Marek Reichman on Aston Martin’s Cygnet

Luxury, bespoke, customised – overused words that run the risk of losing their true meaning. But what does it really mean to design a car in today’s saturated market that encapsulates all these words yet is relevant to our changing world? Aston Martin has created such a car – co-created is probably the more accurate definition given that the base is the work of Toyota.

In a nutshell the Cygnet is a very small commuter runaround designed ideally for urban mobility. To this end it isn’t very unusual. The Cygnet, though, is one of the only cars in this genre that can be customised, inside and out, for an almost personal product.

Once you have specified your desired look from the almost infinite number of body colour and interior trim options, there is very little to associate this car with the iQ from which it borrows the skeleton.

We drove various shades of Cygnets, including the most luxurious Launch Edition that comes in white or black, around London – the city’s traffic almost an ideal location to test the car.  In the passenger seat sat Aston Martin’s design director Marek Reichman to discuss some of the challenges he faced designing a small Aston Martin.

Design Talks Aston Martin makes fast elegant sports cars – James Bond cars. What made you venture in this very different direction?

Marek Reichman There is this house in St John’s Wood [in London] that used to have a beautiful garden but has now turned into a tarmac driveway for the owner’s cars: a Bentley, Aston Martin, Range Rover, Porsche Cayenne, a Mercedes E Class or S Class, a Smart car and a G-Wiz.

There is a huge opportunity here. The Smart has only two seats and the G-Wiz is electric but quite shocking. So if you want something that has the same quality as the other cars that you have in your range then the Cygnet is perfect and you can get four people in it.

DT Driving it around London’s congested roads, it seems the ideal fit.

MR The Cygnet is a perfect product for the city that meets the needs from a luxury perspective for an Aston Martin owner. If we attract some other customers along the way then that is great too.

DT Are you then predominantly hoping to attract your own loyal customers – this is after all a car that comes with a rather premium price tag?

MR Some of our customers will be people who have the assets to buy an Aston Martin, but don’t necessarily aspire to drive a sports car – and believe me there are plenty of people like that. They love the brand but we don’t provide anything but a sports car. I believe it will also bring people from outside the brand.

DT This car feels almost like a household product especially in the version you collaborated with designer Tom Dixon. Was this your intention?

MR Yes this is about thinking differently about luxury. I had product design and accessories in mind when designing this. The interior is almost like a woman’s luxury handbag.

Tom Dixon is a brand, a design icon that thinks differently and works on a global scale. We are also a lifestyle brand and we feel a connection here. Working with him encouraged us to think differently. We enjoy collaborating with the likes of him on projects outside the automotive world.

DT There is some brilliant design ideas inside the Cygnet such as the glove compartment that doubles as a portable bag. What inspired you for the interior?

MR Inside much of it has been influenced by some of the things we saw at the Milan Furniture Fair in terms of materials and colours. We also looked at what’s the most important thing in this car – the steering wheel, centre console and your entrance and exit points as this is a small car.

There is real stitching and we’ve added a little bit of drama to the stitch lines. There will be more accessories on offer such as a dog basket, for a small dog naturally, so you can carry your pet out of the car.

DT Leather is the dominant material inside. Did you consider working with more high-tech material?

MR I always approach the interior with the material and find the one that becomes most synonymous with the brand. For us it is leather. There is a reason why leather has remained a success in the luxury industry and not just with cars. It is such a fabulous material that has a sense of longevity. With leather you get this feeling you can keep repairing it, keep polishing it and it only gets better.

DT It is much easier to create an elegant car when you have room to stretch the vehicle, and play around with horizontal lines to create visual length. This is hugely more challenging in a car of Cygnet’s size. How did you approach this car?

MR It had to be an instantly likeable product with an instantly likeable face. ‘Oh that is a cute car, what is it?’ reaction. Therefore it has a cute face, has great proportions and doesn’t look silly. This is why we wanted to use this chassis because it is quite a serious proportion – very wide and you can forget that there is only half meter behind you.

DT You’ve faced some harsh criticism from some of the British motoring press since announcing this car. Why have the predominantly male press felt such anger?

MR When we had the Cygnet launch party in Italy all the guys were all over the cars.  The mentality, however, is completely different here – British men don’t like small cars.

You see the Italians and the French, in Paris in particular, have been living with small cars for years. In Paris the parking situation is so that you often have to drive up the curb to park you car. So most sports cars are either kept in private garages, at dealerships or outside the city.

DT How will this car impact on the Aston Martin brand?

MR The whole evolutionary concept has to apply to cars as well. As Darwin said if you don’t develop and adopt you will disappear and if you don’t collaborate you’ll also disappear.

Space in the world is at a premium because the populations are growing and economies despite recessions are in growth, with people’s lives getting better in the next 10-15 years. We are just supporting this need.

DT [Chief executive] Dr Ulrich Bez has talked about expanding the Aston Martin range with two to three new models that include a sporty crossover to be born out of the Lagonda project. How far can you expand the product range and would you consider designing a two or three-wheel alternative city runaround?

MR I don’t see why not. It really is endless as the brand has so much potential. In the last five years our profit has been incredible and the investment is amazing. The only constraint is that we are an independent company so everything has to be profitable.

