Philippe Starck books: Publicity saturation overload (1999)

A review of Philippe Starck: Subverchic design (1999) and Starck (1999).

R.J. Preece (ADP)
Art Design Publicity at ADC | 9 September 2010
This review was previously published in FRAME, 10, 1999, pp. 108-9.

Eleven years on, this review could be applied to the majority of art/design books still produced even today. Just replace the names below with your chosen artist/designer and associated writer. Adjust the tonality accordingly to “explicit publicity” to “implicit” to “populist” to “sector-specific” to “academic” to “writer-centered reputation brand-builder”. Don’t forget to add “approved for press pack” on a scale of 1-10, or “absolutely not”. If the latter, make sure to alert all stakeholders that the misbehaving writer is banned from all future events.

Now onto the retro 1999 review.

Having eagerly awaited the press copies of Subverchic Design [Thames and Hudson: London] and Starck [Universe: New York], I excitedly opened the manila envelopes, praying that the design gods had added some substance to the discourse on Philippe Starck’s work. Unfortunately, disappointment soon set in—but not until I had been completely dazzled by the photographs.

As picture books, these publications reflect the power of graphics and good photography, and are undeniably beautiful. In the 64-page Subverchic Design, Fay Sweet provides a two-page introductory essay celebrating the designer and culminating in the media drama of all dramas: “The latest is his proclamation that he will soon stop designing.” Hey, haven’t we heard this Starck cliffhanger before, and wasn’t the Mondrian supposed to be his last hotel—as we await two London openings? Yes, we all change our minds, but [how entertaining it is to witness these thoughts merged with design publicity strategy and multiplied by sensation-junkie journos drip-feeding the consuming public.]

And now the plug. Before the delicious photos, the book offers a nine-page Q & A interview-rant focusing on Starck’s Good Goods, his latest promotion. Our design hero proclaims: ‘It is a global proposal, my last major work, and it is about the equipment of life… I call these “No Products”. They are No Products because they are not created by marketing or advertising or by greedy people wanting to make piles of money.’ Hmmm, so how are we to make sense out of his previous work, which is, to all intents and purposes, a celebration of the moneyed? And what about Starck’s reputation as a marketing genius?

Although Sweet’s book is one of a series entitled Cutting Edge, the text is [certainly not cutting edge or] even near it. Saturated in designer intention, the absence of information is glaring. And while there’s weight to the argument for eliminating extraneous writers—particularly those using a cultural-studies-gone-extreme approach—this book is clearly a product of the publicity genre, badly disguised as an objective and “authoritative” publication.

Meanwhile, the 240-page Starck offers more photos and, surprisingly, more text— centered on 92 half-pages and written by Conway Lloyd Morgan. “This is not a very good lemon squeezer” is an understatement, as Starck ‘fesses up to the failings of the notorious kitchen icon that’s been the subject of more than one bygone article. Less overtly in publicity mode, spicy sentences occasionally appear in Starck: ‘Remarks such as “The rest of French design business lives on the work I’ve turned down” did little to endear Starck to his contemporaries.’

At times using extensive quotation and self-proclaimed history, the book starts with pseudo-philosophical statements and then dashes through a series of topics including ‘At First’, which reflects—or self-reflects—on the designer’s early years, followed by his activities in ‘Japan’, ‘Hotels’, ‘Products’, and so on. Problematically, the mad-dash survey approach and limited text allocation strangles the amount of information on individual designs. And distinctions between design intention and interpretation are blurred. Like Subverchic Design, Starck is easy reading and reaches a wide market, as it requires absolutely no previous knowledge about design.

A fruitful strategy for dealing with this and similar books on contemporary design would be to ask a number of basic media-studies questions: [Tapping the lectern...]

> How were these photographs obtained, and how was permission granted?

> What kind of negotiations, contracts, and sociocultural dynamics emerged from contact among publisher, writer, and designer?

> Why is certain information missing from these authoritatively packaged texts—references, for example, to Vernon Mays’ piece in Historic Preservation (May/June 1996) on restoration-preservation issues related to the “demolition” of the Delano Hotel’s historic interior lobby (1995); to concerns about the function of the Hot Bertaa kettle (1990-91); or to recent reports in Building Design (3 April 1998; 26 June 1998) about Starck walking off a non-Schrager, London hotel project?

As books spanning the prerequisites of two [publicity-saturated] genres, these publications are splendid. As sources of critical information, they are painfully lacking. Good Goods? How about Good Books?