Introducing VOICES, a new magazine in the world of wine

VOICES by Spinach Branding for Maze Row

VOICES is a new publication dedicated to the world of wine, and I’ve been involved in helping form its editorial direction on behalf of Spinach Branding. This has been an extremely exciting adventure, in both subject and the people I’ve had the pleasure of encountering along the journey.

Our client is Maze Row, a new brand in the fine wine scene. The importer and exporter of fine wines represents a select group of artisan producers who craft wines that are made with passion, are kind to the environment and speak of a time and place to epitomise terroir.

VOICES is a print publication and digital platform created to foster their work and share their stories. It is also a place, a space, for exploring and sharing the best in wine and wine culture.

We’re building a community who share a real passion for drinking and dining, who are excited by the people and places that help bring wine to life, and for the arts and ideas that share this vision.

Ours is an inclusive community of wine makers and connoisseurs, world writers, bold thinkers and creatives who are excited by the wider story of wine. By this we are referring to the more expansive narrative of what it means to devote a life to wine.

What I’ve come to realise is that wine is a symbol of so much more than just a drink. Away from the factory-made mass products, fine wine, in the context we cover in VOICES, is a celebration of life. It is a distillation of what it means to be human.

And at the core of our concept is to encourage diverse storytelling, multiple viewpoints. After all, inviting different voices is to be not only inclusive but also expansive and enriching.

Our guiding philosophy is: In wine, we find life. And we really do mean it.

Why not browse through VOICES and contact me if you have an interesting story to tell.

Why we should rethink design in the age of machine intelligence

Should design as a practice undergo a complete rethink in the age of machine intelligence? The question is at the heart of a speech co-written by the designer Chris Bangle and his son Derek for a speech he gave at the end of last year on re-inventing luxury at the Whitney Museum in New York. Such discussions are the reason I write and so, needing to know more, I got in contact. (read the full interview here)

The Bangles are calling for a complete re-invention of design for the new age of transport. The argument is that it is irrational to partake in current discussions on sustainable design or the meaning of luxury when a real shift requires a fundamental rethink of design and its human creatives. ‘Design, as it is now,’ Chris says, rejects humanity, preferring in every way, shape and form the cold idea of the machine-made. We must jettison even the look of the machine age.’

As a discipline, design continues to live in the world of the machine; it’s trapped in its prime at the peak of the machine age. Then the human designer was awarded for creating in perfection like a machine. But in the age of machine intelligence, the thinking human need no longer mimic the machine. Only through liberation from this outdated concept, the argument goes, can design help shape a more interesting future.

Chris uses a dramatic example in a humble teapot, one that foreshadowed the machine age look that is still with us but was in fact designed three decades before the birth of modernism. When you listen deeply to such an object and let that guide your actions, you are no longer outside the narrative looking in, but rather part of the storytelling. He explains, ‘you begin to design diegetically, inside the narrative, then suddenly design processes become wonderful design adventures.’

I’m reminded of the work of Isamu Noguchi, one of the most lyrical artists and designers of the last century, whose life was dedicated to sculpting the world he wished to inhabit. He too advocated listening to the stone, the object, the space – seeing sculpture as a means of creating harmony between humans, industry and nature and thus improving how we live. He wrote: ‘Art for me is something which teaches human beings how to become more human.’

Chris says re-inventing design need not be a negative thing. In conclusion to his Whitney speech he says: ‘It will be the greatest creative challenge design has ever responded to. I am convinced design will succeed at redeeming itself; it will be thrilling and it happens when we stop fussing over the whats we can create and move on the why of what we should create.’

And I’m happy to enter 2022 on this positive note. Happy New Year.

See the full interview here

Why spiritual luxury is the future expression of the concept

Rolls-Royce Boat Tail
Rolls-Royce Boat Tail © Rolls-Royce

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.

© Do Make by James Otter is published by Do Books. Photographs by Mat Arney
‘Do Make’, James Otter © Mat Arney

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.

