The Weasel: A new lavatory bowl leads to an acquaintance with the outer reaches of the design world, while the gift of a bottle of vodka raises doubts

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The Independent Culture
MRS WEASEL has fallen in love. Don't get alarmed. The object of her affection is inanimate. Porcelain, to be precise. After years of dithering over possible replacements for our decaying sanitary ware, she has finally plumped for a Philippe Starck lavatory bowl and, possibly, a bidet. (The mysterious nature of this item only deepens when you learn that the word means "small horse" in French.) Mrs W was seduced by the unfussy designs of the Gallic maestro. I was placated by the fact that the price of his new range is categorised as "moderate" by south London's leading supplier of lavvies to the gentry, but what won me over was the idiosyncratic nature of the Starck bathroom catalogue: "We dive in and let the water sprites revive our spirits. The odyssey is over. And still waters run deep."

Mrs W's decision will doubtless be the cherry on Starck's 50th birthday cake. In celebration of this momentous event, a retrospective of his eclectic work is currently taking place at Purves & Purves, the London design emporium. Items range from his Aprilia Moto 6.5 motorbike (pounds 4,000) to the Dr Kiss toothbrush (pounds 4) and Dr Cheese toothpick (pounds 12). The Abratoo cutlery set appears a bargain at pounds 21 until you realise that this price applies only to the plastic holder. The knives and forks etc will set you back another pounds 210. Mr Meumeu, a sculptural form with protruding horns like Desperate Dan's cow pie, turns out to be a pounds 34 cheese-grater.

You will, doubtless, be familiar with Starck's best-known work, a lemon juicer in the shape of a three-legged spacecraft (pounds 34). Though it is a striking piece of design, owners of the object say it is hopeless at its intended task. Last year, there was also a vogue for Dr Skud (pounds 5), a fly swat with a face on the business end. The tender-hearted Philippe explains: "To counteract the savagery of the blow, Dr Skud wears a delicate human face." I considered laying out pounds 22.50 on an Excalibur plastic toilet brush to complement Mrs W's new loo, but I experienced some difficulty in extracting this aptly named item from its tight-fitting holder. (Zillionaires may consider a stainless-steel bog brush from Starck, for pounds 170.)

I was also drawn to an object which, though not designed by his company, appears in Starck's mail-order catalogue. It is a protective respirator mask (pounds 150) plus filter (pounds 36.50). "Safety equipment often provokes a surprised reaction, not to mention doubts about mental health," declares le maitre. "To be safely equipped for any possible chemical, bacteriological or radioactive mishap is either a symptom of paranoia or shows an excessively pessimistic nature. Events of this type will unfortunately become routine occurrences." It sounds the perfect accessory for the Weasel thunder-box.

Notably absent from the exhibition is Starck himself. The swarthy genius refused point-blank to attend the opening. At the back of the showroom is a display of increasingly desperate invitations from Purves & Purves and shrugging responses from a Starck underling. "I do understand very well your disappointment. Do believe it is very unpleasant to feel like a gunman," says one. "It has been tough to make him think positively about this event," says another. Of course, anyone who has read the tome celebrating the man and his works, Starck (Taschen, pounds 24.99), will not be surprised by his non-appearance. Speaking in 1996, he asserted: "If [my] strategy of immateriality is successful, this implies my eventual disappearance... In precisely two years, I will halt my material activities." A man of his word, Philippe's latest product is a transparent plastic chair (pounds 95). Invisibility beckons.

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IT OFTEN seems that when you're looking forward to something, along comes some fragment of information that tends to dilute your anticipation. This happened the other day when a friend presented me with a bottle of vodka after visiting Russia. It was Stolichnaya, according to the Cyrillic label. But the seal had been broken and it was not the celebrated brand inside. "You've got a treat there," my chum, a medical man, intimated. "This is home-brew. What the Russians really drink."

So there I was, mentally licking my lips, when I came across a tiny news item which dramatically diminished my appetite: "Moscow: Every 22 minutes a Russian dies after drinking spirits of dubious origin, the Interior Ministry said, adding that in the first 11 months of last year, 21,778 people died from bad alcohol, compared with 23,983 for all of 1997." Worse still, the report added that these figures are suspiciously low. According to the Interior Ministry's own economic crimes department, the 1997 figure was nearly 43,000 deaths.

I was on the blower pronto, asking my friend about the provenance of his moonshine. Moscow, he replied, a touch narked. But where exactly? His reply was less than reassuring: "A place recommended by a Russian psychiatrist."

With the potentially poisoned chalice sitting untasted in our drinks cupboard, I pursued my researches into Russia's national grog. In The Vodka Companion, Desmond Begg writes: "It is estimated that the Russians still drink nearly 32 pints of vodka per capita a year, almost twice as much as Poland." This is almost three bottles a month for everyone, babies and babushkas included. With a population topping 140 million, Russia's annual consumption amounts to a staggering (for once the cliche is spot-on) 4,480 million pints, much of which must be illicit. The chances of our getting a killer bottle, while by no means impossible, were pretty remote. More reliable evidence came in the form of our doctor pal, who remained in rude good health after getting through his own stock.

There remained one final test: Mrs Weasel. I took some as well, of course. Not much more than a minute or two later, honest, I felt that our hooch had more characterful palate than orthodox vodka, not dissimilar to grappa. Mrs W was less fulsome: "Smells like a clinic." Still, it didn't put us into one.

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TALKING OF psychiatrists, did you hear Professor Lewis Wolpert giving some stick to one on Start the Week? Even Jeremy Paxman, no slouch at grouchiness himself, commented on the prof's volcanic ire. Another example of Wolpert's seething occurs in On Giants' Shoulders, Melvyn Bragg's fine book on the great names of science. What gets Lewis's goat is the one thing that everybody thinks they know about Archimedes (287BC-212BC): "It irritates me intensely. I prefer my heroes to be more dignified... He may have been thinking about it in the bath, but it was not because he saw the water go up. That is nonsense. Do not believe a word of it!" An account of the Greek sage a few pages earlier supports the prof's opinion: "According to myth, Archimedes did not spare the time to wash." No bath, no eureka. QED.

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