Iconic designers

Philippe Starck's 'Table vase'

In today’s design world, a raft of celebrity designers are regularly feted at furniture fairs, in exhibitions and on the pages of magazines, but this has not always been the case. In the history of design, particular individuals were trailblazers who led the way, not only in their work, but in how they presented it, and themselves, to the public.

Chair, synthetic materials/metal, designed by Charles Eames, USA, 1950s

Chair, synthetic materials/metal, designed by Charles Eames, USA, 1950s. Powerhouse Museum collection.

Using a designer’s name to sell more product is a practice that first emerged in the interwar years in the US with industrial designer Raymond Loewy. He became a household name via the media, fuelled by PR campaigns and advertising. A true industrial designer, Loewy was responsible for a huge array of products, from coke bottles to cigarette packets, steam trains to refrigerators. He was responsible for helping to create the impression that the products we use in everyday life are the result of a single guiding hand. This was indicated in the 1934 exhibition of Loewy’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York which featured a streamlined version of his design studio: a single drawing board with modern tubular furniture. This vision of a genius designer working on his own was in fact not the truth – Loewy’s office employed a number of designers and used an array of specialists in creating the work. After the war, Loewy’s practice grew – his fame during this time can be summed up by his appearance on the cover of Time magazine in 1949. The first design celebrity had been created.

In the 1950s, as consumption, advertising and marketing increased, the association of celebrity design with furniture and the home manifested itself for the first time with Charles and Ray Eames. Promoted by Herman Miller – one of the first furniture companies to use the philosophy of designer-driven products – Charles and Ray Eames began creating furniture for the company from 1946. Their 1946 bent plywood chair, 1950 fiberglass chair and 1956 lounge were immediately considered classics and have continued to be regarded as some of the most iconic furniture pieces of all time. Their architecture, exhibition design and films brought them international attention and their home became famous – a symbol for post-war domesticity. By promoting Charles and Ray Eames in this way, Herman Miller saw itself as not just selling furniture but as selling a lifestyle. The designers were promoted as the ideal, beautiful couple – and by buying an Eames piece of furniture you were implicitly buying their idyllic life.

After a dip in the promotion of the designer as celebrity through the 1960s and 1970s, the 1980s brought with it a renewed focus on the designer, now coupled with globalization. From this period on, the brand took on a whole new significance, now part of a global market that included advertising, marketing and mass media. In the 1950s, as part of modernism, design products had been generated by the modernist ideals of architecture. In the 1980s, under postmodernism, the design product was dictated to by consumer culture – the desires and identities of consumers. Postmodernism shifted the focus from the design object itself, as under modernism, to the experience of design, as part of the “experience economy.” While in modernism, the focus was on form and function, in the postmodern era, the experience of design became more important, with the designer identified as a creator of experiences.

Room Divider,

Room Divider, “Carlton”, wood / plastic laminate, designed by Ettore Sottsass, made by Memphis, Italy, 1981. Powerhouse Museum collection.

Perhaps best summing up the postmodern focus on the designer was Memphis – a collective of designers headed by Italian desiger Ettore Sottsass. While Sottsass’s early postmodern work under the banner of Radical Design had been anti-consumerist as well as anti-modern, his work for Memphis was much more commercial. Funded by Abet Laminati, who provided the finish used on the first wave of products, the Memphis designs were playful, fun and extremely media friendly. You could even go so far as to say that, when it comes to Memphis, the chairs were not made for sitting on but for appearing in magazines. More than 100 articles and several exhibitions were produced, discussing what the Memphis catalogue declared to be the “New International Style”.

Floor Lamp,

Floor Lamp, “Tree Tops”, metal / electrical components, designed by Ettore Sottsass, Italy, 1981, made by Memphis, Italy, 1981-1986. Powerhouse Museum collection.

From here on in, the focus in much of the design industry was well and truly on the designer as celebrity. The Italian design brand Alessi used this approach via the concept of the museum exhibition, thereby treating their product designs as simultaneously exclusive and for the people. Philippe Starck also gained fame during 1980s, with his irreverent style, particular way of dressing and ability to work the media. He became known for creating the “design hotel”, an alternative to five star luxury of old for the young market. He became known for saying controversial things, posing playfully for media and marketing portraits and regularly threatening to quit the business altogether. His Juicy Salif lemon squeezer for Alessi is arguably one of the most famous design objects ever made, but its function is not why people buy it. Starck himself tells the story:

“Sometimes you must choose why you design—in this case not to squeeze lemons, even though as a lemon squeezer it works. Sometimes you need some more humble service: 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 the 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.” 1.

'Juicy Salif' lemon squeezer by Philippe Starck for Alessi

‘Juicy Salif’ lemon squeezer by Philippe Starck for Alessi. Powerhouse Museum collection.

The Juicy Salif is bought because it starts conversations. But it is also bought because of its prestige and that comes through the brand, and also through the name of the designer. Because as human beings we like to know the story behind an object – and we can relate to that story all the more if it is linked to a person. Emotional attachment to a person leads to emotional attachment to the object that person created. It’s just a human thing.

1. Starck, P., ‘Starck speaks: politics pleasure play’ Harvard Design Magazine, Summer (1998) www.gsd.harvard.edu/desarts/

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Philippe Starck’s ‘Table vase’, 1988. Powerhouse Museum collection.