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Design for Life

What makes good design? Don’t expect this French pseud to tell you

In the BBC's new reality show Design for Life, groovy young Britons will compete for the chance to work for the French designer Philippe Starck. In part one (14 September, 9pm), our groovy young Britons took the Eurostar to Paris and prepared themselves for ritual humiliation. Starck described himself (ooh la la!) as a "human bottle opener". This is not the term I would use.

I hate Starck's "ironic" little creations; they seem to me to disregard entirely the essential principle of good design, which is the loving marriage of form and function. No cook would want to own his rocket-shaped lemon squeezer, and no one with any taste his gun-shaped lamp base. His "ghost" chairs are uncomfortable, and only ever to be found in the homes of serious pseuds. As for the hotels he designs, all I can say is that I have wide experience of these establishments, and they are to be avoided at all costs unless you happen to travel with a miner's lamp. I once lost a suitcase in the gloom of a Starck interior. By the time I found it, and was thus able to get dressed and leave the hotel, the weekend was over and it was time to check out.

Needless to say, the man behind all these rubbish ideas - the "mind", he would say - is an egomaniac and a fluent speaker of gobbledegook. "I shall open ze zeep of myself and say: 'Take what you want!'" he told us. Then he treated us to a short lecture on English design. It doesn't exist, apparently - and Lucienne and Robin Day, among many others, should just shut up and stop yelping. (Not that he mentioned either one of them.

In Starck World, the only people who exist are Starck himself, his "tribe", which is what he calls his employees, and his soignée fourth wife, Jasmine.) The good news, though, is that, with his help, it is perfectly possible that one of the groovy young Brits will "create" a new English style. I wanted to believe this, because the 12 contenders in the competition seemed, with only a couple of exceptions, to be rather nice.

But then we saw the work they'd submitted to Starck in order to progress thus far. The signs were not good. I liked the "bungee rope kitchen storage system", though if you were to instal such a thing, your crockery would be smashed within about, oh, two days. I was less impressed with the girl who had designed a shoe that changes colour. How does this work? I have no idea. She had merely drawn two shoes: one was red and the other was, er, blue.

By the end of the episode, two GYBs had been sent home for failing to grasp Starck's crazy mindset. The first was a young show-off from Dundee University called Lachlan. Good. Now he can go back to boring his mates in the union bar. The other was a moderately podgy Sloane called James. It was obvious to me that he would go. I mean, he hadn't even bothered to pull on a black polo neck by way of a disguise. Starck was never going to fall for him.

Of the remaining ten, I am already being driven half-demented by a self-declared genius called Nebil. Despatched by Starck to a Paris hypermarket in search of a "male" product and a "female" one, Nebil returned to base proudly clutching a joystick and a multi-plug extension lead. The joystick, he told an enthralled Starck, was distinctly phallic. Fair enough. But then he started wittering on about how each of the sockets in his extension lead represented a different side of the female: her intellect, her emotions, and so on. Dear me: what twaddle. Naturally, Starck loved it, and duly promoted Nebil to the top of the class.

Will I stick with this show? I think I just might. It's not that I seriously expect to learn anything about design. But it is quite fun sitting at home (in a dreamworld, one would, of course, be reclining in one's Eames recliner) and pointing out that the silly man with the 'Allo 'Allo accent isn't, in fact, wearing any clothes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Citizen Ken