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Friday, September 10, 2004
IDFuel write to express amazement at the phenomenon of 'celebrity brand presence,' which they believe is outstripping 'the importance of content or functionality in product after product.' Their recent post, Content or Brand?, tackles the thorny subject of Habitat's new VIP range - Very Important Products - and wonders whether 'the actual production of products [is] be becoming almost automatic'. In other words, all we are left with is base products over which pure branding is slathered, according to taste.

The celebrity product is a separate evolutionary strand for the brand. Traditional 'brand evolution' has always held a certain fascination, and not just for consumers. Brands themselves seem to derive narcissistic pleasure from dreaming up their future incarnations, whether for movies (see Audi's RSQ, heavily featured in I, Robot, or the myriad products that squeeze into frame in films like Back to the Future II and Minority Report, tweaked to represent their future incarnations). Certain designers, like Ora-Ito, have built lucrative careers re-inventing products on an unofficial basis, and there's a whole subculture of renderers pumping out future iPods and iMacs.

Celebrity products are different. Making your name into the brand that embodies the product is hardly new: IDFuel also cites the range of clothing designed (?) by Missy Elliott for Adidas, while more recently we've also had (not literally) knickers from Kylie. There must be many, many more, dating all the way back to Gloria Vanderbilt's 'designer jeans' and beyond.

But we're still not quite sure what we think about Habitat's selection of products, which includes a coffee table by the French band Daft Punk, a director's chair by Ewan McGregor, and a bookshelf by Louis de Bernieres. In truth, there's no real 'branding' in evidence - no logos, signature shapes or colours. Habitat's normal furniture isn't branded as such, and these objects are no exception. Instead, the consumer is buying into the imagined lifestyle of the celebrity designers, part of a wider social trend that trades famous people - celebrities - as commodities, dematerialising their physical presence into objects whose use-value is entirely imaginary.

Ultimately, the purpose of each strand of brand evolution is the same. Like traditional branding, the signature 'celebrity object' is about the creation of a thing with a back story, a ready-made history and association that leaves no blanks for you to fill in. You are the blank, an accessory to the product, rather than the other way around. Is this a good thing? Probably not. What's encouraging is the danger that it might all somehow backfire. What if Habitat's VIP range encouraged people to think, 'hell, if Sharleen Spiteri could do that, why can't I?', thus challenging the whole concept of design itself. Why should a shelf be more expensive through its association with something inherently value-less - a celebrity aura? Would it be cheaper without the attached name? Would it exist at all? Admittedly, it's a perverse, risky way of democratising design, and probably not one that the 'real' designers are entirely happy with. Might the 'Very Important Products' trigger a move towards a new modesty in design?

Elsewhere. Are you lucky? The Luck Factor book and project look like pure hokum. Anyone know any more? / in transitu at Consumptive: 'the camera is so easy to use that I'm not always sure where these photographs come from.' / the future of mapping / Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen has an extensive guitar collection / coming soon: JPG magazine.

Goodbye Romania is a disintegrating website - each visit steals a pixel from the images within. Go now, before it's too late (via Cheesedip) / beautiful close-ups of ENIAC (via Boing Boing) / prototype aeroplanes / Greysteele's Rare Kits (via exclamation mark) / the Health Physics Instrumentation Museum (via Eye of the Goof).

The Citroen DS decapotable / misadventures in VWs / an unofficial Austin Rover resource for fans of the Maestro, the UK's first talking car (featuring the voice of an actress called Nicolette Mackenzie, apparently).

Toasty Kingdom offers letters, via Torrez. Related, Lonely Words in Search of Chums / the photography of Jay Cox / heartening to see that Slower's Eliot Shepard is being championed as the new king of the snapshot / beautiful Life cover by Margaret Bourke-White / the Robert Frank Coloring book. I don't understand half the stuff I link to (via the inestimable Catfunt).