The Designer as a Brand : Holistic Design or Design Idol?
By Tobias Feltus
Compiled and written by Tobias Feltus
We all wanted it! At the age of two it didn't matter what it was, but shortly thereafter the importance of the brand name of what we wanted took great control of our lives. For those of us born in the late seventies and early eighties our branded needs were in the form of G.I. JOE, My Little Pony and the everlasting Barbie, and no, cheaper copies were not the same. Our desires shape our lives, and “as consumers, we are producers of meaning, because we make meaning with the goods we buy.”1 We live by the brand, and we look up to brands. Hollywood actors, Top of the Pops, Levi's jeans, Birds Eye frozen peas...
I am interested in the concept of a person as a brand, how it comes to
be, how it influences the artist/designer and his/her work, as well as
how it changes people's perception of the individual in question and relevant
work. I mention artists because artists reached this particular level
of self branding long before it became fashionable or possible for a designer
to do so. With great artists I often wonder whether, for example, a Picasso
painting would be a Picasso if it were not recognized and branded in that
way. With classical 'art', when it was still a means of illustration and
communication, one cannot deny the fact that the masters were masters
for reasons of great skill. The advent of industrialization and early
consumerism allowed impressionist movements and photography to create
a whole new breed of art, where technical skill is second to the name
of the creator. Art became a product of personal expression made for the
sake of art.
After looking at the significance of brands, I have approached this paper by questioning a couple of contemporary examples of both designers who are a brand, and companies that are designer and brand lead. Though I originally intended to find the key to designer-celebritydom and make conclusions, I found the material available inconclusive. My Aristotelean approach to the project has left me with a series of unanswered questions that I have had to address through critical opinion rather than scientific proof. I have chosen to not make any assumptions or conclusions about the ethical duties of a designer in society, as I believe that to be a personal opinion, though most people will probably agree that public figures are role models, and hence should educate consumers in a sound manner, and produce eco-friendly products... and that sweat-shop production is inhumane. These are issues that too big to discuss here and could fill another research document on their own.
The contemporary meaning of the term 'brand' is relatively new; to explain the meaning of the term one must distinguish a commodity from a brand: for example “flour is a commodity, beer is a commodity. A plane journey is a commodity. To understand what a brand is we must juxtapose Coca-Cola (a brand) against a carbonated-caffeinated beverage (a commodity).”2 The concept of branding, apart from branding livestock to identify ownership, was unheard of, and had no purpose until well into the early industrial period (I must point out that I am writing on a commercial level, as past centuries have seen many strong images that would qualify as brands in an almost contemporary sense; these being family names, crests and flags. Their meaning was not that different, though now the consumer is given the choice of which political leader to follow, what soda pop to drink and crest to wear). A brand is pointless unless it is labelling a product that has to compete against a similar product, or is available in more than one commercial area. Before this occurred consumers were more likely to identify goods with the retailer, rather than the manufacturer. Industrially packaged foods such as grains and canned vegetables were the first commercial products to discover the need for branding to compete on the shelf with other products; before then a grocer would only have stocked one type of oatmeal, probably from a local farmer, so that farmer had no need to label his produce as he had no competition in that environment.
Some of the earliest international brands are Coca-Cola and Levi's: both became symbols of the mythologized American individual and freedom which are ideals that have been exploited over and over by brands' publicity campaigns, thus mythologising brand image as well. The manner in which consumers mythologise a brand's identity is priceless to brands such as Coca-Cola, Levi's, Gillette, Kellogg's, Kodak, Campbell's and Singer, all of which were internationally established brands by 1925 and are, for the most part, stereotypically infallible. If you were to ask anyone today to name one company that makes breakfast cereal, photographic film or sewing machines, these names would be pronounced. In some cases a brand's identity becomes stronger than its products, meaning that people lose the capacity to describe a product with out using a brand name, even if the specific product in question is manufactured by a different company; for example many people refer to paper tissues as Kleenexes or vacuum cleaners as Hoovers.
