Celebrity 'design experts': good for the innovation business?

In the last few months, the trend of movie stars and rock stars promoting their own architecture and design projects has grown. Can celebrities boost the design industry's visibility--and success?

This past month has seen numerous new examples of celebrities crossing over into the field of design. A few weeks ago, electronic musician Moby (pictured above) launched an architecture blog on which he comments on Los Angeles buildings. About a week ago, actress Gwyneth Paltrow began reporting on product design, with her review of the Maison et Objet trade show in Paris, published on her Web site Goop. And on February 17, movie star Brad Pitt's Make it Right foundation, which was created to design homes for Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans, announced a collaboration with LivingHomes to offer "lower-priced" pre-fabricated, zero-waste and zero-energy houses nationwide.

But before you roll your eyes and assume these are all typical examples of star-fueled publicity, take a moment to wonder: could rock-star and movie-star design experts actually be good for the innovation business?

I'm not talking about the run-of-the-mill celebrity brand extensions, when an actor or singer lends his or her name and likeness to anything from furniture to toys, or the latest "me-too" clothing line from a starlet. Instead, think of how stars who are respected brands themselves can tap creative networks and financial resources to push innovation forward faster than any start-up could. Or how a star's high-profile visibility can draw mainstream attention to the design professions, namely architecture and product design, among their very large fan bases.

Lady Gaga, musician and Creative Director

Consider how rapper Swizz Beatz was named a design advisor (reportedly with the title "Vice President of Creative Design and Global Marketing") for luxury car maker Lotus in August of last year. There, he helped to create a special edition auto that was unveiled only four months later. Or think of Lady Gaga's design work. Sure, the much-hyped photo-goggles the singer designed for Polaroid, where she holds a Creative Director title, haven't made it to market yet even a full year after they made their debut at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2011. But her recent design collaboration with fellow celebrity Dr. Dre's headphone-manufacturing company has gotten very good reviews--3 1/2 out of 5 stars from CNET, for instance. CNET applauded the product's "unique look," which "improves the design" of earlier headphones in the product line.

Gaga's not the only celebrity-turned-design expert who's been gaining serious cred among major tech and financial media, either. In December 2011, the Olsen twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley, former child actresses who now run a clothing-design empire (which ranges from a luxury label sold at Barneys to a customized T-shirt Web site), were named by Forbes magazine on their list of "30 Under 30" influencers in art and design. It's a list that includes some notable innovation names, such as Facebook user interface designer Mike Matas and Google's Aaron Koblin, creative director of the company's Data Arts team.

Stars obviously have a head start when they turn to design, because they have the pull to collaborate with leaders in creative fields. Brad Pitt has teamed up with design heavyweights such as architect Frank Gehry and sustainability guru and designer William McDonough. Dr. Dre has worked with Ammunition Group, an award-winning industrial design firm that has also worked with Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon. Obviously, when Swizz Beatz or Lady Gaga design, they're also working with teams of trained engineers and other professionals provided by their corporate employers.

Perhaps the most profound and instant effect of stars entering the design and innovation spheres is that they can draw thousands of fans toward their interests--whether a relatively obscure trade show as Maison et Objet, as in Paltrow's case, or design history itself, as in the case of rapper Ice Cube, who appeared in a video describing the work of modern design legends Charles and Ray Eames last year. To prove the power of a star: the Ice Cube video has already seen more than 450,000 views on YouTube since it was first uploaded on December 6, 2011, no doubt directing new audiences to the design legacy of the Eameses.

Of course, the bar for success as a design expert is arguably higher for celebrities. Critics will likely deem their forays into architecture or product design as PR stunts. But if designers and architects can become celebrities, too--think of high-profile product designer Philippe Starck or "starchitect" Zaha Hadid--why not the other way around? It can be possible, especially if a star's design work is well-researched and well-executed.

Related on SmartPlanet:

Rapper Ice Cube celebrates the Eames

Image: Uncensored Interview/Wikimedia Commons

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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