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Starck, design and me: Ilsa Parry talks to The Drum


By The Drum Team | Editorial

February 12, 2010 | 7 min read

Design for Life winner Isla Parry tells The Drum about life after the BBC TV show, what it was really like working with Philippe Starck and the importance of life experience for designers.

It was Parry who caught Starck's eye and her prize for winning the show was a six-month placement at his Paris agency.

Humbled by the experience and buoyed by her success, Parry has gone on to start her own consultancy, REthinkings, and work with the likes of McDonalds, Unilever and the Liverpool Biennial.

On Monday she will share her experiences of her time with Starck and the doors it has opened since when she speaks at Northumbria University's School of Design.

How was your experience of Design for Life? Was it what you expected?

The experience was totally overwhelming in every way and I would say that it has affected me professionally, emotionally, socially and intellectually. It was a unique encounter so real and yet so "set up". I questioned everything in my life, my values, my belief system and myself. Starck challenged us to unpick our own brains and rethink everything.

I made a lot of friends and had a lot of fun living in the house with the contestants, but the workload was far beyond what I expected (although it didn't appear that way on TV) and to fully succeed I worked day and night and gave it everything I had. I would say I aged about two years in the space of ten weeks. My whole attitude and approach to life was altered as a result and "the arrogance" of youth that was fizzing inside me looking for an outlet was dispersed as a result (something that is easy to admit to in hindsight).

I think that the experience did me a whole lot of good and made me an all round better person but it took some soul searching for me to realise it.

Philippe Starck is known as an enigmatic character and throughout the series we saw him set some opaque briefs. Was it sometimes difficult to gauge exactly what he was looking for and meet his expectations?

At the beginning when I met Starck he would talk for hours at a time before setting a challenge. He enjoyed sharing his views and was very passionate about his beliefs. I felt he was a very genuine character and instantly felt a rapport with him and often found myself nodding along to what he would share with us. Then he would set a challenge, you would respond in a way that you considered to be in line with his thinking and then upon presentation he would always pick up on an aspect of what you presented that he was skeptical about. I think this had to do with a few things...

Firstly, slightly "lost in translation" some of us would misinterpret what he said. Secondly I feel that Starck loves to surprise and like me feels the need to justify everything so he would often go into detail on a small point of your presentation. Thirdly our collective lack of real world experience and therefore limited understanding of what really happens when a design is produced "en mass" meant that we may often overlook an important issue to do with business, marketing and production and get slightly lost in abstraction due to the nature of the tone he would set when handing out the "opaque" brief.

Has working with Starck in his studio influenced or changed your approach in any way?

Working at the Starck agency gave me time to think, time to work and time to improve. I was able to teach myself new CAD software (something I didn't have time for before with a full time teaching job and commissions on the side) and this really assisted me in realising some of my own products and getting them produced.

Seeing the systems that Starck used in staffing and operational terms has aided me to find ways to make the important resources you need in a creative practice accessible (being so "Starck" the place was immaculate and I normally have crazy creative rubbish everywhere in my studio)

Finally the experience gave me the confidence and the insight to recognise my commercial shortfalls and quickly address them leading to the setting up of my creative consultancy and the development of my product design range REthinkthings.

You will be speaking to students from Northumbria University's School of Design on Monday. What advice would you give to young people looking to make a mark in design?

Be humble.

Be brave.

Be prepared.

Having spent time in Paris for Design for Life, and traveled to Norway and Holland early in your career, how important do you think it is for young British designers to broaden their horizons?

I think life experience is everything. Especially in design where innovation and economic, cultural and social understanding is so important to success. I believe that designers who have not attempted to consider new ways of living or those that find it difficult to empathise with others and see a broader picture will produce boring solutions of limited use.

Britain has a wealth of different cultures and social landscapes in itself to explore and can therefore act as a good cross section for general human understanding but this country is pretty safe, economically we have fall backs and systematically we have safety nets. Therefore we never have to strive above and beyond to be the best that we can be. This culture also comes with structure, organisation, bureaucracy and standards. These are fantastic for human equality but such rules and set ways of doing things can blind the average person and stifle creativity, undermining confidence and preventing visionary risk taking.

Britain is very strong creatively and conceptually, perhaps it is having to overcome such barriers and hurdles which has made the strongest, most creative designers succeed and helped us to grow our reputation?

And finally, can you tell us about any projects you're working on at the moment?

I am currently working on lots of consultancy commissions, clients have included Liverpool Biennial, McDonalds, Unilever and Kirsty Doyle. I have several new projects in the pipeline including a creative musical production an education project with the design museum and sculptural / furniture pieces.

I am developing my product range, working on my business plan and raising finance to independently produce each product in the range under the "rethinkthings" brand. I am leading the 3D design course at Liverpool also lecturing at Manchester Met and Lincoln Universities.

This year I will be keynote speaker at the design and technology association conference and am very keen that design educations continues to play a key role in my future work as it is so important for the success of our future collectively.

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