observations

‘And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.’

Roald Dahl

Summer Fashions, American Vogue cover, 15 May 1941 © Conde Nast, Horst Estate

Summer Fashions, American Vogue cover, 15 May 1941 © Conde Nast, Horst Estate

21.11.2020

In 1959, the Suez Crisis led to oil shortages and the rise of fuel prices across the western world. British Motor Corporation responded by creating an economy car which was affordable and used little petrol. The Sir Alec Issigonis design for the original Mini was genius. The tiny motor car he invented for BMC could pack in more passengers than any other in its comparable size – and it was super-fun to drive too. The Boomers and young hip urbanites fell for its no-frills approach and go-kart drive. The Mini felt democratic; it was effortless and iconoclastic and starred in The Italian Job alongside thoroughly cool Michael Caine. It became and remains a symbol of 60s counterculture.

With the traditional motor car experiencing what only can be described as an existential crisis, modern MINI has a chance to become a symbol of the progressive 2020s. Maybe it can even become the future personal transport choice for gen Z. The MINI cars produced under BMW Group ownership in the last two decades are stylish products. They are good-looking, like the original they handle a little go-karty and don’t feel too posh and precious for urbanites. Yet I can’t help thinking there is something missing from the modern MINI formula. The marque could be so much more. Enter the MINI Vision Urbanaut, a shape-shifting electric vehicle that rethinks personal transport’s form and function, and it feels like the right direction for the brand.

Talking to the BMW Group creative director Adrian van Hooydonk earlier this month when the brand revealed its radical future vision under #NextGen, he told me: “MINI customers typically live in urban environments and I believe they are even more ready for electric drive and new ways of looking at mobility than perhaps our other brands. We can definitely go faster in this direction. The Vision Urbanaut shows how MINI can take our BMW iNext thoughts to another level. I think we can use MINI to push these concepts further.”

Take a closer look at some of the UX design ideas in the MINI Vision Urbanaut here.

13.11.2020

Wabi-sabi is an interesting philosophy which feels deeply connected to our times. Essentially, it follows the belief in the beauty within imperfection – the pleasure in the process of making, and the sensuous joy in small things. Originating from old Japan, wabi-sabi asks us to see the allure in the incomplete object, in the worn and weathered – in products with a storied past. It is about connecting the maker to the material and the process.

Now, a growing movement is championing wabi-sabi, and it is being largely led by generations, including mine, fatigued with the fetishization of busyness, and the cult of perfection. Many of us are increasingly alienated from this wasteful, throwaway culture and from a world that puts such high value on money, ego or fame – or worse, a combination of all three. The pandemic, though not the cause for this tidal change, has certainly progressed the mood.

Adrian van Hooydonk is one of the most powerful designers in the car world who essentially looks after the creative directions of the entire BMW Group portfolio which includes Rolls-Royce and Mini. Interestingly, he is also seeing a shift in attitude. He told me earlier this week how the pandemic will naturally impact on the way we consume – a surprisingly candid admission from someone involved with such a global car company.

‘People will make more deliberate choices – choose products that are authentic and meaningful to them in a personal way,’ he explained. ‘In the 1980s, people bought products on the basis of how it made them look, what did it say to their neighbours. Now, we are more likely to buy items on the basis of what it can do for me and my loved ones – how can it change our lives for the better. The trend was already here, but the pandemic has definitely sped it up.’ How this will impact on cars, how they are designed and marketed will be interesting to observe.

But going back to the wabi-sabians of today, these new mavericks and maker are echoing the Arts and Crafts movement that came before them. Moved by the literature and music of the Romantics, John Ruskin and William Morris and their comrades fought tirelessly to salvage the art of making as a reaction to mass industrialisation and high mechanisation almost two centuries ago. They understood the relation between art, society and labour, and knew that placing value on the joy of craft, connecting the craftsperson directly to their product, and rejoicing in the natural beauty in materials – were all instrumental in forming happier, healthier lives.

As we head deep into the machine age, begin to see the horrid effects of globalisation and the displacement and disappearance of communities, and try to salvage a climate in crisis, echoes of the Arts and Crafts continue to shine some light on life.

