Cheese royale

Where's the shame in liking "The Cable Guy"? It's my devotion to fluffy French designers that I'm embarrassed about.

Sarah Vowell
June 16, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Guilty pleasures in the USA? No such thing. Why should anyone,
especially any American, waste a single pang of regret on affection for pop
treats? On liking something? I will proudly, publicly own up to the fact
that I own the Hanson Christmas album, revere Alec Baldwin and will see any
movie Steven Spielberg decides to make (except "Amistad," which looked like a
drag). I do, however, have one nagging little weakness, one shameful secret:
My guilty pleasures are all pretentious. Eyes downcast, I slither to the
cash register with the American Scholar as if it were pornography; I never
miss a single pompous episode of "Inside the Actors Studio"; and -- how
embarrassing! -- I have a thing for French designer Philippe Starck.

There is a kind of patriotic pleasure in yelling from the rooftops that you
think "The Cable Guy" got a bad rap. But it is indefensible to stick up for
a person, a French person, who calls his style "subverchic" (suberversive +
chic, get it?) and subtitled his product line "The Catalog of Non-Products
for the Non-Consumer for the Next Moral Market." I can't help it. First of
all, I think his smiley-face kitchen spatula is -- well, I think it's cute. I
also enjoy that pokey, kooky metallic horn shape he sticks on everything from
lamps and the 1992 Winter Olympics flame to toothbrushes and a building in
Japan. And let's not overlook the "Dr. Skud" fly swatter, whose big human
head must loom Godzillalike over the unlucky insect in the split second
before its death.


And then there are the Starck-designed New York boutique hotels -- the
Royalton and the Paramount. They might be the two most pretentious places in
all of New York, which is saying something. I confess. I have been known to
down a drink or two in the Royalton's Space Age lobby -- a drink with fruit in
it, served by chilly waitresses who have to literally look down to overcharge
me because I am sitting on the cold stone steps since all the biomorphic
couches are occupied by people richer, prettier and cleaner than me. And I
have been known to stay at the Paramount of my own volition even though
(because?) the rooms have been reduced to the dimensions of a queen-size bed
and the staff all look like extras from "La Femme Nikita." These places are
seemingly against everything I stand for -- truth, justice, the American
way -- and yet I am occasionally drawn to them.

I have even brought Philippe Starck home. I clean my bowl with his 1995
polypropylene toilet brush "Excalibur," which was, for some reason, a gift.
I myself purchased two Starck items that currently live in my living
room. An eggshell, egglike plastic armchair Starck calls "Lord Yo" faces the
window. A little orange plastic table is perched in front of the couch. The
table, shaped like a molar in a dental health instructional cartoon, is the
silliest piece of furniture imaginable. It is often called upon to bear the
weight of items that, at least spiritually, threaten to crush its foppish
Euro frame -- books like "Wisconsin Death Trip," bottles of Kentucky bourbon,
the 10-song sadness sampler that is Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska." A painting of
this setup -- in which a gloomy book chronicling depression (in every sense of
the word) in the Upper Midwest in the 1890s, whiskey named after the
childhood home of Abraham Lincoln and a record whose title song is a ballad
about a condemned serial killer declared "unfit to live" -- are pouting on top
of such a happy coffee table might be titled "Still Life With Schizophrenia."
That's actually the point. Just because I'm Miss Memento Mori doesn't mean
I need to bring every last stick of furniture down with me. In Fay Sweet's
new monograph "Philippe Starck: Subverchic Design," Starck talks about his
household product line: "We have stopped using anything which causes
death -- so we no longer use leather." There you go. In a room full of death
books and murder ballads, Starck's graceful if childish pieces of plastic are
signs of life. I enjoy my "Lord Yo" armchair precisely because I cannot
picture Bruce Springsteen sitting in it.

My fondness for Starck might have something to do with the way he makes the
males of my acquaintance, even the homosexual ones, nervous. Try to get the
average American boy person to sit for more than three minutes on a curved
metal chaise in the Paramount lobby and he will stare at his shoes as if he
were being made to crochet a doily. There's something too froufrou, too
capricious, too girly about Starck. Which, if the designer himself is to
be believed, is intentional. He claims, "For too long the mechanical objects
in our everyday lives, the cars and bikes, for example, have been designed as
macho symbols. They are very aggressive. My idea is to sexually reposition
these things and make them female." Though that's not entirely true -- the
horns! the horns! -- no one is going to make a buddy movie in which a couple
of guy's guys set off on an adventure on the 1995 motorbike of Starck's
design, a curvy, silvery machine one is tempted to nickname the "sissy-ped."


Forgive me, Uncle Sam, for I have sinned. I have handed over a tiny portion
of my heart and roughly two and a half square feet of my living room floor
to a girly, silly, decadent French fluff man who humbly calls himself "just a
Christmas-gift designer." I cannot take Philippe Starck seriously, and for
that, I admit, I am grateful.

Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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