In the 1930s the supermarket became one of the main locations for engagement with brands, as brands and their products sat on shelves competing with their slogans and labels. From then on many forms of media have helped reinforce the population's knowledge of brands from magazines, to radio and television, and more recently the internet, the first remote propaganda and information arena that lets you learn, fall in love, purchase and leave feedback and comments on your favourite brand, all from the comfort of your home.
Branding used to be a matter of trial and error, which then became a formula based on history and past memories of users / consumers. Branding has now been theorized and developed into an industry in its own right. There are still design companies that deal with creating logos and corporate identities, however there are also branding agencies, and now public branding television programs. Branding agencies have helped people create their brand identity from as early as The Beatles in the 60's, and since have worked on all fronts from performers and TV presenters to multinational companies. By studying consumer psychology and current trends and markets, branding agencies can create an image that taps into people's desires and previously acquired knowledge and preconceptions to make a brand more comfortable and of more immediate success. British television channel ITV's Pop Idol is possibly the most interesting public branding experiment, as it takes a group of people with little potential and gives them their skills, brand image and history all at once, on live television.i
It is, therefore, clear that brands have a very important social meaning, but no particular material significance, apart from their socio-commercial value. Brands are Gods in commerce. Brands have the same mythological meaning and aspirations that God has provided in the past, and the fact that you can buy branded products makes the Godlike power of brands greater and more tangible than any religion. Brands express taste, opinions that are accepted as a given that cannot be criticized. Brands are accepted as fact. Therefore the position in which a designer/brand finds himself is very powerful in that he can express taste and it will be accepted as right and good. This is one of my greatest aspirations; I want to be able to express incontestable taste, and make a living off of it.
chapter two: who is a designer brand?
In contemporary product and furniture design two designers stand out as being the big boys. They have both made their trademark designs, their brand is known by their name, they have made their Alessi products, and have their books. And they both want to make the world a better place, though unlike Michael Jackson who gives a lot of money to help children in need (forgetting possible views on his motivation), they intend to do this by providing consumers with better quality, better designed and more beautiful design; in other words, more wedding gift products. Meet Philippe Starck and Karim Rashid.
Philippe Starck spent his childhood dismantling, cutting, gluing, sanding and reassembling. He spent many of his early years taking apart and putting back together whatever came to hand, remaking and absorbing the whole world around him. Starck's creativity started with what most people consider to be normal teenage relationship problems, spending a lot of time wondering why he must exist. He found a solution to his issues after his father told him that the only 'clean' work is to find an idea for yourself, and do it so that you don't take someone else's work.3 The image of The Invisible Man, being visible only when wrapped in bandages, inspired young Philippe to create a world to surround himself so that others would not see him, but rather what he is. Now Starck's approach to design is very critical of the design industry and its role in society. He doesn't regard himself as a great designer: “I just try to merit existing, which is, I think, enough.”4 Starck claims to differentiate himself by being a citizen, rather than a consumer and says that the word design is void of meaning. There are those who believe design to mean making things more beautiful, but he believes it to be more complicated than that: “it is a semiological task which makes use of a didactic tool in order to try to improve people's lives and, as a result, the quality of their thoughts. That is extremely pretentious, but if it were otherwise, there would be no point in doing it.”5 He now has the power to contribute incontestable taste, and gets commissioned to change environments and aesthetics from palaces, museums to airports and even waste recycling plants. “He considers it his duty to share with us his subversive vision of a better world which is his alone and yet which fits up like a glove”6
Observing that the world already has many chairs, lamps and toothbrushes that fulfill their job efficiently, Starck observes that the role of his profession “is to act as the cleaning-lady for people's subconscious and as the teacher who instructs them about the signs which are emitted by everything that surrounds them.”7 He states that those who design purely with the intention of beautifying to increase sales are mercenaries. The Juicy Salif citrus squeezer is a prime example of his contradictions, and in a similar example Virginia Postrel comments: “If the local drugstore sells a perfectly functional Rubbermaid toilet brush for $5, why would anyone pay $32 for designer Philippe Starck's Excalibur brush [...] ? Is it because an expensive toilet brush confers (and conveys) status, signaling to our neighbors that we're their equals or betters?”8
In communication with Nicolas Minvielle, Starck's brand director, I was told that his brand identity is purely an exercise of trying to carry on with his design philosophy and making sure that he remains faithful to that and 100% quality. The brand is Starck, and Philippe is Starck.9 On asking what differentiates him from other designers Nicolas answered that “He is just a hard worker. He works day and night and is amazing to convince people that his vision is the right one.”10 In this Nicolas is practically saying that his celebrity status was not intentional or particularly desired, but rather a direct consequence of the quality of his designs, which are, in my opinion, mass produced sculptures with a hint of functionality. As with the toilet brush, Starck has designed toothbrushes that you would keep on a shelf rather than use, chairs that you can't avoid scratching unless you are stark naked and a lemon squeezer that deposits more juice on your hand and counter top than the glass intended for the purpose.
