Freshly squeezed talent: Philippe Starck's reality TV show

A new reality show follows design guru Philippe Starck in his search for an apprentice, but how does the master of minimalism size up to Sir Alan? Gerard Gilbert takes a look

My name is Philippe Starck... I am a type of new bottle opener... I am a sort of door." It's hard to imagine Sir Alan Sugar going on like this at the start of The Apprentice without a severe ratings dip and a visit by men in white coats, but what the growly East End barrow-boy-made-good and the Gallic merchant of minimalism do have in common is that they both now front elimination reality television shows.

The Apprentice we all know about. Starck's new series, which begins on BBC2 tonight, is called Design for Life. Following the tried and tested format, he takes 12 young British designers, sets them challenges and each week eliminates the weakest. The winner becomes part of Starck's "tribe" (his somewhat cultish description of his Parisian design company) for six months, their triumphant concept given the opportunity to join the world's most iconic orange-squeezer (the one that looks like a 1950s sci-fi movie's idea of a space rocket) or those transparent Louis XV-style chairs that look as uncomfortable as hell.

The aim of the series, according to Starck, is no less than to create an "English style". He doesn't believe that we have had a new national design aesthetic since Terence Conran opened his first branch of Habitat in the early 1960s. What his show most evidently is not is a rebuttal of British stereotypes of the French intellectual. "You don't make good design if you think about design," he tells his British acolytes. "You make good design if you speak about life, sex, flesh, sweat. I shall open ze zip of myself and say 'Now take what you want'."

Starck's pupils maintain their Anglo-Saxon sangfroid (to borrow a Gallic expression) in the face of this alarming invitation. Most of them are in their twenties and needed no experience or qualifications to get on the show – their applications having been assessed on the freshness and creativity of their submitted ideas (some of which were on the morbid side, such as the space-saving screw-in vertical coffin, were on the morbid side). But then Starck's HQ headquarters is in a former Parisian funeral parlour. Unlike other shows, the contestants were selected by Starck himself and not by producers.

"It was bloody terrifying," says executive producer Joe Houlihan, giving an unusually candid insight into the way such shows work, and confirming what we'd long assumed or suspected. "You're used to casting shows and thinking 'who will perform well?', 'who will be entertaining?' or 'who will be characters that people can engage with and identify with?' – all those criteria you bring to bear – the balance of people, male to female, diversity. So it was kind of driving without a seatbelt.

"Here the selections were done by Starck, purely on the basis of the paper drawings that were submitted – he did not even want to know their names or genders. He wanted to select ideas that were not necessarily great but that he felt had potential... people who think freely and differently. A lot of what he is about is trying to get people to embrace a new way of looking at the world."

Indeed, this lot are unlikely to excite viewers of The Apprentice, for example, for whom the sheer vileness of the contestants is the whole point. Other tropes of the format remain the same however: the sharing of an apartment (in this case a Starck-designed hotel, Mama Shelter), contestants boasting of their prowess and ruthlessness ("I'll do anything it takes to win this show"), and the two trusty sidekicks. Stark's equivalent to Siralan's Nick and Margaret are Eugenie and Jasmine – the latter being Starck's third wife, and director of communications. If any of the contestants were hoping to flirt their way into Starck's good books (and I noticed that one was sporting more décolletage than was strictly fashionable), I'd say they had a formidable opponent in Jasmine. She has something of the Yoko Ono about her.

Two of the hopefuls are sent packing after the first challenge, which isn't, as Starck agnostics might argue, listening to the great man airily pontificate: "With a song a singer can change the world, a political man can change the world wiz a law... us it is wiz a chair, a table, a toilet brush." Ah, non, they each had to head off to the nearest supermarket clutching €100, which they then must spend within the hour on two products that they believe illustrate the themes of function, ecology or gender. The guy who buys a bicycle, by the way, ends up wishing he'd got on his and pedalled back to Blighty.

The challenges in Design for Life is another area in which the series differs from the Apprentice template, according to Houlihan. "In most elimination reality shows, the producers will be designing the challenges," he says. "Design for Life was basically designed by Starck. It wasn't clever games designed by producers to create conflict, tears and laughter – they were challenges created by Starck to introduce a new way of viewing the design world.

"Although we had to make sure that everything was appropriate to be on television, the driving idea behind the series was to be real. Although it has been designed as an elimination show, a familiar model that viewers have seen so often, actually within that we were genuinely trying to give these young designers a chance to enter Starck's world and engage with his philosophy and do the things that he wanted them to do. And that's what subsequently happened, sometimes to the huge bafflement of the students."

And to the exasperation of Philippe Starck, who apparently even considered aborting the whole exercise. "On one occasion, when there was still eight [contestants] left, he seriously considered sending them all home and closing the school of design," says Houlihan. But then he decided they were all so bad they could have a second chance. He's a passionate man and his responses tended to be passionate."

Passionate and busy. "He lives out of an aeroplane a lot of the time. But once he was pinned down he was fantastic to work with, he would turn up, usually on time, or if late he'd stay late. He took it very seriously, he engaged with the students on a one-on-one level, and he was always funny and entertaining. A lot of the time when hanging round to start filming he'd be sketching a pair of sunglasses or something. You can tell his mind is constantly working, working, working."

The icing on the cake with Starck's series is that the successful design is, as intended, a thing of beauty and function. How often can you say the same for the winner of The Apprentice? The details of the victorious prototype must remain a secret for now, but hopefully it will go into production once Design for Life has aired. "It's a smart design," agrees Houlihan. "Because of BBC producer guidelines we can't use the show as a way of giving a product that's been designed on the show an unfair commercial advantage – there is a moratorium until after the show goes out. But I can tell you that there has been interest in it from manufacturers."

In fact, it will probably have a longer life than the television format that spawned it. Houlihan, a former print journalist with a long history in the field of reality television, reckons this style of show is not long for the world. "Personally, I think the reality elimination format is living on borrowed time. I can see exactly why we do it – in our case it was to try to take a subject that's normally deemed to be niche and broaden its appeal. That was genuinely the motivation for it. But while some of the longer running programmes such as The Apprentice will continue and they'll do fine, I imagine that in two or three years' time they'll be fewer. I just think that, like so many formats – such as Big Brother, for example – we've all lived with it, loved it and fallen out of love with it. Now it's just not new anymore."

'Design for Life' starts tonight, 9pm, BBC2

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