Would you pay $100 (around R4,500) for a citrus squeezer shaped like a spindly spider? Alberto Alessi took a bet that you would, and earlier this week, he won the design community’s pre-eminent Collab 2010 Design Excellence Award at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Part of the reason Alessi won was for his innovative collaborations with external product designers, including Ron Arad, the Campana Brothers, Philippe Starck and Michael Graves. In fact, some of the designers—Starck, Graves, Marcel Wanders and Karim Rashid—who have collaborated with Alessi have previously won the Collab award.
With $100 million in annual revenue, Alessi, the Italian design company that Alberto’s grandfather founded in the foothills of the Italian Alps, is arguably the most influential manufacturer of household objects, ranging from kettles to cheese graters to colanders to the aforementioned Juicy Salif squeezer.
Starck, who designed the Juicy Salif, is reported to have said that it wasn’t simply a juicer; it was a conversation starter, which is what good design should do.
My first encounter with design came in 2002, when I was living in New York. Although I had studied sculpture for five years, I had no idea about product design and the whimsical, amusing and clever objects that it spawned. I was furnishing my first home and tended to buy antiques, mostly from second-hand stores, although I guess you could say that all antiques are second-hand objects. If I had known then that I would fall in love with modern design, I would have chosen more contemporary objects instead of the giant Georgian dining table that I still own. Word of warning to those who are furnishing their first homes: Don’t overbuy furniture, because your taste will change over the years.
Mirror magic: The Lan Club in Beijing, China, has been designed by Philippe Starck. Nelson Ching/Bloomberg
I didn’t know all this as I window-shopped in SoHo. On a block full of design stores, I came upon a set of chairs that made me stop in my tracks. They looked exactly like the antique Louis XVI chair that I had bought at the St Vincent DePaul Thrift Store; except that they seemed to be made of glass or plastic—transparent polycarbonate, I later learnt. The Louis Ghost chairs as they came to be called, were reamed by design critics at that time. They were considered unstable, pretentious, unsustainable, and simply absurd. The Frenchman who designed the chairs, Starck, was just becoming known in the US. I had never heard of him, but on that sweltering August afternoon, as I stood outside the Kartell store in SoHo, I learnt what good design was.
It was objects that made me stop in my tracks; objects that made me fall in love. Like those chairs: Boy, I wanted them.
My husband and I contemplated buying the chairs—they cost $154 per piece if I remember right—but deemed them too expensive. I should have bought them then; they have since doubled in value. Sadly, I consigned the Ghost chairs to the long list of objects that I lusted after but couldn’t bring myself to buy: Georg Jensen’s water pitchers, Gaetano Pesce’s Up sofas; IWC’s skeleton watch, Eileen Gray’s height adjustable side-table, Ingo Maurer’s lights, and many more.
Since 2002, I have followed Starck. It was hard not to. He seemed everywhere: the Royalton Hotel in Manhattan where magazine editors took me to lunch; at Target Superstore, where he introduced a line of inexpensive but stylish objects; in Hong Kong, where he designed the JIA hotel and the Felix restaurant in the Peninsula, where I purposely ducked into the men’s bathroom simply to see Starck’s famous urinals; his collaboration with hotel czar, Ian Schrager, that resulted in the Delano, Mondrian, and other boutique hotels; the list goes on.
There are three types of designers. Some, such as Gaetano Pesce, Pierre Paulin, Ingo Maurer and Eileen Gray, are design icons who created timeless pieces of furniture that have influenced generations since. They changed the paradigm. Others such as Naoto Fukasawa and some of Droog Design’s designers create objects that seem inevitable, “without thought” as Fukasawa calls it. These are objects that you look at and think, “Now, why didn’t I think of that? It seems so obvious.” Like Fukasawa’s Sole bag with real shoe soles as base; or Droog’s grass ring with synthetic grass on a ring that vaguely resembles the pavithram ring made of darbai grass that Brahmins wear for religious functions.
Starck belongs to the third category of designers such as the Campana Brothers and Patricia Urquiola who subvert everyday objects into amusing, satirical copies. Dozi, a magnetic paper clip holder shaped like a pig is among my favourites.
Created by a young Korean, Mika Kim, it is functional and fun.
The critics were wrong. The Louis Ghost chair isn’t pretentious; quite the opposite. It pokes fun at the Louis XVI chairs that it imitates. It isn’t unsustainable either. Polycarbonate is easier to recycle than other forms of synthetics; and by creating chairs this way, trees are not cut. Starck is hugely eco-friendly. He rides a neon bicycle; buys organic and has created windmills. The last criticism that Starck’s chairs were unstable has long been proved wrong. Since they are created by injecting polycarbonate into a mould and therefore have no joints, they can hold even the heaviest person. Sure, they scratch, but so does wood.
Starck would feel right at home in India because his design sensibility mirrors India’s inventiveness with objects. Our country is full of inventive design in places where you least expect it.
Two arms stretch out on either side of an autorickshaw to hold a ladder teetering on top; wheels become homes for silk worms; saris cradle babies on trains; washed utensils are piled up on stands like Subodh Gupta sculptures. We Indians have the ability to re-imagine objects so that they become something other than what they are intended for. This is design. We do it naturally, particularly if we are cash-strapped. What we lack is finish and for that, we need an Indian Philippe Starck. I am pretty confident that it is only a matter of time.
Shoba Narayan doesn’t own a Juicy Salif because she is afraid of arachnids.
Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org