2020 in review: A year in design and rethinking the future

No One is an Island' by Random International, Superblue, Studio Wayne McGregor and BMW i and dancers Jacob O’Connell and Rebecca Bassett- Graham (company Wayne McGregor). Photo Ravi Deepres © BMW AG
No One is an Island‘ by Random International, Superblue, Studio Wayne McGregor © BMW AG

We will enter a decade premiered with a very dark storm. Yet much of what we are witnessing since the pandemic was already in progress: a planet in deep ecological crisis, systemic race and gender inequalities, unsustainable economic disparities, rise of populism and the post-truth era, the anxieties of the information age and machine science…

Covid has fast-tracked the speed of change. It has intensified – no exploded debates around these overwhelming existential issues, much of which have found a visceral voice in Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion. In the words of the former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, this is our version of World War III. And like so any monumental episode, it has offered a chance to deconstruct our world as we know it – or knew it – and to reimagine new possibilities.

With our normal lives on hold and almost no international travel, formally time-short senior designers and executives have been available and excited to talk, keen to discuss their ideas – and more openly. I like to think it has something to do with the informality of home video calls. With their intimate backdrop of books and artwork, and the occasional cute wondering toddler and (not-so-cuddly) pet, the set-up has certainly contributed to a more honest exchange of ideas.

So, what has been my top takes from reporting in the time of the coronavirus? A large chunk of my writing since March has been devoted to navigating design in the future. What will our transport landscape look and feel like? How will we live more efficiently in our sprawling cities? What does progressive luxury look like? How can we use design and innovation to cut waste? I’ve been speaking with car designer, industrial designers, architects and town planners, with technology experts and gaming innovators, with fashion designers, filmmakers, artists and even chefs. It has been exhaustive, and I’ve had to learn about new industries, new technologies for a hugely exciting and challenging journey of discovery.

An image of the Pix Moving self-driving fleet
Pix Moving self-driving fleet © Pix Moving

One of the more ambitious projects came via a Chinese tech start-up called Pix Moving. The Pix Self-Moving Spaces are autonomous mobile living units based on self-driving cars, while the overarching Pix City proposes flexible, technology-evolving cities. Company founder Chase Cao wants to deconstruct the relationship between city inhabitants and the urban space they occupy – what he calls the core logic of the city. Airspeeder is another inventive idea by the Australian tech firm Alauda. This is an electric flying race car ready to take to the skies and compete with other speeders in a bid to help advance sustainable future transport.

Less grand but equally impressive are practical ideas for more ecological urban transport. The handful of electric cars presented by the traditional automakers have been adequate but largely underwhelming, leaving independent designers and makers to come up with the more radical ideas. London-based industrial design studio Seymourpowell’s Quarter Car is an interior-led design study of an electric autonomous ride-sharing vehicle for urban commutes, with physical partitions to allow for adaptable communal and private journeys.

Elsewhere, I was contacted by Arturo Tedeschi, an Italian architect and computational designer who uses algorithmic modelling, virtual reality and video games to make complex and exciting forms and shapes. While Swiss start-up Komma virtually showed me its Urban Mobility Vehicle. The work of a former Pininfarina designer, this inventive electric commuter sits somewhere between a motorbike and a conventional car, offering the agility of a two-wheeler, but with the comfort and safety of the latter.

Rolls-Royce Phantom V by Lunaz
The electric 1861 Rolls-Royce Phantom by Lunaz © Lunaz

On a more conceptual level, Royal College of Art Intelligent Mobility students offered some really exciting ideas to drive our future. I particularly like a proposal to create a megacity taxi for 2040 as a way of considering the various cultural and social aspects of our future smart cities. A couple offer some sophisticated critical design thinking too with ideas that may have seemed impossible dreams before the pandemic made all things impossible possible.