“I find I am most inspired and most satisfied by accomplishing something, by creating some original thought or idea, and by having an impact on culture. I want to change the world. That may sound arrogant, but I only want to be one of many to create an eclectic farrago of lifestyles.”11ii Rashid's work has a very strong aesthetic that is characterized by organic forms, that could be called blobs, though he defines his work as Sensual Minimalism, or Sensualism. In the same way that he feels inspired by nature and the surrounding world he wishes that his work will do the same, and encourage positive experiences. At the same time he endeavours to make products more accessible in an attempt to make design more democratic, and says “I believe that every new object should replace three. Better objects edit the marketplace.”12 He is very much concerned with the idea of making the world a better place, trying to design things that elevate our lives when we experience them, have less of an impact on the environment, clean out the marketplace; he calls it Holistic Design, which, in my understanding, makes him a kind of designer-warrior of wellbeing. He continues “My work is the study of alternatives and possibilities of commodity that interface society. As a designer I am an 'artist of real issues' of everyday life, who meditates between industry and the user, between self-expression and desire.”13
Rashid claims to distinguish himself from other designers by having this strong altruistic desire to change the world. A statement that initially sounds very egoistic, but soon turns itself around to become this desire to clean up the world, make it more eco-friendly, loving and stimulating, yet I can't refrain from remembering that he is considered the “prince of plastic”14, and observing that most of his (accordingly) eco-friendly products are made of virgin plastic. In any case, what he claims distinguishes himself from other designers is borderline identical to what Starck claims to make him unique.
Both Rashid and Starck want to change the world. Oddly they seem to both
want the same things, and they plan to do so in similar ways. Their rationales
or manifestos of existence seem remarkably similar, and I believe that
the result of their efforts is equally arguably unsuccessful. The fact
that Starck's brand manager told me that Starck does not consider himself
a brand (and yet one purchases a Starck product because of its little
autograph which is indicative of the brand), highlights the fact that
his apparent brand image is not entirely honest, and raises doubt about
the validity of his philosophy and world changing intentions. Similarly
the I.D. Magazine article on Rashid's new product line for COPCO criticises
the design of the kettles, corkscrew and other products for their poor
design or celebrity-status driven design over function. In the article
Tony Whitfield observes that “In almost every case, the products
in the COPCO collection are distinguished by problematic utility and the
insistent pronouncement of Rashid's post-Go Go modernism.”15
chapter three: what is a designer led brand?
Though many designers rely on the odd commission, it is hard for someone to reach brand status doing commissions for another brand. Ideally a designer, like myself, would prefer to take advantage of certain companies that rely on the signature of a designer to sell their products, such as Alessi. These brands need to cultivate the celebrity-designer image to sell their products, thus aiding the designer to reach his celebrity status. Some other companies create a designer image out of their brand to obtain the same celebrity-designer status without having the actual figure-head designer giving his name to the label. These brands create the same mystique and elitist quality of a single designer through brand eccentricity and quality. This realm is particularly common in the fashion industry since it has been dominated by single names lead by a team rather than an individual for many years. I have chosen Diesel as an example; although there are also appliance brands such as Bang & Olufsen whose own products are almost celebrities, Diesel's whole approach to its branding and design has been particularly fresh and controversial for more than ten years.
