Design For Life 19.10.09

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Left to right, Eugeni Quitllet, Philippe Starck and Jasmine Starck, the judges (image: BBC)

In design's answer to The Apprentice, Philippe Starck selects an intern. William Wiles did not find it gripping

Vroom. Here comes Philippe Starck on his motorbike to save British design. We're in the home of British design, Paris, so it's more like Vreurm. The 12 contenders on BBC2's Design for Life applaud rapturously. If this was The Apprentice – the long-running reality show on which Design for Life has been closely modelled – you could imagine the no-nonsense entrepreneur Sir Alan Sugar scowling at this kind of toadying. But this isn't Sralan, it's Fleep, and Fleep laps it up.

The contenders have a lot on their plates. One of them will go on to win six months in the Starck design studio. To achieve this, they will have to impress Fleep, possessor of the sprawling, capricious ego of a renaissance princeling. And, as mentioned, they have to save British design, which has had some success in the past, but now there is "nobody really arriv[ing] on the market" says Fleep, casually dismissing a generation. "We can maybe create English style," he adds, in an anything's-possible way.

Let the games begin. Two episodes had aired when icon went to press. In the first, the contenders scoured a hypermarché for pairs of objects, and in the second they had to design something that would benefit humanity. Neither round produced anything interesting. Two contestants are eliminated each week, but Starck seems at times to want to rid himself of all of them. Eight now battle on, hopes of a nation on their shoulders.

Starck is magnificent on screen, like some eccentric bright-feathered predator which grips its prey in a death-hug, dissolves it with kisses, and puts the bones on the next Eurostar. The format fans his ego, bringing out his watchable worst. As for the contenders, the BBC is clearly now adept at picking cocky, clueless cutthroats. Film a dozen innocent 20-year-old know-nothings playing party games for an insane Frenchman for days on end, and I'm sure it's not hard to cobble together six hours of vaguely entertaining footage, even if you have to pad it out with jejune commentary ("Philippe Starck is considered by many to be the bad boy of design").

The trouble is that The Apprentice didn't claim that it wanted to reinvigorate British industry. But Design for Life depends on the premise that British design is sick, and Fleep is the cure – otherwise, presumably, the stakes just aren't high enough. This premise is at least debatable – it could be seen as pretty insulting – and even if it were true, it's unlikely to be solved by sudden-death hypermarché dashes at the whim of the house of Starck.

Design for Life is on Mondays on BBC2 until 19 October



William Wiles

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Two contestants are eliminated each week, but Starck seems at times to want to rid himself of all them

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