The archetypal view of product design is that its practitioners are largely concerned with the creation of seemingly one-dimensional artefacts, for example, cheap disposable consumer products, while the bigger socio-political problems facing the world are best solved by scientists and engineers. This is a rather dogmatic view of the designer’s role in society.
In fact it’s easy to perpetuate the myth that most commercially successful Industrial Designers are flaky, temperamental, and generally self-centered artistic types who work in a vacuum toiling away on things of trivial significance. After all, does the world really need yet another stackable injection-molded chair or ergonomically designed cheese grater?
In the 80s and 90s the industrial designer undoubtedly most identified as “superstar” on the international stage was Philippe Starck, succeeded perhaps by the flamboyant Karim Rashid.
Looking back, many of Starck’s iconic products, particularly his houseware and furniture pieces, seem to resonate as highbrow artistic pieces driven by visual opulence over utility or sustainable use of materials. In this light many critics painted Starck as nothing more than a stylist whose job it was to make beautiful expensive-looking things —period.
Fast Forward 20 Years
In recent years it seems Starck’s focus has apparently shifted from catering to the material desires of the luxury goods market to more sustainable and ecologically-minded motivations. The world famous Starck is working on a revolutionary product with Apple yet, reflecting on the past, bemoans that his work was perhaps “largely unnecessary and devoid of any genuine meaning”.
This is a stunning admission coming from the designer who came to symbolize the luxury —some say elitist— design arrogance of the 80s and 90s.
In a 2008 interview with German newspaper Die Zeit, responding to the question
“Why did you become an Industrial Designer?” Starck said:
I haven’t found an answer to it for myself yet. Look, I have designed so many things without ever really being interested in them. Maybe all these years were necessary for me to ultimately recognize that we, after all, don’t need anything. We always have too much (stuff).
“Everything I have created is absolutely unnecessary. Design, structurally seen, is absolutely void of use. A useful profession would be to be an astronomer, a biologist or something of that kind. Design really is nothing. I have tried to install my designs with a sense of meaning and energy, and even when I tried to give my best it was still in vain.
These remarks are difficult to digest when you consider Starck has made millions and reportedly owns 19 homes around the globe and a private jet as a result of his lucrative design commissions over the past 30 years.