The last days of combustion

We’re finally at the concluding chapter of (to borrow a lovely phase by a friend and colleague Stephen Bayley) the ‘age of combustion’. I say finally, because ever since I stumbled upon the automotive world (quite by chance some decades ago) we’ve been promised a new beginning, a more progressive landscape of non-polluting transport that isn’t showy, isn’t congesting cities and isn’t harming the planet. And it has taken a mighty long time for this transition to actually happen. But it is here, and I’m having strangely mixed emotions.

As I drive the last few gasoline powered cars (I’m referring to lean and sexy grand tourers and sports cars, not bloated SUVs) I’m sensing a touch of loss, perhaps even a little sense of nostalgia. Who would have thought. For all its shortcomings, the age of combustion gave us some incredible beauty, lots of sexiness and so much desire, even if the last two were often a little on the side of cliche.

Will these raw emotions survive the age of electric? Or the age of autonomous? Better question, do they need to? Can’t a car just be a smart, safe place to take us from place to place and not have to communicate so many extra layers? Or will the age of electric, hydrogen, autonomous, space… bring even more exciting emotions to the road? 

The car of the age of the future will need to find its own expression. And that in itself will be interesting to observe. But for now take a look at a car that to me seems like the perfect farewell ode to the age of combustion, the Bentley Continental GT Speed.

Genesis chief creative officer Luc Donckerwolke on building a new car brand

Luc Donckerwolke, Genesis chief creative officer
Luc Donckerwolke, Genesis chief creative officer

To make all this happen, Genesis has brought on-board Luc Donckerwolke who, as chief creative officer, will lead design now and into the future. This is a highly calculated move since in a career spanning some 30 years, the Belgian designer has been instrumental in re-shaping car brands such as Lamborghini, Audi, Bentley and more. He has a way of rethinking even the most conservative carmakers to be fresh and relevant.

Genesis Mint Concept is an all-electric city car concept

The Genesis story is about to get exciting. Declared independent from Hyundai only five years ago, this relatively new brand has ambitious plans to challenge the status quo with products that look to the future of mobility by basing design on progressive technology. Already present in the Asian and US markets, this summer Genesis entered Europe with five production cars to be followed later in the year with three electric models.

Intrigued to learn more about what Donckerwolke plans to do with Genesis — an almost blank canvas to draw up a vision for post-combustion times — I arranged a video call, me from London, he from Seoul.

Take a closer look here.

See fashion designer Paul Smith’s imaginative and sustainable MINI Strip

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.

Read the full report here

Modernist icon: Charlotte Perriand at the Design Museum

Charlotte Perriand La Cascade residence, Arc 1600, 1967-1969 © AChP

‘There is 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.

‘Charlotte Perriand: The Modern’ at the Design Museum in London sheds a timely light on the life and work of one of the pioneers of modern design and architecture

‘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.’

Charlotte Perriand at the Design Museum

Images: Charlotte Perriand on her chaise longue basculante B306, 1929, perspective drawing of the dining room in the apartment-studio, bookcase for the Maison du Mexique, 1952 – all © AChP/ ADAGP; Perriand’s ball-bearing necklace 1927 and Fernand Léger’s Nature morte, le mouvement à billes 1926, cantilever bamboo chair 1940, chaise longue with pendant lamps 1958 by Isamu Noguchi © Design Museum; Perriand’s La Cascade residence, Arc 1600, 1967-1969 © AChP; exhibition installation © Design Museum

Sudo Reiko explores material’s possibilities at Japan House London

Making Nuno, Japanese Textile Innovation from Sud? Reiko

‘Some things disappear, some things have to disappear, but some things live on using different materials and technologies,’ says Sudo Reiko. The visionary Japanese textile designer’s work is anchored on exploring the possibilities of textile. Often fusing ancient and modern techniques, and involving unusual materials, her studio Nuno’s fabrics are almost always unexpected and imaginative. Now, Japan House London is hosting an exhibition dedicated to her work.

Making Nuno, Japanese Textile Innovation from Sud? Reiko

Making Nuno, Japanese Textile Innovation from Sudo Reiko (17 May ? 11 July 2021) is an immersive study of the artist and her studio’s creations. ‘Textile gives us the knowledge about our past, present and future,’ says Takahashi Mizuki. ‘I want to bring visitors to the journey of the textile through experiencing the production,’ adds the curator and executive director at the Centre for Heritage, Arts and Textile in Hong Kong, where a similar show was displayed two years ago.

Making Nuno, Japanese Textile Innovation from Sud? Reiko

Sudo’s fabrics tell infinite stories of time, place and people. She says in Japanese textile making, there is a tradition of handing down knowledge and knowhow through generations, and so the human factor, the people and their personalities, are central to the work at Nuno. Working with artisans around Japan, the studio also helps preserve skills passed on through generation.

Making Nuno, Japanese Textile Innovation from Sud? Reiko

Five large dynamic installations offer Japan House visitors a chance to see some of Nuno’s experimental processes in action. The Kibiso Crisscross fabric, for instance, takes the discarded protective outer layer of silk cocoons to make yarns from the tough remnants in tailored machines. Or, to celebrate of textile’s industrial process, discarded punch cards, which control the movements of the warp yarn on the programmable Jacquard weaving looms, are roughly stitched together for a screen that projects ethereal shadows onto a wall.

'Making Nuno, Japanese Textile Innovation from Sud? Reiko' at Japan House London explores the work of the visionary textile designer

There is a poetic energy to Sudo’s work that make her objects feel timeless. And her sustainable approach to product and production are extremely timely as consumers become more environmentally aware and expect greater accountability from brands they invest in.

‘I grew up in a small country town, where every spring and autumn we looked forward to the arrival of the travelling salesman and his bundle of kimono fabrics,’ recalls Sudo. ‘Hiding behind my mother, aunt and grandfather, I would watch spellbound as he presented these beautiful textiles, one after the other, on the tatami mats. That was probably when I first dreamt of one day becoming someone who makes beautiful fabrics.’

Images © Japan House London