Post-modern design captures our cultural moment's yearning for unique and inspiring objects, even if they are of little use. The French master pours it all into his legendarily inefficient lemon juice squeezer.
BUENOS AIRES — Juicy Salif is a lemon squeezer made of polished aluminum, standing 29 centimeters high, and designed in the 1990s by France's Philippe Starck. It is also totally useless.
Proof of its functional failure is that the Italian firm Alessi produced a limited, gold-plated edition that would be irredeemably spoiled if anyone thought of squeezing lemon on it. Starck himself said his design wasn't meant to yield juice, but conversations.
Like so many creations by the famed designer, Juicy Salif has become an iconic piece in the world of contemporary design and earned itself a place in the New York Museum of Modern Art. It is in the slightly fuzzy category of design that borders on high art.
Starck's art is to catch the changing spirit of our time.
The very uselessness of the juicer has made the object one of the great victories known to design of form over function, destroying the cultural paradigm of a heroic generation of Modernists' belief of "form follows function." It also became a symbol of the individualist, charismatic creator loved by triumphant neoliberalism in the 1990s.
Starck himself feeds the myth of the marvelously unpredictable designer when he says he designed Juicy Salif just as he was about to squeeze lemon over fried calamari he was going to eat for lunch. It is the type of anecdote that helps give his products and byproducts a mythical quality. Twenty years after that lunch on the Amalfi coast, his napkin stained with oil and lemon, and sketches of calamari and spiders are on display in the Alessi Museum.
The 1980s brought the first crack in the sacred (and modern) relationship between form and function. At the invitation of firms like Alessi or Swid Powell in the United States, architects Michael Graves, Stanley Tigerman and Hans Hollein left their post-modern architectural work to create accessories for the home. Meanwhile, designers like Ettore Sottsass and his Austrian colleague Matteo Thun became famous names in industrial design, superseding the popular memory of giants of modernism like Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer.
Michael Graves has created one of the most popular post-modernist items, the whistling bird tea kettle, which sells more than 100,000 units a year and is considered a design landmark. Graves wanted to create a pop item with a historical reference: The kettle's spout has a bird that "sings' when the water has boiled, while the kettle itself evokes 19th-century U.S. tea and coffee services.
His creations are objects of desire.
Memory and historical references are elementary in giving objects an emotional edge. Since then, two types of design models have flourished. One is of the talented, star designer able to understand and connect empathically with the user; and the other, of the professional design team and engineering work ready to explore that connection from a more scientific standpoint.
Starck is in the first group, and feeds it with his legend. The other category includes teams like the one led by Hartmut Esslinger, Apple's hidden designer and founder of Frog Design. To create a forceful idea, the firm coined its own design mantra: that form follows emotion. If until the 1980s, design meant creating a thing or object, Frog teams worked from the different perspective of creating an experience and forging an emotional relationship between the object and its user.
That was also Starck's path, though he walks it intuitively. Certainly, his creations communicate with people at the emotional level: They are objects of desire. His art aims to catch the changing spirit of our time, which hovers between the ephemeral and superficial but yearns for transcendence.
Juicy Salif states this in simple and often ironic terms. It is the lemon squeezer that can't squeeze lemons, but that you'd choose over the latest most efficient juicer.