Marcello Gandini remains the maestro of radical car design with the incredible body of work he did while at Bertone – think the original Lamborghini Countach and Miura, and the pioneering scissor doored Alfa Romeo Carabo. Long been an admirer, I was thrilled to have had the opportunity to speak with him, to reflect on his body of work but also to hear his candid thoughts on the missed opportunity with the first generation of electric car designs.
To quote him: ‘Nothing in an electric car currently makes you say at first glance: Wow, this is a different car, it carries a new message, it speaks evidently of a new language of change and innovation… It is a shame.’
The body is left raw and unpainted revealing scratches from the manufacturing process. The panoramic roof is made of recycled and recyclable light Perspex. The cabin is entirely leather and chrome-free with seats covered in reusable knitted fabric, dashboard made of salvaged cork and seatbelts from repurposed climbing rope — all of which are fully recyclable. This is the MINI Strip, a custom-built unique electric car exploring ideas around design for circularity.
Recently I joined a group discussion on the future of luxury. This is a theme that keeps coming up in meetings and with the clients I work with outside my role as a journalist. And I can see why. We are pretty much at the crossroads of change, with the pandemic acting a little like a punctuation point in history, allowing some of us time to reflect and rethink what had become normal and accepted simply because in the rush of life, few questioned its authenticity. Why, for instance, has luxury been caged and confined within a tightrope of clichés? Surely, it can be brave and bold enough to break free of the narrow confines of price, value and status.
I’m not so much interested in the physical luxury of stuff, but more so in unwrapping the spiritual concept of luxury, the poetic element, all those other parts that may not directly be linked with the concept but will come to define it ever more as we navigate the future. I’m talking about time, knowledge, intellect, ideas, art, craft, skills, history, love, passion, stories, poetry and a whole world of more elusive elements that make luxury special – not exclusive or expensive, but extraordinary.
Then, of course, luxury is rooted in context. During the deepest darkest pandemic hours, amid lockdown with no vaccination in sight, luxury became the sound of birds singing, trees blossoming, neighbours clapping in unison in support of health workers. Luxury was discovering that unnoticed path in the local park, a coffee lovingly prepared by the local barista, happening upon a new piece of music or a podcast to open up a world. With lockdown lifted, the height of luxury has become sharing a meal with family and close friends, hugging them, seeing live art, planning trips to other lands.
This got me thinking about the Rolls-Royce Boat Tail. The hand-built, one-of-a-kind motor car is a new private commission estimated to have cost over £20 million. On the one hand, it epitomises old-school luxury, the kind money can buy, the luxury of status that is exclusive and rare. But what makes the Boat Tail special isn’t the price tag – that’s just a number. Rather, it is the unique knowledge and artistry and imagination that went into creating it. And the Boat Tail’s perceived value is tied intimately with Rolls-Royce’s evocative narrative and its rich history. This is where luxury becomes storytelling. And this is where it gets exciting.
Layers of experience passed on from generations of winemakers, the uniqueness of the terroir, what happened in the year of harvest – this represents the height of luxury. Or it could be more ephemeral – that visceral feeling, that sense of wonder when you experience a new wine, or taste a unique dish, have an unforgettable chance encounter. Luxury is about the unexpected pleasures. Thomas Girst, head of global cultural engagement at BMW Group, told me he sees it as ‘the time for meaningful experiences, exchanges and actions that have the power to shape and define who we are’. And I couldn’t agree more.
What this means in terms of branding and design is to involve as many specialities and characters as possible in creative processes. It means mixing up sciences and arts and engineering and academia, proactively seeking different voices – be it gender, class, race, nationality, age. This is already happening to some degree across many businesses and educational establishments. And it can only prove to be a positive thing. It will help paint a more colourful, a more textured and richer world of luxury.
Viewing luxury as something far beyond the physical object opens a vast ocean of possibilities. We have the tools to make new forms of luxury a reality by harnessing the positive power of technology. And I’d like to hope the pandemic has opened our eyes to values that are fair that can be found in luxury. To my mind, the future of luxury will be more and more about shared beliefs – artistic, environmental, societal. It will involve intuitive and tailored experiences gathered around principles of imagination, expression and freedom. And it need not be reserved for a select few. What Covid and the climate crisis have plainly shown is the ephemerality of our human existence. Spiritual luxury, by definition, is democratic. It is inclusive and inviting and free and poetic and full of wonder.
art in everything, whether it be in action, a vase, a saucepan, a glass, a
sculpture, a jewel, a way of being,’ writes Charlotte Perriand, in a quote that
perhaps best captures the spirit of the maverick designer who helped shape the
story of modern design. Over the long arc of her career spanning much of the
last century, Perriand made furniture and objects, and designed interiors and buildings
that helped shape and advance modern life – especially for women.
