The Starck reality?

Anyone keen to know what a career in design is really like should steer clear of its portrayal on TV – especially if there’s a Frenchman involved, says Hugh Pearman

Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Philippe Starck on BBC Two with British ‘apprentices’ in Design for Life. How embarrassing was that? Well, you know. Excruciatingly embarrassing.

But it wasn’t just Starck playing up to his role as a stage Frenchman – I quite liked that element of what I sincerely hope was self-parody. No, it was the enormous gulf between real design (the perspiration stuff) as opposed to design for TV (the inspiration stuff). On TV, brilliant ideas have to be produced, fully formed, instantly. But life is not like that. Although if you believe the hype, that’s exactly how Starck designs. Maybe he does and maybe he doesn’t, but, either way, I’ve come to the conclusion that designers of all persuasions should steer well clear of TV. They only ever come across as either bonkers or plonkers. In fact, designers should ideally not show themselves in public at all, and should certainly not admit to what they do for a living. Those who are not designers do not understand the process and do not regard most products as ‘designed’ at all. Products are, for most of us, just things that exist, and they are either nice or nasty. It’s best to leave it that way.

Serious designers know that the job of good design is to be in the background, doing whatever it does with minimum fuss and certainly no celebrity designer overlay. This is, of course, very unlike Starck. You buy a Starck product for its signature status, in much the same way that wealthy nations buy buildings by Rem Koolhaas or Zaha Hadid. There has always been, and there always will be, a market for the signature stuff, but most of what is designed quite rightly never aspires to this condition.

In the only episode I could bear to watch, Starck became impatient with his apprentices for doing lots of analysis, but coming up with no killer product at the end of it. This was partly because he gave them no brief, a situation that does happen sometimes in real life, but seldom successfully. Famous rock stars, film directors and sundry celebrities sometimes get that kind of offer. In the case of comedians, for some reason it nearly always leads to a wildlife documentary, don’t ask me why. I wish it didn’t. Do we ask naturalists to do stand-up? No.

But suppose someone said to me, ‘Write something. Whatever you want. Whatever length you want, in whatever style you want. Go away and do it.’ If I did go away and do that, and produced, say, a 200 000 word novel where the characters were talking jellyfish, my client might well say that was not what he had in mind. Luckily, I would not get that far. I would not write one sentence. I would park the project at the back of my mind and instead get on with doing some work with a bit of structure to it. For heaven’s sake, even on Masterchef they provide you with ingredients.

Television and design, then: avoid. As I’ve said before in this column, the honourable exception was the designchallenge series fronted by Seymour Powell at the end of the 1990s, which tried damn hard to communicate the actual process of design and did succeed in conveying some of the hard graft involved. But telly, being telly, could not quite escape an element of caricature – just much less so than in Design for Life. How appropriate that Dick Powell appeared briefly on the Starck show, describing design as it actually is. They didn’t really want to know about that.

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  • mshears November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Well said Hugh. My sympathies were entirely with the poor contestants who had absolutely nothing to work with in the design briefs or guidance provided by Starck. While he may have parodied himself, he failed miserably in providing the contestants with anything to work with – he was unengaging, arrogant and unhelpful. He certainly did not inspire, nor did his team either – in fact the best they seemed to be able to come up with was “you’ve got more work to do”. The show is miserable – pity whoever wins and has to put up with Starck for 6 months!

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