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.

Design insight: New BMW 7 Series

We are in Munich at BMW Welt, as in World, designed by the avant-garde Austrian architect Coop Himmelb(l)au as a hybrid of car showroom, entertainment venue and conference centre. Completed in 2007, it is now the second most visited site in the city. It is easy to see why. This is a fantastical structure of glass and steel that protrudes majestically up and into the clouds simultaneously sings to its neighbouring sites the Olympiapark and BMW cylinder-shaped HQ and Museum. This is pure visual drama.

Coop Himmelb(l)au means ‘blue-sky cooperative’, wordplay for the beliefs in what the firm says makes architecture ‘light and fluctuating like clouds’. There for the opening eight years ago, I was seated next to the co-founder Wolf Prix – a formidable figure as complex as the structures he envisages. Inspired by the Dadaists and Surrealists, he calls his work ‘drawing with one’s eyes closed’.

We are here to witness the unveiling of the sixth generation 7 Series, BMW’s pinnacle car in its saloon range. Automobiles like these are special jewels for carmakers and are thus redesigned once every decade to maintain their perceived value. The vast interior space inside BMW Welt helps highlight the importance of this new car. Much like the building, the 7 Series is the embodiment of luxury today – seemingly simple yet highly advanced.

Beneath the quiet, tailored metal sheet sits some serious smart tech. The 7 utilises the carbonfibre structure first seen on the BMW electric i cars whereby composite materials are combined with lightweight aluminium and durable steel to shed weight by some 130kg despite the car being taller and longer than its predecessor. This is the first BMW passenger car outside the i range to benefit from this pioneering technology.

Other advanced features include the very latest laser light headlights. The 7 can also self-park – the driver steps out of the car instructing the vehicle via the key fob to autonomously manoeuvre itself into a tight spot – and there is gesture control technology to adjust the stereo volume and accept/reject phone calls with a little finger wiggle. You could say this is a radical car in bourgeois disguise.

Adrian van Hooydonk calls it ‘modern luxury’ and for the BMW Group design director it was crucial to understand how this applies to car design today. So he sent his team to explore the world, flying them out to Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, but also ‘places you wouldn’t expect’, he notes, like Seattle, Lost Angeles and Singapore.

On their return the team filled a room the size of the vast hall we’re chatting in with objects, screens, videos from their adventures. ‘It was both enlightening and inspiring,’ he tells me. ‘It gave us lots of ideas of designing the smaller spaces. We realised it is about reviewing every detail and doing things differently.’

Van Hooydonk says it proved to him that when it comes to modern luxury there are similarities around the world. ‘For instance when you enter a luxury hotel there is a certain something there – it is about light, mood, ambience… It isn’t about, say, having gold everywhere but about being subdued, subtle. This is true of all markets.’


There is therefore no big explosive narrative with the latest 7 Series. This is a car that needs to resonate globally and so the design is restrained yet elegant with its interplay of cleanly drawn lines and the taut muscular tension of its surfaces creating a quietly expressive design. It contains tiny but nuanced changes, respectfully but determinedly updating the aesthetic of its predecessor.

Viewing the car from the profile, the strong character line that runs the length of the car dominates, directing the eye across the body. On closer inspection this is a double line and the first for BMW design. Van Hooydonk smiles saying, ‘it incorporates the door handle even better that before. It adds to the precision and quality of the car, don’t you think?’

The satellite BMW design studio in Shanghai has found that there is increasingly an appreciation of subtle luxury across the Asian markets too. Van Hooydonk has had feedback from China to reduce the amount of elements in design. Here in the 7 the smallest of details, many of which like the air vents have functional value, have been treated as little objects of desire – as graphic elements.

Inside takes a more traditional approach, yet the team has avoided any stylistic ornamentation. The cabin is an expression of easy elegance interpreting the concept of modern luxury whereby the passenger needs to immediately feel at home, at ease and relaxed so that it becomes almost a sanctuary from their busy lives. This is achieved through high levels of quality and craftsmanship and an abundance of quilted leather, tactile wood and chrome elements.

It is also about the little surprises that greet you when you enter the cabin. In the rear compartment, passengers are welcomed with the touch-operated ambient highlight around the door. And the Sky Lounge Panorama glass roof has LED lights that light up to give the impression of a starry sky at night. ‘It feels almost ethereal,’ muses van Hooydonk, ‘modern luxury is in the tiniest detail and in the elements of surprise.’

BMW turns 100 next year. And although the marque boasts a strong history, there is little association with the more sedate luxury sector the 7 resides in. Van Hooydonk explains: ‘I don’t believe people think traditional luxury should come from BMW. We are a driving company. Therefore we feel modern luxury is our niche and this has a lot to do with intelligence. This is why this car is packed with clever technology.’

I ask van Hooydonk how design should respond to cars becoming increasingly big and complex tech gadgets. ‘For us this is something worthy of exploring further,’ he says. ‘I think cars can and should become more intelligent. But they should be serving the customer. In the end the customer should be able to decide what he or she wants to do otherwise we are saying we don’t need the customer anymore and that I think is not so clever.’