Alessi is a company whose entire kingdom is based on its products that signify both Alessi and the designer on par. Alessi was founded in 1921 by Giovanni Alessi in northern Italy, out of a tradition of German trained pewter-smiths and first appeared at the Milanese trade fairs as a Workshop for the working of brass and nickel silver plates, with foundry, in the twenties. In 1979 Alessandro Mendini wrote that “until the thirties developments within the company took the form of an analytical building of standard objects. The catalogues (the earliest of which dates to 1925) mark the start of an autonomous activity, showing a dense succession of crafted articles for coffee and tea, for the table, bars and kitchens, corresponding to a highly polite and archaic way of eating.”16 Alessi started to bring in external designers, the beginning of the empire that we know today, in 1955 with designers such as Anselmo Vitale, Carlo Mazzeri and Luigi Massoni. The current Director, Alberto Alessi, joined the company in 1970; his first instinct was to create his “own brand of Cultural-theoretic manifesto championing a new commercial civilization offering the consuming masses veritable artistic items at low prices.”17 To accomplish this he brought the likes of Franco Sergiani, Gio' Pomodoro and Ettore Sottsass to Alessi producing a series of products that are now considered iconic.
To maintain their diversity in the marketplace Alberto has to establish
standards that the designers must meet to work with him. In describing
these standards Alberto writes that a designer “must have the wish
and also the capacity to 'transgress the rules' that we industrial partners
place in front of him. [...] Because only by doing so can he guarantee
me that after long hard teamwork with my collaborators will he give life
to new generations of products that are not just tired repetitions of
existing ones [...].
Unlike the designers themselves who have made their claims about what they have to offer to society, and seem to fail, I believe that Alessi's similar desires and intentions are more successful, as they invented what Starck and Rashid claim to do, and sell their very products. Since Alessi only makes claims to change the market that they reside in, their aspirations are much more realistic and successful. Starck is responsible for the Juicy Salif's lack of functionality as a lemon squeezer, however it is Alessi that is proudly in charge of the success and marketing of the silly object.
“We do what we like, what makes us smile. We never do things just
because we're supposed to do them.”19 Founded in 1978 as a new brand
of casual menswear, Diesel was taken over completely by its current director
Renzo Rosso in 1985. The company's origin was that of trying to compete
with the American dream, or copy that dream, but when Rosso assumed complete
control of the company he hired in some open minded designers and encouraged
them to ignore current movements. “I promised everyone in the studio
that I would manufacture only what proved to be most innovative and fresh
- not the safest or most easily sold - designs we came up with.”20
The approach was new and Rosso said that “fortunately for us, nearly
everyone found our methods to be too unrealistic to duplicate.”21
They remedied the difficulty of staying on top of changing trends by taking
advantage of the fact that they were geographically detached from the
design capitals, and thus less influenced by the trends that excited everyone
else. Inspiration is brought in from external sources by each designer
who receives funding for at least two 'research expeditions' per year
to anywhere they may want to go in the world. The result is that the designers
come back with a collection of material from photographs to clothes to
music; everything is mixed up on the floor then gathered up to create
the source material for the new season.
From the critical customer's point of view these companies are probably more dishonest than the celebrity-designers, though in fact they are more true to themselves and their ethics. They are not making any false claims that they are not in business to make money, and they still take risks about what they decide to put on the market. I never thought I'd see myself writing that the manufacturer is more ethically sound than the designer, as it is self critical, however it appears more honest to sell an Item, as is, and not boast that it will change the world the way that the designers wish us to believe.
