Opinion – Stephen Bayley

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I fell in love with the gorgeous goddess Fame, but ended up on a one night stand with the disgusting slut Celebrity. Or so they say.

Fame is to architecture and design what brand value is to soap: if patiently acquired, if based on a fundamentally sound product that works and has, over time, delighted the consumer, then fame is precious and lasting. It is like a fine, mature wine: subtle and complex. Fame can’t be rushed. Celebrity is an alcopop: easily acquired, bright, trashy and not worth lingering over. Then there is the hangover.

We are at a curious historical moment when architecture, design, celebrity and brand are chasing each other, not altogether attractively. The distinguished Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press has published a book (by Anna Klingmann) where architecture, once thought to be the mother of the arts, is described as ‘an effective marketing tool’. Today’s corporate clients don’t want Alberti’s proportions. Instead, they require morphic expressionism that photographs well, what Tom Wolfe called ‘kerbflash’. This is architecture as blink-graphics: a shape, a colour, a profile, a bulk that makes an immediate impression. You can find a superlative example in Munich: architect Coop Himmelblau has built BMW-Welt, an apocalyptically effective marketing tool for the car manufacturer. But it builds the architect’s brand as well. Who is the celebrity here?

Brad Pitt has been at it. A Business Week article in 2005 showed the actor in Frank Gehry’s studio. It was Gehry who designed the bodega in Pitt’s Normandy-style Beverly Hills chateau. And Pitt is said to have had a hand in Gehry’s attention-getting design for a deluxe high rise on the Hove seafront in Sussex. To research celebrity architecture, the following year Brad and Angelina visited Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water, his 1938 house for the Kaufmann department store family. Unfortunately for his otherwise impeccably Green credentials, Brad was shuttled from the airport in an SUV and returned to it in a Rolls-Royce. Be that as it may, if you Google ‘Brad Pitt Gulfstream’ the first reference is not to the preferred private aircraft of the very rich but to an architectural project in New Orleans.

This is Make It Right, announced in last year’s love-in of the liberal elite, The Clinton Global Initiative. Thirteen architects, including Adjaye Associates and Shigeru Ban, have been invited to design eco-intelligent houses on stilts to replace houses that weren’t on stilts, thus devastated by Hurricane Katrina floods. Pitt donated $5m (£2.5m) to this high-concept salvage in the poor Lower Ninth Ward. Thwarted architectural ambitions have dominated his psychology: tectonic and morphological metaphors feature in his discourse. Explaining the swap of lissom Aniston for buxom Jolie, Brad said that, like architecture and design, love is ‘sometimes changing shape’.

Brad is responding to peculiar circumstances not just at home, but abroad. If architects and designers can become celebrities (as Norman goes global and Gehry lends his name to Tiffany jewellery) then – surely – celebrities can return the compliment and become architects. Habitat sensed this several years ago with a ‘Very Important Products’ promotion where television and sports personalities designed household and personal accoutrements. Three years ago Lenny Kravitz, a funkster nearing retirement as his polite middle-class sexiness paled before the brute ghetto carnality of rap, became a designer. At the end of last year his Florida Room opened in the painfully hip Delano Hotel. Appropriately, this was during the preposterous international conga-line of self-loving neophiliacs that is Art Basel Miami Beach, a celebrity billionaire boot sale of pseudo-art.

Kravitz’s hotel lounge was, inevitably, described as iconic. He’s not alone in jumping the species barrier. Kylie Minogue has ‘designed’ bed linen, though if this was in the same sense that Norman Foster designed the sensational Millau Viaduct (engineered to stay aloft by the less celebrated Michel Virlogeux), I can’t say.

The rush of actors, musicians and models to become architects and designers is partly a consequence of de-skilling. It used to be difficult to design buildings as you had to know about technical things. Now we have people to do it for us. Architecture and design used to be about problem-solving, now they make their own problems. Ask any engineer who has had to make a Zaha Hadid design stand up. If you can squiggle it, consultants or expert systems can make it work. Lenny can squiggle. He says, ‘I want to do architecture, but I’m not an architect’. I wanted to make a hit single, but I’m not a musician.

Some recent US research showed that the share price of large corporations moved in the opposite direction to the chief executive’s media profile. The better-known the boss, the more the business sucked. Something similar is happening with architecture and design: Philippe Starck may be the most celebrated designer ever, but his lasting influence will be minimal. Truth is, designers are at their most influential when most obscure: ask Virlogeux. Novelist John Updike said, ‘Celebrity is a mask that eats the face.’ He should have said ‘facade’.

Stephen Bayley is a design critic and commentator. His own website also bills him as the second most intelligent man in Britain

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  • Sheila Kirby-Morris November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Pop stars and actors i agree do help to promote a product, but as for calling themselves designers thats another matter.
    True designers are born like my husband Peter Morris,who not only designs furniture but also the enginering of the product.
    Its designers like him who produce and manufacture in this country for our people that we need to praise,promote and support.The small business man needs help to enable our country that we love to move forward and become the country where Made in England was once THE product to have and desire.You won’t find better than he produces for quality and care.For many many years like his family befor him has been without recognition supplying the folk of this country.These are the designers that need film stars and the like to help promote his work. sheila kirby-morris. Ps: you can contact me if you wish to see his work.

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