Out of a sense of hideous foreboding, I didn’t actually watch the opening episode of BBC2’s latest reality TV offering, Design For Life. Badged as ‘The Apprentice for designers’, that was enough to put me off. The following week, having been shamed by a non-design-educated colleague, incredulous I was so out-of-the-loop, I overcame all prejudices and watched it. And the week after that too. Enough is enough though.
The depressing premise: ‘iconic’ French designer Philippe Starck is using that foolproof process, ‘elimination by reality TV’, to find the next great British designer – because apparently British design has so lost its way – from among 12 hopefuls. The lucky winner will be awarded a ‘placement’, paid or unpaid not specified, in his Paris studio. A point which has been made in numerous reviews and blogs: for a man whose career has been built on innovation, the show he has chosen to take part in is tediously formulaic. And unfortunately my sense of foreboding was totally justified. There are so many things wrong with this programme I don’t even know where to start.
Stepping aside the fact that the concept of ‘British’ design is hopelessly out of touch and inappropriate in the context of the way the design world actually operates (see Justin McGuirk in The Guardian here), if these 12 chumps are the best Britain has to offer then we are, as Starck claims, in trouble. They are not very good. I know, as will anyone who visited last month’s London Design Festival, that Britain is not short on creative talent. But for the less well informed, this show is simply bad press for design. It’s actually embarrassing. Where did he dredge up these 12 contestants? I can think of plenty of people – designers and not – who would have risen to Starck’s challenge boldly. In Britain we educate more designers than most other developed nations (only the US, Japan, and S.Korea are ahead); it’s a stock of intellectual capital on which we pride ourselves. Let’s just hope the majority of well-trained and talented designers took one look at the ‘Design For Life’ call for applications and saw it for the poisoned chalice it most likely is.
Admittedly the contestants can draw pretty pictures, but they’re a bit light on vision, ideas, creativity – almost exclusively coming across as petty, competitive, stubborn and close-minded. And yes, Starck’s briefs have been a bit woolly: ‘Design me a product zat will help humanity!’ But there was little real ingenuity on show in their responses.
One idea: to reduce electricity use by ‘switching off the power’ all over the world for two weeks. Can we see any problems with that as an idea? Ok, so it’s a concept, it’s (that horrible phrase) thinking outside the box. But it’s not a design solution. All that the contestant physically produced during the week was a papier mache globe with a lightbulb inside it. It looked like a Blue Peter cast-off. In the third episode, the girl who had most impressed Starck the previous week disappointingly designed something truly useless – a contraption that is placed on the kitchen surface and pops up into shelving. Philippe’s quite reasonable query: if you wanted shelving in your kitchen, why wouldn’t you just put up some shelves? Finally, a decent idea in the third week: a hoist for helping the old and frail up out of a chair, which then transforms into a walking stick. This is potentially a useful addition to the mobility product market place. But as it’s not very sexy it was a bit surprising Starck bought it.
On the whole, their crippling desire to win seems to have blinded them to the true opportunities on offer – complete creative freedom, access to some very nice studio space, materials, and resources to explore the whole of Paris ‘for research’. Instead of relishing the freedom that Starck’s briefs allow, they have mostly whined. That, at least, was probably quite British.
And then there is Starck himself. He is allegedly furious at the way the show has been edited and he has thus been portrayed. What, as a crazy pretentious egotist? Is that really the editing, Philippe? A quick glance at his collection of self-referential self-indulgent coffee table sized catalogues reveals a highly driven and idiosyncratic operator. His own career has provoked much controversy – designs accused of being beautiful but utterly useless, valuing form over function. He seems the very antithesis of what the majority of hardworking designers are desperately trying to convince the British public that design is about – thinking about the needs of the end user, assimilating multiple criteria, finding an elegant solution to a genuine problem. Although undoubtedly talented, his attitude is from another time – the era of the autonomous designer. Starck is on the dying tail end of the generation that gave us uncomfortable chairs and concrete social housing blocks, as well as other things that admittedly weren’t quite so bad. He does the black polo-neck wearing, incomprehensible, creative genius act very well, but in doing so he is doing a disservice to the design industry, particularly in such a design-illiterate, even design-wary, place as Britain.
As mentioned earlier, the concept of a ‘British’ designer is increasingly a redundant one – but it doesn’t change the fact that the contestants left in the running are depressingly average. In the second episode, Starck himself was so disillusioned by the poverty of ideas on display that he threatened to cancel the whole project. He didn’t – there were probably some legally binding agreements that overruled that impulse, sound as it may have been – so it will be interesting to see if any of the four now left manage to blossom into something more impressive than their track record promises. Don’t hold your breath. And – just as you would never take business management lessons from the Apprentice – don’t expect this show to tell you anything truthful about design.