On the other side of the spectrum, in the midst of the darkest hours of pandemic lockdown, I got into a debate as to the future of luxury. It all started with a casual video call with Alex Innes, the designer in charge of Rolls-Royce Coachbuild, who had rightfully been questioning the validity of the traditional values of luxury. The pandemic had offered him clarity on the issues, and the term post-opulence was coined to represent the coming era where timeless objects will gain more value and customers will form deeper relations with luxury brands.

That week I happen to contact Dickie Bannenberg, one half of the celebrated London yacht design studio Bannenberg & Rowell. He was equally pensive, noting that the post-pandemic world should be one of post-hedonism – a concept that also chimes with our time. How much of this will be viable in the ultra-luxury, purely hedonistic superyacht world remains to be seen though.

Arksen 85 © The Boundary
Arksen 85 adventure yacht represent new luxury © The Boundary

More realistic perhaps are the restored classic Rolls-Royces, Jaguars and Land Rovers by the British restomod firm Lunaz. The 1961 Rolls-Royce Phantom V and Silver Cloud motors – completely re-imagined for modern driving with less wasteful battery-electric drive and sustainable luxury materials – seem to be the finest manifestation of a post-pandemic luxury landscape.

As is Arksen. Capturing the zeitgeist, the yacht business is on a mission to inject purpose into luxury travel and to facilitate philanthropic adventures. The portfolio is truly tempting, but what I like most about both these brands is that rather than make ecological luxury a lesser option, they have injected huge desire into their products and propositions. To me, this is the key.

Meanwhile, art and culture increasingly became a lifeline during the pandemic blues. With shuttered galleries and museums, doors closed to theatres and music halls, and with art fairs cancelled, the need to endorse the arts became ever-more apparent. Early in the pandemic, I had an uplifting conversation with a friend and colleague Thomas Girst who, in his role as head of BMW cultural engagement, is deeply involved with supporting artists and cultural establishments.

We talked of the benefits for corporate brands getting involved with creative sponsorships, but also of the momentum steered by the BLM movement urging us to rethink cultural memory – re-write the text to include those largely left out of the canon of art and design history. The pandemic has also proved something that I’ve long passionately believed: of the necessity of arts and ideas to be more than entertainment – to be the voice, the reviewer and the projector of change.

Covid may have accelerated life into the future, yet with limited access to places and people, it also brought clarity and the chance to rethink the future through design and innovation
Emeric Lhuisset ‘L’autre rive’ at 2019 Paris Photo concludes with a series of fading blue renderings through cyanotype © Emeric Lhuisset

I signed off my 2020 writing assignments with a conversation with Chris Bangle – a creative I admire very much for his on-going questioning of mainstream car design, and for his true critical design thinking. Over an impassioned and animated video call, he made a compelling case for an urgent need to radically rethink and deconstruct design for the electric age.

Chris compared today to the 1960s – a similar period of fear, upheaval, complexity and contradictions – noting that cars have the potential to reflect the paradoxical nature of our society. He spoke of cars imagined to the theory of ‘form follows emotion’. I mused over the idea that cars could have the possibility of then sharing this emotion with society – maybe take it further and be part of nation-building, have civic duties. Later, discussing this with my father, he suggested replacing the word ’emotion’ with ‘human relations’ or ‘society’, so the argument extends to becoming one at the centre of progressive political thought.

Chris Bangle and the creative team behind the 2018 REDS electric concept
Chris Bangle and the creative team behind REDS electric concept © CBA

Looking back, what I learnt most in the last nine months is that we have a collective responsibility to engage with the world and to make change happen. Change is possible, but it requires active involvement. And the pandemic has been polarising – separating us into those who see this as a call to action, and those who have retreated further inside their tribes. I’m transported to my childhood growing up in the Middle East, witnessing how in times of conflict and revolution friendships and families naturally drift apart over ideology and action. It is often in these critical times when you can re-evaluate who you wish to continue in your life story.

