The Allure of Commodity Chic

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When renowned architect Michael Graves was asked over lunch two years ago whether he might want to design a line of home products for a discount-store chain, he paused. Ron Johnson, who runs the home-decor division for Target, suggested Graves stroll one of the company's 800 or so stores and place a Post-it note on every product that needed improvement. Replied the man who recently designed the award-winning Denver Central Library: "I'm not sure there are enough Post-it notes in the world."

Graves, nevertheless, wasn't too stuck up to ink a deal with Target, for whom he has designed everything from funky spatulas ($3.99) to patio-furniture sets ($499). Not surprisingly, his Target toaster was a silver-place winner at this year's Industrial Design Excellence Awards.

Call it commodity chic. Marketers of watches and desk chairs, lawn sets and household tools are courting the world's top artists in a bid to make design a critical selling point. Like Graves, architect Philippe Starck is busy putting his mark of conceptual brilliance on a lineup of bathroom fixtures, from sinks to urinals, for the German company Duravit. And designer Marc Newson, 35, has done kitchen accessories for Italy's upscale Alessi, a bicycle for Denmark's Biomega, and the bar at Andre Balazs' new Standard Hotel in Los Angeles--in addition to a car for Ford.

To an extent, today's frenetic cross-fertilization in the industrial-design world is nothing new. As Graves points out, architects from Michelangelo to Frank Lloyd Wright have designed candlesticks as well as cathedrals. Never before, though, has there been such competition to define consumers' lifestyles. "There's a feeling out there that the aesthetic should be part of your life," says Tupperware head designer Morison Cousins.

In a cluttered marketplace, the pressure is on designers to divine what will entice consumers and to make it, from ice-cream scoops to condominiums. That process has become a business in itself for consultants like SHR Perceptual Management, whose clients, such as Ford, General Mills and Coca-Cola, want artistic help for their brands. "It's all about brand," says Mark Dziersk, president of the Industrial Designers Society of America. "It's attaching the personality to the product that's important."

Critics warn that the commercial connection will cheapen the artistic integrity of many designs. But the designers argue that the trend is much more important, that the opportunity to work in different disciplines helps develop talent and refine their artistic sense. And in any case, every commission presents an opportunity. One of Graves' most recent deals: to design a line of custom Cadillacs. They will not be sold at Target.

--By Frank Gibney. With reporting by Julie Rawe/New York