This week I also spoke to another designer, James Otter, who carves out surfboards from sustainable timber. Not surprisingly he is a deep advocate of making and, like most in the new movement, is concerned about the planet. ‘As someone who designs and makes things for a living, for me it is so apparent that every decision I make along a product’s journey has an environmental impact,’ he says, ‘and if we want to continue to make things – and survive on this wonderful planet – we need to put the environment first, always.’ He then offered some great tips on the art of craft and how to get started.

Take a closer look here and get making!

24.10.2020

There is no secret in that art and money have long shared a seductive rapport. Yet supporting the creative industries today – largely left out of government assistant schemes and paralysed by the pandemic – is hugely critical. The Covid crisis, and the global economic downfall which is more than likely to follow, is already having a devastating impact on the arts and we should all do our part to help.

For my very minor part, I’ve kept my membership to galleries and cultural hubs running despite the lack of live art, and support the Art Fund. I also continue to subscribe to certain magazines and journals – as real journalism will not survive unless people are willing to pay for words. My own community of writers and publishers have no future unless the public – which sadly includes many of my own acquaintances – actually pay for what they read. After all, we don’t order a three-course meal at a restaurant but settle the bill for just the starter. That would seem utterly absurd. Yet this is essentially what many do when using the free teaser articles offered by publications online.

Last Sunday I visited Frieze Art London’s sculpture gallery in the open-air setting of Regent’s Park. With pandemic social restrictions firmly in place, it happens to be one of the sole live art events available without pre-booking or a safety mask. Wandering through Gavin Turk’s ‘L’Âge d’Or’ (2019) door sculpture and entering a surrealist world not too dissimilar to those painted by René Magritte (and ever so perfectly fitting for our time), then physically experiencing the remaining artwork, I walked away elevated – filled with the wonders of life.

If life’s luxuries involve these precious experiences, these moments and associations, then surely keeping the arts alive should be on top of all businesses’ list – every individual’s list. ‘To commission artists during a pandemic is an act of determination and faith in the power of culture to inform and transform our lives,’ says the Rolls-Royce CEO Torsten Müller-Ötvös.

His company is heavily invested in the arts via the ‘Muse’ project which includes the biannual Dream Commission, aimed at emerging and mid-career artists who demonstrate innovation in the field of moving image art.

As the name suggests, participants are asked to investigate their dreams as a way of finding an alternative sensory universe – perhaps take us on journeys into the world of the subconscious. Their work needs to be impactful, immersive – possibly even participatory.

The shortlist for the inaugural 2021 competition are making hugely relevant artwork that touches on concepts of race and colour and identity, and our relation to technology – brave topics to be taken on by a company like Rolls-Royce.

The artists were independently selected by an international jury to include Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the Serpentine Galleries artistic director, as well as Theodora Vischer senior curator at Fondation Beyeler in Basel and filmmaker Isaac Julien.

Obrist told me: ‘More than ever, we should be listening to artists. It is often they who have the most important and prescient ideas about how one can act in times of crisis.’

He says of the Dream Commission: ‘It acts as a laboratory for artists, and what has become evident is that this next generation is thinking about mixed reality, and quite radically liberating moving image away from defining characteristics such as its loop – so works become instead infinite, sprawling and organic.’

The reality is that many of these works would not see the light of day without the patronage of business. Cultural philanthropy and associating with the arts also does wonders for a brand like Rolls-Royce which resides in the upper ladders of luxury – in a place and space where wealth isn’t so much about accumulating luxury goods but having a passion or at least being surrounded by those who do.

The arts help us make sense of the world. Or to quote the actor and writer Stephen Fry: ‘The secret of life can be found in books and art’.

Take a look at the work of the four shortlisted artists in the Rolls-Royce 2021 Dream Commission here, and see my interview with Hans-Ulrich Obrist here

13.10.2020

‘Since our daughter Paula died 27 years ago, I have lost my fear of death forever. First, because I saw her die in my arms, and I realised that death is like birth, it’s a transition, a threshold, and I lost my personal fear. At this moment if I catch the virus, I belong to the group of the most vulnerable. I’m 77 years old, and I know that if I catch the virus, I could die; this possibility at this point in my life is very clear, but I look at it with curiosity and without fear.

It has never been so clear to me that I need very little to live. I don’t need to buy, I don’t need more clothes, I don’t need to go anywhere, or travel, now I see I have too much. I don’t need more than two dishes! Then I started to realise who the true friends are and the people I want to be with.

