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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 1, 2006

Designers' agendas not always shared by customers

By Linda Hales
Washington Post

French designer Philippe Starck calls his anti-war gun lamps a sign of the times. But not all the buyers are anti-war, and not all see the lamps as a protest.


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Designers are in an explosive mood. Surplus hand grenades are turning up as candle lamps, in basic military metal or plated with silver or gold.

"Grenades are such interesting-looking shapes," says New York designer Piet Houtenbos, "but all they are designed to do is blow up in a million pieces."

Toy soldiers are being melted and reshaped into plastic "War Bowls" (The lamps cost $40 to $60, the bowls close to $300). London designer Dominic Wilcox has brought winners and losers from Waterloo together at last in his oven, along with a few ninjas and knights.

"Some say it conjures up memories of playing toy soldiers as a child," Wilcox reported by e-mail. "Some see a representation of the horrors of war. There is no right answer."

Such objects are for sale, for dozens of dollars or hundreds. But generating mass-market consumption is not the point. At the cutting edge, product designers are acting like artists. Their best works are generating emotional charges far beyond traditional notions of function. Insiders talk up the movement as an overdue crossover between industrial design and fine art. Some call the remix DesignArt.

Murray Moss, a New York retailer who serves on the board of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, says there hasn't been a period of such fertile creativity since pre-World War I Vienna. That's when radical expressionist artists shattered established notions of beauty and designers revolutionized their field, too.

"Designers have agendas," says Moss. "Sometimes these come to the surface more than other times. It bursts forth. This is one of those times."

No designer is more representative of the 2005 zeitgeist than Philippe Starck. The Frenchman best known for boutique hotels and lemon juicers produced a collection of gilded Gun Lamps cast from modified AK-47s and Berettas. The design world was shocked when the Flos lighting company unveiled them in April in Milan at prices from $995 to $1,995. But Starck countered that his collection was "nothing but a sign of the times. We get the symbols we deserve." By May, Moss had brought a signed, limited edition of Starck lamps to his SoHo store for an exhibition of "Domestic Violence."

"Our domestic reality is not divorced from our other realities," Moss said last week. "You know what? It is Christmas, and a fruit bowl is nice, but there's a war going on."

Designers of objects and buildings are often presented as problem solvers who feed into conspicuous consumption. But intellectual bomb-throwers have been ascendant all year. The Museum of Modern Art's exhibition of emergency gear, "Safe: Design Takes on Risk," struck a helpful note. But safer strollers were overshadowed by the specter of Armageddon. Curator Paola Antonelli wrapped the catalog with an image of razor wire.

The publishing world contributed Deyan Sudjic's dark tome "Edifice Complex," which focuses on the egomaniacal cityscapes envisioned by the likes of Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler. It demonstrates the power of absolute leaders to corrupt the built environment absolutely.

Angst comes more naturally to graphic artists than industrial designers or architects. Thus cafepress.com, a site that lets people design their own T-shirts and mugs, has come up with 3,374 designs inspired by the response to Hurricane Katrina. One wicked theme takes off from the "Got Milk" series to ask, "Got Mold?" Another snaps, "Yo George. You're in the wrong Gulf."

Milton Glaser and Mirko Ilic had no trouble compiling hundreds of protest posters for the powerful picture book "Design of Dissent." One of the best examples tweaks the ubiquitous iPod ad into a commentary on torture at Abu Ghraib. Instead of music lovers linked to their earbuds, the "iRaq" poster offers a hooded prisoner attached to white electrodes.

The book attributes the poster to "Copper Greene" of New York, and it can be viewed at CopperGreene.org. The name is an alias, according to a man who answered a call to a number provided by Ilic. The poster was designed by a "collective" whose members preferred to remain anonymous, the man said. The alias was inspired by a New Yorker magazine expose in which Seymour Hersh described "Copper Green" as a code for a Pentagon program to abuse prisoners in Iraq.

In what appears to be a bizarre coincidence, two designers in Los Angeles designed a nearly identical poster. They call themselves Forkscrew Graphics, but declined to give their name over the phone. They donated their iRaq poster and several spinoffs to the Center for the Study of Political Graphics, which exhibited and briefly sold them.

DesignArt is not yet a sure thing.

Last month, Moss reported selling "100 percent," or "a quarter of a million dollars worth" of Starck's 18-karat-gold-plated assault weapons with black lampshades. The retailer didn't sound happy. Starck was trying to make an unabashed anti-war statement, so it bothered Moss greatly when customers decided to purchase the lamps for the room of a child who likes guns.

"Starck is a political person. This is a moment when his personal politics, his rage came to the surface," Moss says. "Did he get his message across? No."