Philippe Starck And Why There Is A Backlash Against Design And Innovation.

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on March 15, 2007

I spent Wednesday working on a speech on why designers are the enemy of design for Parsons’ School of Design + Management and came across a bizarre speech given by Philippe Starck at the recent TED conference over at the Metacool blog. I wasn’t at TED so I’m relying on Tom Guarrielo’s posting but if he’s accurate, we have one reason why there is a backlash against design and innovation.

Now Starck is about as big a designer as you can find on the planet these days—hotels, furniture, objects of desire for Target, a spaceport in New Mexico for Branson’s Virgin Galactica enterprise, everything. So what he says is significant.

What he appeared to have said through a heavily-accented English talk was that “people like me, or like artists, are acceptable” because of the luxury of having barbarism at bay, according to Tom. In short, since there is no war in the world, or at least Europe, this moment in history celebrates his work in making fancy toothbrushes and toilet brushes.

“We are almost gods now,” said Starck.

Wow. That is one interesting perspective. I don’t know Starck. Never met him. I’m sure he loves dogs and children and perhaps is a vegetarian. But his work spans decades in which nearly a million people were killed in Africa in ethnic fighting—and Europe did nothing to stop it. Some 300,000 people were killed in Yugoslavia in ethnic fighting—and Europe did nothing to stop it (until the US intervened). Thousands have been killed by terrorists in New York, Madrid, Mumbai and London. There are ethnic horrors in Iraq, terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and India. Riots in the streets of Paris by disenchanted Moslems. It goes on as the globe gets hotter, the weather changes—you know the drill. No barbarism?

The backlash against design is, in part, a backlash against the arrogance of designers and their separation from the real lives of people. Many live in a tiny sliver of a world of luxury and design for it. That’s OK by me. But please, don’t rationalize that Mr. Starck, by saying that barbarism is dead and “luxury” defines our lives. It just erodes the eroding credibility of many designers.

The truth is that design thinking can solve many of the ills of the world. We just ran a great story in IN, Inside Innovation, on Acumen, one of the best new philanthropies that leverages social entrepreneurship to help villages in Africa and Asia. We’ve done stories on how design thinking is making it easier for people to navigate courts and hospitals. The power of design extends far beyond making pretty things to making a better world.

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Reader Comments

niti bhan

March 15, 2007 05:55 PM

Hi Bruce,

I had the opportunity to meet Tom Guarriello after he'd finished the TED conference and he was able to share with me Phillipe Starcks speech - he did mention that the words he's written don't wholly capture the power and essence of Starck's speech and from what I could make out from Tom's verbal recollection, I would disagree with your interpretation here. Hopefully Tom can add a few words of clarity,

Best,
Niti

Tom Guarriello

March 15, 2007 08:14 PM

It's interesting. You cite statistics that appear to indicate the decline of civilization. When Steven Pinker's very informative TED talk appears on video, I believe many will be challenged by his assertion (shored up by very thorough research) that we live in the LEAST violent moment in human history. Counterintuitive, he says, because of several key factors, primary among which is the impact of the transparency to atrocity provided by mass media.

If interested, I've blogged about Pinker's talk here:
http://www.truetalkblog.com/truetalk/2007/03/post_ted_though.html and (video blog) here:
http://www.truetalkblog.com/truetalk/2007/03/ted_vlog_1.html

Starck's talk was not at all arrogant. It reflected his belief that design is part of the larger evolutionary story which has taken over 4 billion years to write. When it began, more than 60% of humans perished in acts of war and violence. Today, including both World Wars of the 20th century and those we've already seen in the 21st, that figure is less than 1%.

Alan

March 16, 2007 12:29 AM

"The power of design extends far beyond making pretty things to making a better world."

Bruce, this is exactly Starck's point, this is the exact thing he means by "we are like gods now."

Johnny Vulkan

March 16, 2007 09:46 AM

To follow up on Niti's comments I was lucky enough to attend TED this year and see Philippe Starck speak. I actually think he said the exact opposite of this interpretation.

He appeared following two scientists and actually stated that what he did was NOT important and his contributions to society in the form of beautiful toothbrushes and toilet brushes were essentially insignificant in comparison to the work of the previous two speakers and other attendees of TED.

My interpretation was that he had an epiphany about his role and in fact he was suggesting that while luxury may in some cases define our lives, this was actually a sorry state of affairs and he was in part to blame.

I think he was also suggesting that as a society we must begin to focus our talents on the longer term issues that we collectively face and while there was maybe nothing particularly wrong with designing beautiful objects this was no longer the most worthwhile focus.

Mr Starck spoke for twenty minutes without charts or notes and certainly his speech was in places quite hard to follow but I do think his message was nothing like as portrayed here. I'm sure the talk will be up on the TED site shortly though and a more thorough debate can follow.

Any other TEDsters like to weigh in?

Dan Lewis

March 16, 2007 01:37 PM

It is the celebrity and trivialization of design that is the enemy.

RD(Parsons)

March 16, 2007 06:17 PM

I recognize that this pernicious attitude does strongly undermine the power and value of design. Especially his dissenting from known barbarism by general society, which you have illustrated.

BUT, look at his environment, his context, moreover, his target market. Starck resides in the hall of heroes of designers, something that we are trying to deconstruct, in the interest of accurately establishing design historIES, and preserving the integrity of the future application of this powerful tool.

A tool that is borne of process and, I would argue, not separate, but distinguished from the world of Jacobs and Starck, and the like.

clive

March 19, 2007 04:58 PM

Interesting notion!

Ever heard of Ken Lay, Jack Welsh, Michael Graves, Frank Lloyd Wright, Michael Jordan and oh about a 100 other sports and pop music personalities. Guy named John Lennon springs to mind actually! Politicians - all angels as far as I can tell! You name it, every industry has it's stars, design is hardly unique, in fact what is unique is the limited number of stars that the design profession has to offer. I don't think that star designers are necessarily a problem or evil, in fact they are fueling a further discussion about design that is helping it to get known and democratized. I am not a star, don't want to be. I do sustainability work and would love to make a difference, it is hard and there are few real solutions yet. We need all levels to promote, grow and enrich the profession. Thank you Bruce for being critical, we need that and thank you Phillipe for standing up at TED. There was a time - maybe just 3-5 years ago when a designer talking at TED would have been laughable! Glad we had a representative to send along now!

Paul Barnett

March 29, 2008 01:39 PM

I am happy that Starks comments, if not clear and perhaps also miss-interpreted, are nevertheless fueling the debate. I also hope his aparent epiphany will make other designers not already addressing the bigger wake up to the reality that the need to. Foruntely commecial realities are encouraging them to in any case, especially those designing´luxury´ and premium products whose customers now crave ways to bring about change and realise they have the spending power to do so. Ethical consumerism is here to stay and I for one am happy to showcase designers and their products to encourage it. See www.ethicaldesignlab.com

P 't Hoen

March 31, 2008 10:01 AM

It is the rock star designer like Starck that is history.

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