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.