Architects Are Building Brands

A growing number of companies are turning to "starchitects" to boost sales by designing everything from household items to luxury goods

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It has the characteristic curves and metallic surface of a Frank Gehry building, but the latest creations from the superstar American architect can fit into the palm of your hand. In April, 2006, posh New York jeweler Tiffany & Co. (TIF) launched the Frank Gehry Collection to invigorate its exclusive brand.

Tiffany isn't the only company turning to architects to give its products an edge. Companies worldwide, from retailers to watch manufacturers to vodka makers, are enlisting the services of top-name architects. Perhaps most famously, American post-modernist Michael Graves designs a broad range of products for U.S. retail giant Target (TGT). Italian lighting company Artemide is working with Jacques Herzog and Pierre De Meuron, the Swiss duo who designed the Tate Modern museum in Britain. "Every organization is hungry for innovation," says Rita Clifton, chairman of Interbrand UK. "The best way to innovate is to get a new perspective and this is what architects offer."


  For these companies, it is a chance to make their brands stand out in a crowded marketplace. Instead of working only with a team of often anonymous internal designers, a growing number of companies are looking to so-called starchitects for a source of inspiration. Such collaborations lend an air of excitement to otherwise ordinary items. No one really needs another lemon squeezer. But when upscale Italian homewares company Alessi tapped French design legend Philippe Starck to produce one, the Juicy Salif instantly became a design classic. Similarly, toilet brushes aren't exactly glamorous (see, 07/24/06, "Alessi: Fun Design for Everyone "). But when Graves takes the time to design it, customers suddenly find the money to buy it.

Alessi was among the first companies to realize that architects weren't just for buildings. The company began recruiting leading architects some 30 years ago and has gone on to work with the international elite of architecture. In the 1980s, the company initiated its "Tea and Coffee Piazza" project, inviting big-name architects such as New York's Richard Mieir, the man behind the J. Paul Getty Museum in California, to design tea sets for them. Many of Alessi's other architectural collaborations have become best-sellers, such as Italian architect Alessandro Mendini's Anna G. corkscrew, shaped in the body of a woman, and Graves' Bird Kettle, transforming a maker of mundane homewares into a design icon (see, "Kitchenware and Beyond").

For architects, it's a chance to push the boundaries of creativity while bringing their vision to a broader audience.