Her tubular steel furniture includes the Chaise Longue Basculante and the Fauteuil Pivotant – both much revered and copied today. Her bibliotheques for architect and engineer Jean Prouvé’s metal workshop altered how we view bookshelves. In her role as an architect, Perriand made inventive modular kitchens for Le Corbusier’s brutalist Unité d’Habitation residential housing project in Marseille. Later in life she took on the budding mass tourism industry with thousands of prefabricated apartments at the grand Les Arcs ski resort in France.
Perriand was fearless and her approach to design always inventive. Now a new exhibition at London’s Design Museum explores the creative process and ideas behind her work. Charlotte Perriand: The Modern Life (19 June to 5 September 2021) charts her journey through the modernist machine aesthetic to natural forms, and from modular furniture to major architectural projects. Featuring large-scale reconstructions of some of her most interesting interiors as well as original furniture, her photography and personal notebooks, the curators immerse viewers in Perriand’s colourful world to great effect.
Born in Paris in 1903, Perriand studied furniture design at the École de l’Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs. Soon after graduation, the functional studio apartment she designed for herself replete with a mini deco bar, nicknamed Bar sous le toit, caught the attention of Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret and so began a decade of working with the duo at their atelier exploring machine aesthetics. By the 1930s, Perriand had gravitated more towards nature and organic forms, an aspect that became more pronounced after her return from Tokyo where she had been invited as an advisor for industrial design to the Ministry for Trade and Industry.
Perriand would continue to collect and document random objects she found in nature – shells and stones, and a large-scale sculptural driftwood she reclaimed in 1970, which features in the exhibition halls. In her personal manifesto entitled Synthesis of the Arts, she looked at merging art, design and architecture in the interior with her friend the artist Fernand Léger creating some fascinating pieces.
A socialist, after the war Perriand became deeply involved with the reconstruction of Europe, where she evolved further her prefabricated modular designs and furnishing to create affordable and adaptable interiors – some of which have been thoughtfully reconstructed for the exhibition. She wrote: ‘Dwellings should be designed not only to satisfy material specifications; they should also create conditions that foster harmonious balance and spiritual freedom in people’s lives.’
Perriand loved the outdoors and was a keen mountain climber and skier with photographs at the Design Museum capturing her adventurous spirit. One of her final and finest projects was Les Arcs, a 1960s ski resort in France where she led an architectural collective. Developed over two decades, the building and dwellings explore her visions on the role of architecture and design in shaping how we live. The building slots seamlessly with the contours of the mountainside and, since it had to accommodate some 30,000 skiers, Perriand worked with prefabricated structures to create thousands of mini apartments which feel warm and generous and are thoroughly modern to this day.
Perriand is one of the few female modernists who has retained her place in the history of design, yet even she suffered from a touch of twentieth century chauvinism. Her work was often overshadowed by her more famous male collaborators, namely Le Corbusier who allegedly didn’t even acknowledge her work despite using her radical prefabricated kitchens in his Unité d’Habitation. ‘She was long overshadowed by her male counterparts,’ agrees chief curator Justin McGuirk, ‘but this exhibition presents her not just as a brilliant designer who deserves wider recognition – she was also a natural collaborator and synthesiser. There is so much to admire not just in her work but in the way she lived her life.’
The Design Museum joins a slew of exhibitions and publications hoping to re-address women’s place (the missing link) in the story of art and design. This can only be a positive thing. The history of design will certainly benefit in richness and gain context from weaving in the vital role of women (and the likes of Perriand) in forming its narrative – something that could expand and explode even further, become even livelier, if it includes creatives from outside the western world, and not just as a side note.
‘Elegantly radical’, is how the exhibition describes Perriand, a term that feels fitting. For, despite her courage at working alongside and often ahead of her male counterparts, bending metal and making impossible inventions possible, her work retains a subtle elegance. And it is full of adventure and wonder. ‘A definition of the word art is the application of new knowledge to ordinary, everyday objects,’ she says animated in a video which concludes the show. ‘There is no reason not to do things artfully. You could equally say that a peasant who improves his wheelbarrow has made a work of creation. Art is everything. It is wonderful.’
‘It exists far beyond a mere means of transport,’ explains Alex Innes, head of Rolls-Royce Coachbuild design. ‘The Boat Tail is not about reaching a destination. It is the destination itself.’ Innes is referring to the marque’s latest project, one of only three specially commissioned nautical inspired custom-built motor cars, which premiers the new division dedicated to creating such hand built products.
I visited the home of Rolls-Royce at Goodwood a little while ago to see the car prior to its world premier today. And it is a stylistic tour de force, full of the sort of unexpected pleasures that define luxury today. Take a closer look at the design story as Innes guides me around and inside the Boat Tail here.