Starck attack

You've got the lemon squeezer, and you love the loo brush. But just wait until you see the new hotel
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Some objects, it's hard not to feel, are more resistant to design than others. We expect a car or a stereo system to conceal its workings beneath a carapace of style, seductive or reassuring or technologically sophisticated. And we want it to advertise not just its own qualities but our own too - the synthesis of prosperity and discrimination which, when we feel our money has been well spent, will deliver an addictive little zing of consumer satisfaction.

But what about a lavatory brush, an object that usually skulks furtively next to the U-bend? Nobody but the psychiatrically challenged actually looks forward to using a lavatory brush, and the qualities one requires of it - bristle-stiffness, rinsability, modesty - all bend the mind inexorably in directions the mind would probably prefer not to go. As it happens, resistance is useless - the lavatory brush may have held the territorial ambitions of industrial design at bay for a while, but even this unpromising territory has long been annexed for the empire of style. These days, lavatory brushes can be clinical, bucolic, ecologically self-righteous, even svelte.

Only one I can think of is witty, though. Philippe Starck's Excalibur acknowledges the little shudder of repulsion that accompanies this implement by shielding the scrubbing limb with a hand-guard, a protective cone that both seals the brush holder and transforms the brush itself into a sword. Armed with this brush you don't just clean the bog, you sally forth to do battle with the Dragons of Fecal Adhesion. It is, as Starck said in a recent interview, an object "which combines duty with pleasure and an agreeable appearance. In other words, form belies function."

Both the brush and the mischievous soundbite might be taken as emblematic of Philippe Starck's style - of his achievement in restoring humour to industrial design without producing bad jokes. It was the American architect Louis Henri Sullivan who first coined the most sacred of modernist tenets - Form Follows Function - an alliterative credo that made purpose into the final arbiter of aesthetic virtue, and which could be applied with an almost Calvinist distaste for human comfort.

Starck's designs, by contrast, usually recognise that the function of an object can rarely be contained by a description of what it actually is intended to do, but leak outwards into emotional response. We never just use tools, we have feelings about them too. Starck takes this further than most people would be prepared to - his pronouncements offer a kind of dippy, utopian optimism about the moral transformation that might be effected by the right kind of toothbrush or bedside light - but his style has made him one of the most recognisable and popular of industrial designers.

His signature is a shimmying line which is oddly reminiscent of the pop artist Allen Jones - surfaces that sit somewhere between the naturally curvaceous and the artificially geometrical. But where Jones contrived to turn women into glossy machines, Starck is travelling in the opposite direction: "For too long," he said in a recent interview with the design writer Fay Sweet, "the mechanical objects in our everyday lives, the cars and bikes for example, have been designed as macho symbols; they are very aggressive. My idea is to sexually reposition these things and make them female." The result is an oddly affecting marriage of engineering and sensuality, objects which lend themselves particularly well to anthropomorphic affection - not to mention the jokey affection of Starck's product-names (a toothbrush called Dr Kleen or a chair called Miss Coco).

The lavatory brush sits at one extreme of the spectrum of Starck's work - one of the Good Goods which he now sells through mail-order and which he describes himself as "the basics of life made to fulfil a function with respect, fantasy, creativity, tenderness, humour and love". At the other extreme are his architectural works, which range from astounding one-offs such as the Asahi Beer Hall in Tokyo - a giant, right-angle-free black box surmounted by a gilded flame the size of a light aircraft - to the hotel interiors (most famously the Paramount and the Royalton in New York) he has designed for Ian Schrager, a canny entrepreneur who realised that designer chic could be used as a flypaper to attract the right kind of customer.

This week saw the latest of Starck's collaborations with Schrager, with the opening of the St Martin's Lane Hotel, carved out of the old Lumiere cinema and an undistinguished Seventies office block in London's West End. Starck's stamp is visible everywhere in the hotel, from the spotless white plastic upholstery in the sushi bar (he is passionate devotee of synthetic materials) to the bed-head lighting system in every room - a concealed glow which can be adjusted to any colour of the spectrum by rotating a circular switch.

The bathrooms contain his specially designed fittings - white porcelain sinks, as massy and primal as a sacrificial altar - and the pendant reading lights terminate in his own ruched lampshades. When you sit at the marble tables - underlit so that a variagated glow shines up from beneath the hotel stationery - it will be on one of Starck's trademark chairs that you rest.

But it is in the lobby that his particular brand of cultural collision and zany impurity is given most freedom. The rooms are made to soothe and cosset - the lobby is designed to excite. It is a place to see and be seen in. You enter through a revolving door some 20 feet high and made of fluorescent yellow glass into an area which is both cool and frenzied at the same time. The pale stone floor and largely white walls hold the space together: almost everything else contrives to blow it apart again. Facing you as you enter is a giant projection of a goldfish bowl, cast on to the etched glass doors of the hotel's Light Bar.

The seating in the lobby is eclectic to the point of surrealism - on one side a cluster of tribal log stools gathers round several giant wooden chess pieces. A little further back, a long banquette upholstered in gilt fabric is faced by a row of giant gold molars. Starck is fond of games of scale - in one corner an 8ft silver vase culminates in a vast froth of pink hydrangeas. Pashmina shawls lie draped over self-consciously antique rococo armchairs and, in the bar area, a forest of tiny tables - the surface not much bigger than a CD box - stand on long, worryingly slender legs.

The effect is at once faintly ridiculous and delightful - a snap-shot of fashionable late-Nineties pretension which is never solemn enough about itself to become disgusting; it's difficult not to read those pashminas as a knowing joke about the out and the in, and about the permanently rotating door that separates those two categories. The most consistent reaction is a kind of giggle of admiration for Starck's (and Schrager's) powers of self-indulgence, which, provided you can pay the price, will reliably envelope you too. The place sells itself as a display cabinet for beautiful people, and it works hard to make that category as democratic as is compatible with the necessary exclusivity - the bathrooms here are as flattering in their illumination as any in London.

Quite how this project squares with Starck's recent conversion to the cause of anti-consumerist reduction is a bit harder to see, but then, as the lobby tells you, consistency is not one of his most obvious virtues. This is a man who has committed himself to animal rights in his production methods, but one of whose best-selling products is a fly-swatter called Dr Skud, an elegant plastic moulding which uses the holes in the swat as pixels - so that the last thing the doomed fly will see is a ghostly "photograph" of a human face. Like Excalibur, Dr Skud goes too far - and that is the source of its pleasure and whatever mild insurrection it offers against the tyranny of 20th-century good taste.

"A good object," Starck has said, "renders its service with grace." It is a refreshingly humble alternative to "form follows function". Perhaps the reason for Starck's success is that the sub-text to his objects is never "you will fall into line" but rather "is there anything else I can do for you?"

Comments