The irrationality of pure design
What transforms an object into an icon? That’s the question that buzzes through your mind as you contemplate a line-up of objects ranging from the supersonic (and after all those years, still miss-a-heartbeat sexy) Concorde down to the utterly humble Bic ballpoint pen, all part of the 20 Icons Of French Design exhibition of the recent Dubai Design Week. Why on earth is a Philippe Starck designed lemon squeezer—the Juicy Salif—with its long-legged extra-terrestrial silhouette, instantly recognizable and universally desirable? What keeps the Le Corbusier chaise lounge—the LC4—designed almost a century ago, still selling at €5,000 (Rs3.6 lakh) a pop? And, in what, I suppose, is a case of a French icon marrying another French icon, Dubai stores offer the LC4 in a Louis Vuitton special edition at €7,000.
An object, of course, can’t reach iconic status unless hordes of people recognize and admire it—it is one of those circular arguments where an object is famous because it has a history of being famous. But the more interesting question that this exhibition raises is how did these particular examples of French design become famous in the first place? Are there simple rules that you and I can follow to start creating iconic objects of our own?
Arguably, the most iconic and controversial piece here is the Juicy Salif, designed by Starck for the home goods retailer Alessi in 1990, and which by 2003 had sold 500,000 plus pieces. Numbers have probably multiplied since, yet, scan the Internet and you will find awful reviews—people complain that the juice flies all over the place, and whatever juice makes it into the glass has unwanted seeds and pulp. In other words, it’s a lemon at squeezing lemons. Yet, it has been so successful that Alessi issued a gold-plated limited edition version to mark the Juicy Salif’s 10th anniversary with instructions to not squeeze lemons with it as the citric acid may harm the gold-plating.
In the meantime, Starck has gone on record saying that he designed it not to squeeze lemons but to “start conversations”. In a speech at Harvard University, where Starck was honoured with a Design Excellence Award, he gave this unlikely explanation: “On a certain night, the young couple, just married, invites the parents of the groom to dinner, and the groom and his father go to watch football on TV. And for the first time, the mother of the groom and the young bride are in the kitchen, and there is a sort of malaise—this squeezer is made to start the conversation.” Whatever you think of that, you have to hand it to him that the Juicy Salif has been stirring up plenty of controversial conversations, all of which have added to its iconic status on a global basis.
What makes it tick? Three aspects stand out. One, it’s design is utterly innovative—it has broken all the rules of lemon-squeezers, so much so that it doesn’t even bother to squeeze lemons. Two, it is a visual delight—it is statuesque like a trophy, it has a certain weird-and-wonderful cuteness that you can’t help but smile at, as if it might grow up and join a Star Wars army. Three, it has charming stories—Starck conceived of it on what else—a napkin—while eating squids at a restaurant, and that doodled-up napkin of a squid sketch evolving into a lemon-squeezer is part of its folklore. And then there’s the quirky mum-in-law ice-breaker tale—you might roll your eyes, but I think that’s a solid need area without a single product in the market!
Quick check: How does the Concorde score on these three counts? Created in 1967, it was the most innovative passenger aeroplane that flew the skies—at more than twice the speed of sound—from 1976-2003, crossing the Atlantic from Paris to New York (or London to New York) in three and a half hours, a journey that even today takes twice as long. Its extra-long streamlined design is what dreams are made of—you respond to it not from your head or heart, but from your gut with irrational excitement. It has more stories than I can tell you here—from the caviar and champagne meals served onboard to the celebrities who flew on it—Elizabeth Taylor, Mick Jagger, Elton John, Phil Collins, to name a few.
How does Le Corbusier’s chaise lounge LC4 check out on these three aspects? In 1928, its design was so innovative and futuristic that it stirred controversy, and even scorn, when displayed at the Salon d’Automne, Paris. Its eccentric design of steel tubes and pony skin is a stunner, and there’s the added playfulness—you can slide the circular frame into any position. The story behind its design catches your imagination—think of a soldier resting in a field, his feet propped up against a tree, his backpack tucked under his head for support—well, that’s the position the LC4 was designed to simulate. Apparently a very comfortable position—Le Corbusier dubbed it a “relaxation machine”.
What is remarkable is that these icons of designs don’t seem to date—the 88-year old LC4, the 49-year old Concorde, the 26-year old Juicy Salif—their magic endures. Their design is timeless. I think, beyond the three-point formula, even beyond the hype and the fame, there is another mysterious factor—perhaps these iconic objects have a “soul” that reaches out and touches us humans.
Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult Of The Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.
Also Read: Radha’s Mint Lounge columns