A real-life tele-visionary

Philippe Starck’s recent TV show has been the subject of derision in the design world, but there was wisdom among the buffoonery, says Adrian Shaughnessy

Philippe Starck is a bona fide genius, and his BBC Two show – Philippe Starck’s School of Design – was a brilliant ad for design. There, I’ve said it, and it feels good. Of course, I realise this is heresy. In Design Land it has become obligatory to savage the show. Stephen Bayley said it shared the same genetic code as Opportunity Knocks. And in the civilised pages of Design Week, Starck has been called ‘an idiot’ and the ‘worst type of stereotypical designer’ (Letters, DW 15 October).

Designers will debate the merits and demerits of Starck until the cows come home tinkling their Starck-designed bells. Yet despite occasional bouts of buffoonery, the great Frenchman emerges from the show as a well-formed receptacle of good sense and design wisdom, and I can’t help wondering how many of his critics could survive the scrutiny of a TV crew and ratings-hungry producers.

It’s true that a great deal of what Starck stands for today – ‘democratic design’ and his insistence on products having a ‘reason to exist’ – is contradicted by his past. I’m thinking of luxury yachts and his beautiful, yet surely inessential, Perspex ‘ghost chairs’. But designers are allowed to change their views, and beneath the Asterix-like bluster and the infelicities with the English language, Starck makes some razor-sharp points about sustainability and the importance of ‘generosity’ when designing a product.

His decision in the opening episode to send his ‘pupils’ on a shopping trip to choose essential and non-essential items was smart. Nearly all 12 candidates failed this simple test, proving at a stroke their unpreparedness for the bigger task of actually designing something worthwhile. If some of them had listened to what Starck told them at this point, they might have lasted longer.

But reality shows rarely have anything to do with reality. They are entertainment, just like any Saturday ratings smash. And it was here, in the game-show aspect of the series, that Starck’s attempt to award a six-month internship to a young UK product designer was at its most vulnerable to criticism and ridicule.

Yet the fault clearly lay not with Starck, but with the programme-makers and the vapid conventions of reality TV. It’s obligatory in these shows to manipulate the action shamelessly to create tension and phoney drama. Starck’s candidates were prompted to parrot the usual insincerities about self-belief and the will to win, and simple tasks that would hardly tax a foundation-year design student were ramped up into TV melodrama.

The show wasn’t helped by the inability of the candidates to explain their thinking. With the exception of one individual (the eventual winner), the wannabe Starckers were woefully inarticulate. But unlike the show-offs and fame junkies that clog up The Apprentice, each of Starck’s candidates seemed genuine in their desire to be a designer – even if some of them are going to have to reconsider their career goals.

In the end, I watched the show for Starck. His moralistic approach to design was refreshing and unexpected. Mercifully, he isn’t the sort of identikit designer with a white board and a fondness for the findings of focus groups. Starck is a visionary – and with that comes a lot of messy baggage and an industrial-grade ego. But he’s not an idiot, and nor – thank God – is he a stereotypical designer. Although I can see a bit of Hughie Green in him.

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  • Ian Noble November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    The point here is in the title of the programme. If it is billed as a school of design then the viewer might reasonably expect there to be an educational bias to the series. Quite simply Starck is a great designer but a bloody poor educator. Whether his performance and attitude has damaged the perception of design (we should be so lucky to be noticed at all) is obviously up for debate but what is not is Starck’s inability to give clear and coherent advice to young designers. His contradictory approach to design is less than useful when describing things as “too boring” rather than saying why and how it might be less so. In the end the real scandal is that the programme was commissioned by a British TV company, employed British designers but could not find a star who was also British.

  • gareth wild November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I though it was a great show but it was a ‘show’… created to entertain and educate but the emphasis clearly on “entertain”. You don’t have to know a lot about product design to understand that crunching the process into a handful of slots was inevitably going to involve some creative editing. And you don’t have to know a lot about TV to understand that accuracy and fair play are not values high on the agenda.

  • Mr Dee November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Is he really a bona fide genius? Great art director and stylist but has he really created any masterpieces?

    Was intrigued by his new found faith in sustainability – again not really supported by his portfolio – style over substance.

    In terms of production the programme tried too hard to be the ‘design apprentice’; too many inane stunts (the trip to the circus?) and do we really believe this was 10 of our most talented graduates.

    And lets not mention the typography!

    Missed opportunity.

  • Steve Price November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I agree, his communication of briefs and feedback was lacking, but don’t forget he is a Frenchman speaking English. Perhaps they should have allowed him to communicate in French, his own language.
    Also it is not Starcks job to educate the designers – that should have been the schools/universities they attended. As Adrian points out, they failed even the most basic of tasks that I’d expect far younger, more inexperienced designers to get wrong.

  • Lynne Colton November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I watched School of Design, no doubt like many other viewers, expecting some intensely bright ideas from the design students and some illuminating comment from Starck. I was disappointed on both counts and, at first, not a little frustrated by Phillipe Starck’s dismissive and disdainful utterances. However, I ended up full of admiration for Starck and even learned something important from the show. For all their attempts to read into the great designer’s mind and to please him by doing and saying what they thought he ‘really wanted’, the young participants inadvertently showed that the mediated world of design and designers is too often like the Emperor’s new clothes. By not delivering lectures on how they should have done it, Starck forced the viewer to have a point of view for themselves, to discuss and think about design, about why it pleases, why it is beautiful, and why it is usable or not. In fact by holding back, rather than holding forth with ‘the right answers’, Starck was leaving space to make everyone think for themselves. The competition demonstrated that the hardest thing to do is to think simply and use all your senses, including common sense, to solve a problem. I ended up loving it and I agree with Adrian – we need more people with Starck’s thoughtful, moralistic and passionate attitude to life on our TV screens. Vive la France!

  • David Keech November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Thank you Adrain. Especially for the excellent Hughie Green analogy. Here are my views on it:

    http://www.keechdesign.co.uk/blog/read/2009/10/91/design-for-life.html

  • Michael Exon November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I agree with Adrian (mostly). Starck has established his credentials and earned the right to be as wild and frivolous as he likes. Especially in a design world that takes itself so seriously. The problem lay with the design of the rather tensionless tv format, which just didn’t show off the magic of what designing is capable of achieving. A more penetrating look into the design detail, some collaboration and a better articulation of ‘why’ next time please!

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