On a positive note, the pandemic unleashed a new wave of activists – well, Covid combined with Trump’s toxic reign. And it is encouraging to see some of my dear friends and colleagues stand up to racial and social injustice, defend the planet and environment, become involved in the making of a better world. There’s been a fantastic sense of camaraderie during the pandemic which I sincerely hope won’t vanish with the end of the virus.

Covid has brought with it much loss and sorrow. It has shown social disparities with the economically disadvantaged and immigrant groups largely bearing much of the heavy burden. The virus has exposed our fragility as humans. It has also revealed our spirit of resilience. Stuck at home with limited access to people and places, with social media’s frightening alternative truths in constant view, it is easy to get consumed in life’s dramas. Bad news shouts louder than good news. But look around and for every act of evil there will be a dozen selfless deeds of kindness.

On the day before the third London lockdown, I popped into a gallery which happened to have remained open. On entering I spotted the beautifully illustrated ‘Planting the Oudolf Gardens’ on the bookshelf and mentioned to the manager how I admire Piet Oudolf’s expressive and spirited landscape designs. She promptly offered me the book with a smile, saying that it clearly belongs to me. There is plenty to be hopeful for. To quote the author Isabel Allende, ‘the virus has invited us to design a new future’.

To 2021.
In memory of Annie, who lived a full life and left us peacefully during the pandemic.

From #MeToo to #BlackLivesMatter: How the car industry could do better

As Ford design manager, in the 1970s and 80s Mimi Vandermolen helped pioneer an ergonomic approach to interior car design such as in the
As Ford design manager and one of the only women in a senior position, in the 1970s and 80s Mimi Vandermolen helped pioneer the current ergonomic approach to interior design © Ford

I entered journalism through the automotive corridor. Fresh from university and with a background in the arts, a Design History degree and absolutely no real-life working skills, I took the first job that presented itself. It was at a dry auto technology magazine. The publisher was part of a thoroughly traditional institution – the kind of comical establishment where the management is almost all white middle-aged portly men in ill-fitted suits –- the type who take long lunches topped with bottles of wine on expenses and flirt openly with their PAs. This was a place where archaic sexist banter and the occasional ‘funny’ racially inappropriate remark were commonplace.

On occasion, I found myself defending colleagues whose gender, looks, race, sexuality upset the institution’s ‘norm’ –- never with much success since the bullyboys made sure the victims were quickly silenced. Eventually I escaped to begin the life of a free and independent design writer. I kept a foot in the auto world though.

Since its explosion a few years ago, the powerful #MeToo movement has ushered a much-needed debate surrounding gender inequality and sexual violence. In much the same way, the tragic killing of George Floyd earlier in the year and subsequent protests in US cities and across Europe led by Black Lives Matter have boldly shone a spotlight on the systemic racism and the lack of true equality in our societies. 

Which brings me back to the contemporary car scene. Gender-wise, the last decade has seen a noticeable shift in how women are encouraged across engineering, design, marketing and public relations. Saying that, there are still few female automotive chief executives with boardrooms across major traditional car companies occupied predominantly by men in suits.

Even within car design, in the creative world where you would expect more diversity, there is a noticeable lack of women in leadership positions other than in interior design, colour and trim. Similarly, there are simply not nearly enough culturally diverse voices in the auto design world.

When I originally posted this piece (this is a revised version), I was contacted by a senior executive from a notable car design studio based in Asia protesting to the above. He insisted that there were no such issues in the industry. Yet, the reality is out there: design studios are mostly overseen by men, and with a few exceptions, white men rule in Europe and the US, with a mix of Asian and European men holding creative power positions at the car design studios in Japan, South Korea and China. 

Even in mainstream automotive journalism, it is baffling how few writers of colour exist. The YouTube/social media scene seems has filtered in a few more shades, but the numbers are negligible. The same can be said for women and LGBT representations. Dare-I-say, I sense that the women who do make it into the fraternity seem to either conform to feminine stereotypes, or try to fit in by being one of the boys. Since writing this piece, I have been inundated with messages from women in design and journalism who wholeheartedly agree with the above.

