Philippe Starck, the grand fromage of design, has designed a computer mouse.
It is silvery gray, sleek and looks like it might squeak. The device, which will go on sale in August, was created in collaboration with Microsoft, for whom the partnership is the first commission of high design.
A sample arrived this week in a silvery gray box. A lighted stripe down the middle -- blue or orange -- adds flair. But the intriguing aspect is not color, it's the way the form harks back to something so familiar. The Starck mouse evokes the real furry creature, tail and all, with the iconic clarity of a child's drawing.
Starck has designed watches, furniture, lighting, electronics and a motorcycle. But he is best known for a spider-shaped lemon-juice squeezer and surreal boutique-hotel interiors created for Ian Schrager.
By comparison, the Microsoft mouse is tame. But the metallic finish shimmers like sterling under the worst fluorescent office lighting. A commonplace tool looks more like a piece of art, at least for those who admire the cool simplicity of Porsches and Paloma Picasso's silver jewelry.
The Starck aesthetic has charmed at least one French president. (A commission of furniture for the Elysee office of Francois Mitterrand put the young Paris designer on a fast track to fame.) But it failed to catch fire with customers at Target stores, where the designer's signature appeared briefly on a collection of mostly plastic housewares. NASCAR dads and teenagers may prefer Microsoft's wireless collection, which is not by Starck. It includes a "mood ring" mouse and a five-button red "Explorer in Crimson Fire" Intellimouse, which promotional literature suggests will "enflame desktops with hot style."
At $35, the Starck mouse won't be costly enough to qualify as desktop couture. But it does suggest untapped potential for style from the world of haute technologie. So far, Apple remains the only company designing computers so beautiful they have become objects of desire.
High design was behind another high-profile product launch this year. Rowenta, the European housewares maker, teamed up with Jasper Morrison, Britain's master of rational minimalism. Their collaboration has produced a collection of small electric appliances -- coffee machine, toaster and cordless kettle -- that would not look out of place in a museum shop. (The Museum of Modern Art's design shop was among the first retail outlets to place an order.)
Rowenta is banking on something it calls "harmonessence," the idea that workaday appliances, distilled to their essence, can create harmony in the home. That would be a tall order for any designer. But Morrison was a smart choice.
Like Starck, he works from London and Paris. Unlike Starck, Morrison has avoided whimsy to pursue restrained elegance. Morrison's less-is-better approach is apparent in very spare contemporary furnishings, such as the Low Pad chairs at London's Tate Modern gallery. The same pared-down approach has led to inspired furniture, lighting and tableware for such blue-chip design companies as Vitra, Cappellini, Flos, Alessi, Rosenthal and Magis.
For Rowenta, Morrison reduced complicated kitchen gear to smooth, creamy-white objects trimmed with brushed steel. Technical elements are all but hidden. Flat "touch buttons" have replaced ungainly push-button controls. The plastic surfaces have been textured like suede.
The coffee machine is ultrasleek, hiding filters and measuring spoon under the lid, along with the filter holder and water tank. The toaster has no levers, but incorporates all manner of features including motorized lowering and raising of slices, a photo sensor for browning according to the freshness of the bread, a built-in warming tray, and a removable crumb tray, which can be cleaned in a dishwasher.
Rowenta believes the kettle could double as a carafe on the table, which may be going too far. But it's almost as dignified as the Moon pitcher Morrison designed in pristine white porcelain for Rosenthal.
So much design work doesn't come cheaply. The collection will retail for $125 to $175 when it arrives in stores later this summer.
Apartment Zero co-owner Douglas Burton ordered the line for his downtown Washington design store right after Rowenta debuted the products at New York's International Contemporary Furniture Fair in May.
He does not pretend to understand harmonessence, but says he likes the product because it exudes peacefulness and serenity.
"In the morning, when so many of us are rushed," he says, "we could all use a little Zen to start our day."