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In which I largely fail to understand Philippe Starck

Chris Anderson tells us that Philippe Starck is an icon, a genius, a maverick… and a paradox. The reason for this is that his best known design is a lemon squeezer that, depending on who you ask, doesn’t work very well…

Starck doesn’t contradict Anderson – instead he says, “Usually my job in life is utterly useless. Or at least I feel useless. After Carolyn and all those other guys, I feel like shit.” But his “shame” aside, he tries to explain his design process to us.

Design in the 1950s, he tells us, became “cynical design” – “the design must just be the weapon for marketing.” Later, we saw a move to “narcissistic design” – design only for other designers. Starck tries to go further, designing for the result, for the person who uses the product.

(It’s a bit tough to tell, since his example of design is a toothbrush, and he offers a good bit of the talk while miming brushing his teeth.)

When thinking about the toothbrush, he tries not to think about the toothbrush, but about the brush in the mouth. “Who owns this mouth? In what society does this guy live? What civilization created this society?”

This leads to an interpretive dance about the primordial soup of elements, the emergence of “stupid bacteria”, and our evolution from frog to monkey, “now to supermonkey over four billion years.” Every generation thinks they are the final ones – the other generations were mutants, but we’re the realization of the evolution of humanity.

It gets a little confusing at this point, shortly after Starck stops making the sounds of bubbling primordial soup. In talking about genius, he warns us that “God is a trap – God is the answer when we don’t know the answer, when your brain is not big enough.” He argues that the line of evolution looks very smooth, but it’s ragged – a line of light and shadow, civilization and barbarism.

“We are God now. We are. It’s almost done. We have just to finish the story.” In perhaps fifty or sixty years, he speculates, we can finish this civilization and offer our children a chance to start a new story, give our children the duty of inventing a new story, one that we have no understanding of. “That’s why I continue to work, even if it’s for toilet brush.”

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