Coffee and Cigarettes

Lawrence Laske

I first met Philippe Starck in 1989 when he was leading a design seminar at Domus Academy in Milan. Later that year he contacted me and invited me to design an ashtray as part of a three person collection involving Starck, Alessandro Mendini, and myself. I was beyond overjoyed, and when I asked Starck why he thought of me, he stated, “I always remember your project at Domus Academy, your innate ability to observe and interpret, and arrive at something powerfully intriguing, something not only beautiful but something which stimulates conversation.”

While sketching at a café I glanced at the table next to me, noticing a coffee cup and an ashtray. I immediately sketched a combination of the two. The sketch was no bigger than half an inch which I drew in the corner of a sketchbook page that was filled with several ashtray ideas. I drew it rather subtlety because I was not sure what to make of it. I have been fortunate enough to live in the US, Italy, and France, each having very different relationships with smoking and coffee consumption. I was intrigued and unsure about how people would react to a design that combines these cultural rituals.

I met with Starck at the Royalton Hotel in New York City to present my sketches, which existed in the form of a small sketchbook. The sketchbook was filled mainly with the chimney idea which I named Vesuvius. He viewed my sketches with a very curious, calculating eye and quietly observed the sketch for Niki which was a small, unsure presence in the corner of the page. I nervously awaited his reaction. Starck turned to me, and said, “This is the one I will produce.” I explained my inspiration and how quickly the idea formed, and he said, “This is the most vulgar yet sensitive object in the history of design, that is why I want to produce it.”

My ashtray was for a collection called OWO, a company founded by Starck. The company was later purchased by Alessi and a prototype of my ashtray, Niki, remains in a glass case in the Alessi Design Museum. I used to inquire annually with Alessi concerning my ashtray entering production, and every year I received the same response, “No, this is a politically incorrect object.”

I always felt my ashtray was a sculpture, a conversation piece, and not necessarily for use. Now, especially with social attitudes shifting towards nonsmoking, my ashtray speaks louder than ever. Perhaps I will produce an edition in bronze.