The designer as celebrity (Gareth Williams)
Jane Pavitt: Thank you for a provocative start. Our second speaker this evening is Gareth Williams. Gareth is curator in the department of Furniture, Textiles and Fashion at the V& A; specialises in 20th-century and contemporary design; author-curator of a number of [unclear] putting shows on contemporary design, the next of which is going to be a show exploring the role of narrative in design, which is at the V& A 2009. Now, Gareth’s provocative position is rather different from Jeremy. So Gareth’s going to be talking about the rise of the designer as celebrity.
Gareth Williams: Well, perhaps I should leave the question mark up there, since I don’t have any visuals at all, and I’m not quite as organized as Jeremy and I think I’ve been given the subject as The Designer as Celebrity to speak about, and I must admit I feel rather ambivalent about it. And the more I’ve been thinking about it, the more complicit I find myself in it, in the system, but I’ve got a few thoughts about it.
And I would suggest that, probably as a reaction to the kind of system that Jeremy’s described to us, of designers getting somewhat lost in this matrix of, you know, are they working for the consumer or are they designing for themselves, for a manufacturer, for the market? Where do they exist? One way forward for some designers is to make themselves into a brand name; to make themselves into a celebrity, and this very room we’re all standing in, and the institution that we’re standing in, is very responsible for that, as design education is, in part, promoting and teaching designers to be celebrities: designers to be famous, I would argue. And museums, like the one that I work for, and the collections that we form, are bolstering that kind of idea of what a designer can be, as well.
And why should this come about, really? Well, I think that designers now, certain sort of designers, and we’re talking about designers of things with attitude: those things that [unclear] or things with that appeal, things with [unclear], things with attitude, so their very particular area of design is about signature objects which Jeremy has already referred to and signature style pieces, and it got me thinking, well, why would designers choose to go down this path? Well, I think it’s because there’s a vacuum left by contemporary art, perhaps, to produce works which are provocative in their own right, or which are meaningful and have an interest to significance in culture. Maybe it’s not a vacuum from contemporary art, maybe it’s actually the shape of enormity of contemporary art and the money that’s swimming around in contemporary art, that leads designers to think ah, maybe we can get a slice of this. Perhaps that’s part of it, and I’ll perhaps come back to that. But I think actually it’s a broader, cultural position that leads designers to brand themselves as brands. And what do I mean by that? Well, I mean that designers - and they’re taught in design schools - to produce a signature style, a particular way of working, something which represents their, their modus operandi, and perhaps even a particular visual style for themselves - perhaps they wear a silly felt hat [laughter] I don’t know. [Laughter]. Perhaps they’re known for wearing a certain colour.
Designers, successful designers of the sort I’m talking about, brand themselves and create a kind of set of values around themselves which is what they sell to the people that employ them. And what they’re selling is a brand value. I suppose a designer may be selling a certain kind of quality, or they may be selling a certain kind of danger, or they may be selling a certain kind of sexiness - which is what the consumers, and ultimately we are all the consumers, but in the first place it’s the manufacturers who they are seeking is the first point - those are the brand values which they’re looking to pick up.
So, designers like Tord Boontje is a great example of someone who has a fantastically eloquent, personal style, which he can then roll out across a whole multitude of different forms, media, etc, etc, and his [white?] copy, that comes later, work very deliberately to create that style, create that Tord/Tordique brand through his personal work and his personal products and projects, none of which were really viable products for the mass marketplace and weren’t intended to be, but signalled an intent.
The next thing a designer needs to go is get the kind of heavyweight manufacturers, the elite manufacturers, on their side, and in the furniture area, which is my area, that would mean getting yourself an Italian, and making sure that you’ve got Campolini, or B& B, or Marosa, on your client list, which is exactly what many of these designers that I’m talking about may do. And only then can you actually start making some money. Because of course this, at the end of the day, is what it’s all about: designers need to live, I think, and, and they’re attracted by celebrity culture, like we all are, which is a possible lucrative way of living, so Italian manufacturers aren’t going to earn you a whole lot of money, I don’t think, but Target from the US might. So you can only go mass market once you’ve gone elite, and been paid; condoned by the elite market. Perhaps get a few pieces in a few museum collections along the way. That helps, doesn’t it?
Now, Alice Rawsthorn has talked about mediagenic designers. And, and I’ve elsewhere talked about ego, the ego system. I think we’re really talking the same thing. It’s a kind of coterie of design, which is inhabited by these branded designers who get all… apparently get all the best jobs, who are the style leaders. But it worries me; it worries me very deeply that this is design in the service of public relations ultimately. I was in Paris a week or so ago, for a huge event by Swarovsky, with 100 designers, both in products and fashion, all contributing gorgeous, beautiful things to a fantastic exhibition of gorgeous, beautiful things to do with… well, obviously to do with Swarovsky crystal. And you think, well, this is fantastic: it’s marvellous that all these designers are getting promoted; they’re getting backed; they’re getting paid for this work. So ' and?' you feel. You know, where is this taking us? Where is this contributing to broader cultural society? It’s, it’s all about the cult of the label and the brand and the co-brand: in this instance, between Swarovsky – a wonderfully supported company, I must say, for designers – and all this raft of 100 designers.
More recently still, I was at a talk with Marc Newson – I don’t know if any of you were there at the V& A on Friday – and there we had the mediagenic designer. This was the designer that Alice Rawsthorn was referring to as the ultimate mediagenic designer; the celebrity poster boy of design, if you like. There is a man who has succeeded in every realm, you would’ve thought, as a designer, and he was talking about his dream project, he could do anything. He’s done the concept car; I’m very interested in, we were talking about how many people it takes to design a car; well, according to the Marc Newson methodology it takes one person, Marc Newson, to design the forward concept car.
Jeremy Myerson: How many people were driving around in them?
Gareth Williams: Well, quite, you know, so, this, that’s design in the sense of PR, unfortunately. Mark’s dream project is a rocket to take space tourists into orbit. I mean, it’s fantastic, amazing, startling, innovative. And I, kind of, thought, how disappointing, really, that that’s where this trajectory may lead; a celebrity design idea.
And, finally, the last point I’d make is that the celebrity design idea obviously and inevitably leads to the idea of design art, where collectivity and uniqueness meet in the gallery space and where desirability of the branded designer meets the inquisitive nature of the great collector. And, so, therefore, we see a rash of these days of carrara marble versions of production furniture, which, of course, is a very weird concept to me but, somehow feeding from all these different areas of design to bolster the idea of the celebrity designer. That’s rather a muddled, kind of, exposition and I’m clearly right to keep that question mark up on the screen but I hope that gives some kind of provocative thought about this.