DT You recently opened a dealership in Mumbai. What are your thoughts on markets such as India, China, Brazil?

MR Yes we’ve just launched ourselves in India with this new dealership in Mumbai with New Delhi next on the agenda. In China they absolutely loved the Cygnet. I was at the Shanghai Motor Show recently and we showed the car to our dealers there. The reaction was great. There is huge potential in these countries.

Read Cygnet in the city published in the Aston Martin magazine.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Aston Martin has since hinted at an electric Cygnet in the near future.

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

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Fabio Filippini on Renault’s interior design

Renault wants to create more intuitive interiors. The French marque would like to progress the interface for easy navigation and control. To achieve this Renault is translating some of the ways we interface with electronic consumer devices, yet retaining some automotive codes for the areas relating to driving, control and safety.

We caught up with head of interior design Fabio Filippini at the Paris studio to discover how.

Design Talks There seems to be a visible move towards interior design that is closely linked to the modern home and the latest electronic devices that are technologically advanced yet reduced in design.

Fabio Filippini I agree that more and more the interior aspect of the car will become important, and so there is this need for it to be as well designed and as functional as possible so that it becomes almost a second home.

DT Are car companies leading this movement towards a more innovative interface or is it consumer driven?

FF Neither. It is more a synergy between the advanced studios and consumer choice.

This is a global evolution and something we see as a worldwide trend. As people spend more time in their cars they expect their cars to be secure and to cocoon them, and to have complete connectivity with the environment. As car designers we need to evolve the car to accommodate these needs.

DT Do you see the car evolving to become more human as opposed to man more machine?

FF For Renault it is essential to have the human part, and the client, the human is always at the centre of our research. People shouldn’t be forced to adapt to cars – although this doesn’t mean that there will be home furniture design in the car.

DT But how do you inject humanity, yet maintain the mechanical aspect of driving?

FF There are strong automotive codes related to driving in the interior of the car: gearshifts and control buttons. Therefore only part of the car’s interface will take from electronic devices like the iPad where there is no physical connection apart from the touch screen.

However, we cannot mix these two areas up. The driver controls associated with the mechanical part of the car have to maintain their car codes. Eventually we will find new codes but we will arrive at this gradually.

Like other inventions, new codes also will take time to be adopted by the consumer.

DT What defines the modern code?

FF In the 20th century this was the car and in the 21st century it is consumer electronics – and like cars the references for consumer electronics are global ones.

It is also important to note that these automotive codes are especially important to customers in developing countries who like the idea of the car that existed in the 60s. Although these customers – especially those in India – are ahead of us when it comes to consumer electronics, they still expect traditional codes when it comes to their cars.

DT How do you translate the reduced design we see in modern personal electronic devices to cars?

FF I think it is more than reduced design. If you look at smart phones like the iPhone, it may seem minimalist in design, but it has strong presence. When you hold it, the weight and the feel of the real metal rim makes it a strong simple shape with the highest expression of material use.

We would like to adapt this physical aspect of touch, but touch that is easily understood which means moving away from the sci-fi controls design to a more reduced one.

DT How can car designers integrate these codes to make the car as modern as the iPad but maintain those essential automotive codes?

FF One main aspect is to be intuitive: to create an interface that is easy to control and relates to the way we interface with consumer gadgets, then retaining the auto codes for the areas relating to driving, control and safety.

DT The recent electric DeZir prototype – as shown at the Paris Motor Show in September 2009 – seems to express this philosophy perfectly. The interior is extremely minimalist, to the point that the central touch screen user interface is essentially all there is, as almost every other control is located on the steering wheel.

FF The car represents our manifesto to have a soft finished, protective space – an enveloping area, and then clear identified controls that are limited but high quality.

Inside the DeZir you have a big, soft expanse covered in white leather. Then in the driver area you have a clear instrument cluster and a touch screen unit that is tactile, whilst the driving elements are separated by their chrome finishing so as to be physical. Finally the red glossy finishing separates the driver from the passenger.

DT Do you see this trend expanding with the clean autonomous car of the future?

FF The customer will want to have strong control like they do with his personal electronic gadgets and this is something that has to be maintained even with the autonomous car.

The connectivity shouldn’t interfere with security. Therefore there has to be some kind of division between the driving part and the non-driver part.

DT Renault and partner Nissan are very active in developing a family of electric cars. What is your interior approach here?

FF With electric vehicles it will be a question of how we can offer more wellbeing in the car. EVs have silent engines therefore we will have to find ways of calming down cabin noise. We will have air filers controlling humidity, and generally working harder to stimulate the basic senses – touch, smell and sound.

DT Any thoughts on the future of the automobile?

FF The period of speed and power related to the car belongs to the 20th century. In the 21st century, when you can push a button and connect with Australia in a matter of seconds, speed is no longer necessarily connected with the automobile.

The car, therefore, will change to be a slow moving device, for looking outside and choosing what you want the car to do for you. The car will be symbolic of freedom of choice. The car, home and office will all be connected via your smart phone.

For us designers the task is to make simplicity out of complexity, but add emotion – a personalisation of emotion is where the future is.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Read more on car interior design concepts: Frank Stephenson on interior trends, Jaguar’s quirky cabin designParis Motor Show: Car design trends.

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

All rights and labelled images are covered by ©