Read more about the car as we test drive the car in Portugal, published in Wallpaper*.

Nargess Banks

Read our previous reports on BMW design here.

Read about BMW Welt when it was unveiled in 2007.

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VW’s electric London taxi concept

The taxi cab can be one of the most iconic features of an urban landscape – think the London black cab or the New York yellow taxi. With electric driving considered the most reasonable choice for current clean mobility, it makes sense to turn these often polluting vehicles into something ecologically responsible.

With this in mind Volkswagen has designed a taxi with London in mind that is not only electrically driven, but provides for a modern transportation environment. This is the last in its World Taxis series that has thus far included a Hong Kong, Berlin and Milanese cab.

This is a cute and quirky looking vehicle based very much on the loveable iconic original VW Campervan. Head of VW design Klaus Bischoff says this and the original Beetle have been the main inspiration for this concept and the Up city car for 2013 on which the taxi shares its underpinnings. ‘People remember these vehicles positively,’ he says noting that it is this sense of nostalgia that needs to find its way into the entire electric car range.

It is mainly with the face where VW hopes to make a unique impression with this car and the rest of the electric vehicle family. ‘VWs were born with their engines in the rear and so there was an absence of a radiator grille or an opening on the face,’ says the designer. An electric car doesn’t require an opening at the front – there is no conventional engine to cool. Therefore like the Up, the taxi concept’s face has a tiny ring shaped grille, there really to represents the mouth and in a sense complete the face. ‘We wanted to give the car a unique look, but one that is friendly and sympathetic,’ says Bischoff.

The prototype is relatively compact – 3,730mm long, 1,680mm wide and 1,600mm high. The absence of a conventional engine at the front and clever packaging however, has allowed for a pretty spacious interior that can sit a driver and two passengers in individual seats – as opposed to the usual bench – comfortably with lots of extra space to place for luggage.

Daytime running lights mounted within the headlight units are joined by a taxi light on the roof. At the rear the light units are integrated into the split tailgate, behind which are a pair of cubbies to house the driver’s belongings.

The light and spacious cabin is visually dominated by two large touch screen displays – one by the driver and one by the passengers. The driver can personalise the display setting on his display much like a smart phone, and in the rear a similar screen relays information to the passengers on their route and their immediate environment. Plus the reduced colour scheme that includes only a splash of red helps with electricity usage.

It takes just over an hour to charge the electric taxi’s slim battery to 80% of its capacity. The 113bhp electric motor gives a top speed of 74mph, and the 45kWh battery provides a range of up to 186 miles.

The prototype features deliberate tongue-in-cheek details such as the silver Union Jack on the roof and the City of London’s coat of arms on the sides and dashboard.

‘For me London has the most convincing taxi in the world,’ confesses Bischoff. ‘The New York taxi is nice, but not as comfortable as the London cab. It gives the urban setting a unique character, and we wanted to pay tribute to this.’

Read more on the VW  electric taxi cab in Wallpaper*.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | | Bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

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Book review: The Furniture of Carlo Mollino

Carlo Mollino (1905-73), the maverick Italian designer, created site specific and commissioned pieces that are considered works of art – a 1948 table sold for around $4m at an auction recently setting a world record for a piece of twentieth-century furniture.

The son of a prominent Turin engineer, Mollino joined his father’s firm after graduating from Turin’s Royal School of Architecture in 1931, leaving soon after to pursue his own career as a designer and architect.

He was involved with the avant-garde futurist and the surrealist movements of the time – evident in his highly expressive and sculptural work that contains an almost surreal narrative.

Mollino worked in numerous creative areas including furniture design, architecture, automobile design, theatre, photography, even town planning.

He based his furniture on organic shapes such as animal bones, tree branches and the human body – the female body is very much a dominant theme. Mollino was also keen on researching new materials and technology to create these complex structures.

For instance he developed a construction technique so that the structure seems liberated by the weight of the material as seen on the glass and bentwood Arabesque table (1949), still in production by Italian industrial design firm Zanotta.

Amongst his most notable architectural work is the Società Ippica Torinese headquarters (1935-9) and the Teatro Regio Torinese (1966) both in Turin. He also designed interiors. Experimenting with fabric and lighting, sometimes even creating his own murals, they were often quite theatrical.

The Furniture of Carlo Mollino presents his complete furniture and interior design. A collaborative effort with the Turin’s Museo Casa Mollino, and written by the museum’s curators Napoleone Ferrari and Fulvio Ferrari, this extensive monograph emphasises the contemporary significance of Mollino’s pioneering work.

Leafing through the pages of this informative and beautifully illustrated book, you can’t help being overwhelmed by how much pure original thought and artistic expression has gone into his every design and every creation. The result is that his furniture pieces are not just well executed but sensual, evocative and completely timeless.

The Furniture of Carlo Mollino by Fulvio Ferrari and Napoleone Ferrari is published by Phaidon. You can purchase this book and a comprehensive selection of design books on our new on-line bookstore opening on Design Talks soon.

Purchase this book here on the DT Bookstore.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | | Bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

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