What has the pandemic taught us? It is teaching us priorities and it is showing us a reality. The reality of inequality. How some people spend the pandemic on a yacht in the Caribbean, and other people are starving.

We’re all connected, and that’s really evidence of the tribal idea that we’re separated by groups and that we can defend our small group from other groups is an illusion. There are no walls, or walls that can separate people. The virus has brought a new mindset and today a large number of people, among them: creators, artists, scientists, young men and women, are moving towards a new normal. They don’t want to go back to old normality.

The virus invited us to design a new future. What do we dream for ourselves as global humanity? I realised we came into the world to lose everything. First, you lose your parents or very sweet people, your pets, some places and then slowly your own mental and physical faculties. You cannot live in fear, because it makes you imagine what has not happened yet and you suffer twice as much. You have to relax a bit, try to enjoy what you have and live in the present.’

Chilean author Isabel Allende, 2020

11.10.2020

Entrepreneur, investor, environmentalist Jasper Smith is redefining luxury travel with his company Arksen’s curated eco marine adventurers. I catch up with him to see how his venture is developing in light of the coronavirus pandemic and growing concern over the environment.

Smith speaks candidly about his deep concerns over the climate crisis and tells me why he and other businesses need to be proactive when it comes to the environment. 

Read the interview here

29.09.2020

This week I spoke with Louis Vuitton’s Virgil Abloh and Mercedes-Benz’s Gorden Wagener on Project Geländewagen – a fresh perspective on luxury to speak the language of a new generation who don’t necessarily respond to the clichés of opulence.

This experimental project is the antithesis of the polished and flawless aesthetic – all those tired concepts of luxury seemingly trapped in the echoes of the past and unable to escape – for something altogether a little more raw, and a lot more honest.

I asked the two creative directors how this collaboration will impact their future ideas, and what the lessons they may have learned from this pandemic and the approaching climate crisis.

Take a look at what they have to say here

25.09.2020

I little while I ago I posted an observational piece on the lack of diversity in the automotive sphere. I’ve since updated the piece to reflect the responses I received following the original article.

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 appeared in public and in private. One I blocked for it was blatantly fascistic, and some I ignored – including one guy who couldn’t understand the fuss since design studios are meant to be ‘fun places to work’, while another white male unimaginatively wrote ‘all lives matter’. Yet largely they were positive and 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.

I did eventually take the post down following some blatant online bullying by one senior member of the supposedly more progressive car design community – done through cutesy wink-smile emojis, of course. I don’t engage so much on social media and his act was too manipulative for me to bother battling against. Ironically it reminded me of some of the dealings I had with the men in my first job. I do, however, use his name on occasion as an ‘ism’ to explain away this type of seemingly blind-to-their-privileges characteristic (insert a wink-smile emoji here for my passive win).

But 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 sperate to these bigger discussions. I thought this is an interesting point.

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 positive change. Take a closer look here

04.09.2020

The new Rolls Royce Ghost is reflective of a visual language for a (hopefully) more subtle and discreet post-pandemic luxury landscape. Seen – and to be driven later this month – this is an accomplished product that wears its wealth lightly. And I’m sincerely hoping the design team will entice their wealthy and influential customers to invest in more sustainable fabrics inside, and to use this as a vehicle for exploring materials beyond the traditional leather and wood.

The pandemic has given us the opportunity to rethink our world, help imagine an altogether better one, a more sustainable one … and this extends very much to how we view the design of more exclusive items. They can lead the way.

Take a look here

28.08.2020

A little while ago I co-wrote a book entirely dedicated to the sweet side of life – much of which existed purely in the imagination. The design critic Stephen Bayley generously wrote of The Life Negroni: ‘It is an album, a love letter, a guide, a memoir and a rich source of graphic delight.’

With a sweet spot for any project that defies convention and (even better) isn’t made for profit, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by this one: A product created entirely out of a deep passion for a classic cocktail, love of cars and a thirst for adventure.

This Negroni Trunk – by New York men’s style fixture and founder/editor of lifestyle magazine WM Brown Project Matt Hranek – is designed entirely to make life just that little bit more pleasurable. It certainly works for me.

