up the winter evenings.

“I wanted something French, but not ‘beret and baguette,’” he said, “so we went for a kind of workers’ canteen feel.”

For the interior – with the exception of wooden bistro chairs ordered from the historic Austrian firm Thonet – Starck furnished it almost entirely with objects he and Jasmine ferreted out at Les Puces over the course of two years.

Old books and chunky glass vases line the shelves, mismatched armchairs are clustered around 1950s coffee tables, while multicolored ceramic plates are embedded into the molded concrete walls leading up the stairs.

A line of vintage chandeliers runs down a giant communal table, with bar stools, before the open-plan kitchen – which Starck insisted must turn out food that is “real, friendly, as organic as possible – and absolutely healthy.”

In practice, that means a lowish-priced selection of classic French fare – egg mayonnaise or whole artichoke for starters, spit-roasted chicken or croque monsieur sandwich for mains, before a tarte tatin to round off the meal, followed by an after-lunch stroll through the market.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 19, 2012, on page 13.
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