chapter four: what I am all about
As I already hinted, what I aspire to is a form of fame, or global respect, meaning that I wish to be understood, or simply accepted by many people, allowing me to express taste as law. Now it is my turn: this may sound a little pretentious, but I do wish to be able to express opinions as truth that is simply accepted as that. The path to building this publicly accepted image is through branding, and I am confident that economic stability and the more common aspirations will follow my desires, so I don't feel the need to put money as a first priority for my career. One thing, well possibly the only thing that is consistent in the comparison of celebrity-designer's aspirations and philosophies compared to their work, is the fact that they have high aspirations, where as many non-celebrity designers seem to not wish to have anything more than their 9-5 job designing, for example, contract interiors. I see the professional world as being divided in two main groups: those who do a job because they are passionate about it, and those who work to pay the bills. Though the end result is theoretically one, I have found many people, designers, journalists, photographers, IT consultants etc. who work during normal office hours to make a living, and regularly complain about their work and how they dislike it.26 On the other hand I have known many others, artists, designers, writers, photographers, and computer programmers alike who are passionate about what they do and love their work. I am not criticizing people who work normal office hours, though I do consider people who are passionate about their work to be more honest to themselves as they are listening to their passions. The 9-5 workers who vehemently dislike their job are much less honest with their desires and aspirations. They often have hobbies to fulfill their fantasies, or will watch excessive amounts of television or drown their sorrows in alcohol and other mind dulling drugs in an attempt to balance the issue, or simply forget about it.27
This is not a cynical exercise. It is a guide which will help you navigate
the strange world of design. It will help you achieve what you deserve
only if you believe in yourself. Don't fake it.
This is how Fat propose to become a famous architect in their how to become a famous architect. As far as I understand it, their how-to is an example of the approach that they took in creating their brand image and status back in the mid nineties. Their approach to fame is a phoney academic exercise that catches the media's attention with flying colours of dishonest products that haven't yet been created. Is the path to success through dishonesty, or rather omission of truth? Based on my experience with simpler issues in personal relationships, I would say that transparency and honesty are of fundamental importance, and I fail to see why this would not be true to the same degree when you are communicating, in any medium, with any number of people (not to mention the fact that Rosso said the same thing, above). However Fat proposes a dishonest path to fame, and our examples of celebrity designers don't seem to be consistently truthful with their statements about their work either.
In the art world and the music industry career paths are very clear cut.
You can't make a living as a 'D list' painter or an underground musician
without holding other jobs. You either are 'it' or you aren't. In design,
however, there seem to be two very different approaches to being a designer,
and no, these aren't as simple as good, bad and ugly. Most designers are
normal people who want a job, and are perfectly happy to have theirs be
creative, yet still be a way of earning a living, working during normal
office hours. Yes it does seem strange to me, but most people are perfectly
happy with this. Their aspirations may be to get promoted in their company
and earn more money, however I just can't get my head around the fact
that if I am to earn money I would like to do it 'properly' and be famous
as well, so that everyone knows that I am a designer, what I do, and that
I'm making a bit of money out of what I am passionate about. Yes, that
is the other category of designers. The ones who have higher aspirations,
are willing to take risks, and are willing to expose more of themselves
to reach their goals.
In conclusion I must infer, dear reader, that what you have just read has stimulated some thought, possibly made you more aware of some aspects of your work, or that of your friends and idols, but has not, in any way, given you a conclusion. As with most questions in life I believe that conclusions must be made on our own. This is still work in progress for me, so I am pleased that It remains such for you as well. I hope that by presenting you these thoughts and observations I have provided you with something new and prolific. At present the only conclusion that I have drawn out of this study is that honesty, both with myself and my clients and friends, is imperative. This is something that Rashid and Starck have left as a secondary priorities after the strength of their brand, which they appear to have built on unstable ground of false claims and superficial solutions to moral issues.
6. Supermarket brand competition.
9. Philippe Starck.
11. Toilet brush, Excalibur (1996) by Starck for Heller, Merdolino (1993) by Giovannoni for Alessi
Juicy Salif, Starck for Alessi, 1991.
12. Mutablob (2002) and Karim Rashid.
14. Rashid homewares for COPCO, 2003.
16. Bang & Olufsen Beolab and Beovision, Magic Bunny (1998) by Giovannoni for Alessi, Diesel, Fat People (1994).
18. Diesel: How to Smoke 145 a Day (1993), Birth of the Modern Conference, Yalta, 1945 (1997), Diesel, Antique Dirty Denim (1998).
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