Take a closer look at the project here

21.08.2020

Rolls-Royce is calling it post-opulence. Bannenberg & Rowell say it is post-hedonism. Is luxury about to enter a new age? The reality is with almost any product or experience casually labelled ‘luxury’, the concept no longer holds any special value.

Today, luxury is more than often brash, vulgar, and a mirror of the less tasteful side of our cultures. It is time to reclaim the word and make it relevant to the post-coronavirus era.

Take a look at one brand doing just this here

27.07.2020

Adirondack Guideboat is a heritage company based in Vermont, New England in the US, where brothers Justin and Ian Martin craft rowing boats from sustainable cedar wood and lightweight fibreglass using artisan skills that honour the classic design passed down some 150 years.

As this global pandemic’s devastating impact on our world brings on a lively focus on the promise of life, and of the beauty of nature – personally, I wish I was rowing one of these crafts…

Take a closer look here

24.07.2020

Modern car design is complex. No longer is it a question of sculpting advanced surfaces and forming beautiful shapes. The focus now is increasingly on the customer journey – directly our every little move even before we pick up the keys. So it comes with little surprise that creative thinkers are playing a bigger role in user experience design, and helping to shape its future direction.

To understand the process and future possibilities, I spoke with Pininfarina’s experience design director David Carvalho. He discusses the latest AutonoMIA system – a personalized, intuitive, and immersive UX system that will grow with 5G, AI, and AR.

See the interview here

26.05.2020

As head of BMW’s cultural engagement, Thomas Girst is deeply passionate about arts and ideas. He involves the company in some really interesting projects which not only help these artists and institutions – many of whom rely entirely on corporate sponsorship – but the partnerships also subtly boost BMW’s brand image externally and internally.

Of course, there’s always been a mutually seductive rapport between art and money – and BMW isn’t alone even among car companies to tap into the art world. Yet, not all sponsorships and patronages feel genuine. Some are so off the rail you do wonder who signed the cheque.

Girst’s work, though, is different. His choices are relevant to the brand and are topical. They can also be daring – be it exploring the virtual real, the seducing powers of technology, or the plight of the refugee. The latest partnership looks at the climate crisis with Leelee Chan, the winner of the BMW Art Journey with Art Basel, examining how ancient materials and their future substitutes from the fields of nanotechnology and biotechnology inform our debate around ecological and cultural sustainability.

I spoke with Girst following the Art Journey announcement to see where he feels the art world is heading. And he spoke passionately about the vital need for corporations to sponsor and support the arts in the post-pandemic world. He also offered some valuable tips as to how businesses can best get involved with the creative world.

Take a closer look here

17.05.2020

I’ve been using the extra time gained for lack of travel to get in contact with designers and innovators from cars to yachts and aircrafts – from computational designers to industrial designers, young creatives and visionaries rethinking our cities.

The discussions have largely been very interesting – together painting a picture of what the world may look and feel like – or at least the possibilities of societal change post-pandemic.

On the luxury front, Alex Innes head of Rolls-Royce Coachbuild Design spoke of an era of post-opulence – an age where timeless objects will gain more value, and customers will form deeper relations with luxury brands.

While Dickie Bannenberg of yacht design studio Bannenberg & Rowell spoke of a period he predicts to be highlighted by post-hedonism, when yachts return to their original concept of taking us as close as possible (without owning an island) to the sea.

Read more here

23.05.2020

How can the design community work with computational design – utilising virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and video gaming – to help advance the design process, create complex geometries, and the kind of advanced sculptural forms that would otherwise not be possible through conventional design methods? I asked Arturo Tedeschi, architect and computational designer of Milan studio A>T, what he sees as the possibilities and limitations of the design process.

Read the full interview here

18.05.2020

Like many, the lockdown and the menace of death, has brought a lively focus on the promise of life and of every little detail of nature. My roses seem more abundant than ever, the jasmine sweeter, and the wild garden buzzing with honeybees, so much so that I am tempted (yes I know an urban cliche) into honeymaking.

Take a look at some of the imaginative outdoorsy events taking place at car plants with production largely on pause here

06.05.2020

What are the possibilities of generative design, of unifying technology, materials science, and organic forms as a way of creating a new aesthetic to be biological rather than mechanical and to be an expression of this century? The London-based industrial designer Ross Lovegrove discusses this as we look at his latest creation, a series of highly technical perfume bottles informed by F1.

Read on…

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