But I’m not here to point fingers. Rather, my interest is in understanding why this is the case. Surely, more diverse voices will lead to more exciting conversations in all aspects of automotive – from design to engineering, and from the boardroom to the newsroom?

A senior member in car design, and a good friend, highlighted something that I hadn’t quite considered. Having read the original piece, he told me there is a genuine want and a push to be more inclusive. Yet the reality is to become a head of a design department in a large car company requires substantial experience, and it will therefore take time before this new wave of women and diverse groups have gained the expertise to manage departments. His own independent studio in Italy is a healthy mix of ages and sexes and ethnicity, and the benefits are clear in the work they produce. 

Recruiting women and people of colour and diverse backgrounds is one element. But perhaps more can be done at an earlier stage to include a wider pool of talent. Brands can work directly with educational establishments, even at school level to show those who may not be aware, or may not have the confidence or connections, of the possibilities of careers in the car industry. It happens successfully in other areas, so why not here. 

By contrast, art, architecture, design, fashion (areas in which I am also involved) have made significant efforts to be inclusive, acknowledging that there exists a problem, then discussing it openly. What is perhaps telling is that since the killing of George Floyd how few of my colleagues in automotive have responded vocally on social media and elsewhere in defence of equality and diversity.

Yet design and arts communities have come out in full support of the anti-racist movement. From MoMA to the Barbican Centre (even my yoga studio), cultural establishments have posted bold statements regarding their anti-racist pledge. This doesn’t mean these galleries and centres were racist. It means they acknowledge that more can be done. They are having an honest dialogue. They are taking positive actions.

I look back at my time at that very first institution and shudder at the sheer blatancy of gender and race inequality. Those men got away with so much because they knew that ultimately the system favoured them. The modern car industry is certainly more refined and there is less obvious a show of chauvinistic, but it’s clear that there is still work to be done. It can do better.

Diverse voices with different experiences and outlooks naturally lead to more exciting conversations. And it will help bring about genuine progress.

… a note following the publication

This is an updated version of a post originally published in June, edited to reflect the responses I received following the original piece. Much of what I claim here is from personal experience and first-hand knowledge. It is not imagined and the evidence pretty much speaks for itself.

Within minutes of posting the original post on social media, messages began appearing in public and private. One I blocked for his hair-raising fascist stance, some I chose to ignore for their stupidity (including one guy from Munich who couldn’t understand the fuss since design studios are, in his words, ‘fun places to work’ and another who unimaginatively wrote ‘all lives matter’). Yet largely they were positive adult discussions from the design community echoing my observations, and with some added tragicomedies which will have to make it into a fictional piece one day.

I am happy to hear some of my colleagues in car design take such issues seriously. Some, I now know, have created departments dedicated to working towards fairer and more equal environments. I hope they too will continue to listen to other voices and experiences – including mine. Prejudice may not exist in their studios, in their direct view, yet this doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

Following some worryingly passive-aggressive online bullying peppered with cutesy wink-smile emojis by the white male senior member of the Asian car design studio mentioned above, I eventually took the post down. He simply wore me out. Saying that, his name appears often as an ‘ism’ to explain away this type of blind-to-their-privileges characteristic (insert a wink-smile emoji here for my passive win, if you wish).

Yet, on the whole, the post created a genuinely engaging conversation, and much of what I’ve learned will naturally feed into my future writing. One reader noted that the car industry, on the whole, has long refrained from talking politics, that they see themselves as separate to these bigger discussions. I thought this is a really interesting point to conclude on.

If this were true of a sector which, up until now, has largely been involved in building personal motor cars, surely the next stage of transport, an altogether much more complex web, requires a deeper connection to politics and society? These are some thoughts that I hope will lead to more exciting discussions and eventually to positive change.