Car, body, fashion

I was 18 when I first read The Nude by Kenneth Clark. Published in 1956, it was a sort of Bible for young aspiring aesthetes. I was on my way to becoming one, so I hoped, having enrolled on a pre-grad foundation in art and design.

Many of Clark’s observations have been tirelessly quoted but the one that always resonates is this simple line: ‘The relation of head to body determines the standard by which we assess all other proportions in nature.’ Even abstract shapes like the square and the circle are male and female, he argues. Clark believed that the human eye is disturbed by bodily imperfections and therefore doesn’t judge the nude as a living organism, but as a design.

From all the objects I can think of – and perhaps this is due to my close relationship with this particular one – the car is shamelessly anthropomorphic. This is one of its strengths, a winning point as such in that we can critique it in much the same way as a person.

Cars can have taut athlete’s muscles, or be lean like a runner. They can be as skinny as a model on the runway, or voluptuously sexy in the Rubenesque manner (although somehow this doesn’t work too well with cars). We criticise a car for looking bloated and sneer at the ones with a big behind. You could argue that the car’s skeleton is draped in metal in much the same way our bodies are in cloth.

Chris Bangle understood this well with his 2008 GINA concept car. GINA – or Geometry and functions In ‘N’ Adaptations for the full title – had been a study vehicle kept behind iron doors at the design studios in California and Munich and used to explore ideas within the department. Bangle revealed GINA to the public in June 2008 not long before he took his leave from the BMW, incidentally taking the concept with him, but I had heard this interesting designer hint at the concept years ago at a lecture at the Design Museum in London.

Addressing a starry-eyed group of young designers, Bangle who really knows how to command a room, quoted Clark adding: ‘replace nude with car, and you will understand everything about cars.’ GINA took this notion of car as human to a different level with an outer skin made of cloth – the virtually seamless polyethylene-coated Lycra stretch fabric shielding a moveable substructure beneath.

If metal is clothing, then how closely do the frivolous world of fashion – where trends come and go literally by the season – and the more sedate world of the motorcar interact? It takes years for a car to evolve from concept to production, with the design having to stay fresh for another five years at least whereas fashion is fast moving and fickle.

Things are changing, albeit slowly. Cars are coming to market in a much quicker pace, and with such extensive personalisation programmes on offer (see picture of the Fiat 500 special edition), we are seeing a stronger dialogue developing between these two unlikely worlds.

In both worlds the most important aspect is the initial architecture, as there is a limit to what you can camouflage if the proportions are wrong. Nargess Gharani, fashion consultant co-founder of Gharani Strok, agrees that the initial concept needs to work before you even consider developing it further. She explains: ‘If an original design is beautiful and therefore flattering but that the trim used is badly positioned, or of poor quality, it will destroy the original design.’

This is very much the case with cars. For Audi this means following a clear genetic code, which involves having a very high shoulder line and a very condensed green house. ‘Our cars have to seem like they are laying down like a crocodile,’ notes Stefan Sielaff its former design director now in charge of Volkswagen. ‘Once the proportion is right, we add the details.’

Slimming in fashion is directly related to sleekness in the car. Vertical lines create a longer, leaner figure in the same way horizontal ones form visual length on the car. Gharani notes that on a garment it is more effective to work with seaming, which is a more subtle way of creating the same visual impact.

The BMW way is to sculpt its lines. They have to be authentic intersections of surfaces and only applied when two surfaces happen to intersect – much like seaming in tailoring.

Other tricks of the trade include elongating the DLO (day light opening), blending the hood for a slimmer visage, or using light and shade on the surface to create the feeling of slimness.

Gharani also suggests shading the inside of a dress to make it appear slimmer. ‘Use a darker colour on the back and sides of a dress, but keep a slim silhouette in a light colour. This way the eye will only see the light colour as the silhouette.’

Then there is the power of accessorising. ‘Heals make you look slimmer and give better posture,’ says Gharani. Similarly, the positioning of buttons and the size can completely alter the impression of a garment. Wheels, headlights, the grille and other graphic elements on the car can work in a similar way to hide flaws or direct the eye to selected area.

Lighting especially is increasingly manipulated to highlight design and brand identity. Front lights can also enhance the car’s face adding to the human association. One aspect of Audi’s philosophy of Vorsprung Durch Technik (advancement through technology) is to have a clear light design strategy to define the brand and the product line day and night.

I ask Gharani what contemporary car excites her. She mentions the Nissan Cube, saying she admires the fresh feel of the 60s inspired cabin with its clean lines and use of colour. She says she appreciates the clever manipulation of material that pushes boundaries yet maintains functionality. ‘This I believe is very important in both fashion and car design as you have to be fresh and push boundaries but never keep your eyes off what is commercially viable.’

It is tough for cars to truly represent immediate trends be it in fashion, furniture or product and electronic gadget design. With the outer fabric body exchangeable, and the car transformable into various shape to suite the desire and needs of its occupants, Bangle’s GINA has conceptually come pretty close.

‘We are going to have to find new ways to adapt to how the world sees cars,’ Bangle said at the Design Museum. ‘We have to offer a product that is more about lifestyle and personalisation statements. We need to get some of the individuality of the consumer as well as the producer into the product.’

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Here Chris Bangle talks about GINA a little while before the car was unveiled to the public.

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | UK | www.d-talks.com | Bookshop www.d-talks.com/bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

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