I’ve been speaking with a number of senior creatives in the car world lately. My interest is in understanding how various brands are navigating their way to the new electric and autonomous age of the automobile. Like many, I am hugely excited to see a genuine shift in attitude, even among the more conservative makers. And I’m eager to see how designers are responding to change – if they are willing to radically rethink car design.
In the last few months alone, most of the major makers have set out their net zero plans, and we are now beginning to see and drive products designed and engineered purely for electric drive. What has become clear though is that this first wave of clean(er) powered transport are not revolutionary in design. The radical approach I was hoping for may happen along the journey once makers and users ease into electric drive.
That said, my fear is that collectively car companies will become too comfortable in this interim phase – that they will see enough profit not to push for real change. Yet, electric drive offers a golden opportunity for the design community to lead the way in expressing a whole new form of transport – possibly find a new form language that can explore the car’s larger societal responsibilities. Surely there is so much excitement in this.
On that note, happy Spring and happy Nowruz – to a new day and all its possibilities.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This Volvo 360c is an intriguing concept. This research project is at once a self-driving office with hot-desking on the move, a social hub, and it can be transformed into a tranquil bedroom-on-wheels – upper-class air travel on land. These ideas aren’t necessarily pioneering, but what makes the 360c pretty exciting is how it is being used as a channel for dialogue with other car companies, policy makers and governments to help find real answers, safety solutions, and a universal language for autonomous driving communication. Even more exciting, the 360c has its gaze on airlines… Read my full review in Wallpaper* here
The former BMW design director Chris Bangle once told me he believes at times form needs to follow fantasy. ‘For the future of car design, function is the last refuge of the unimaginative,’ he concluded. The Japanese are masters of fantasy – reflected through their imaginative, virtual worlds of animation and comics, anime and manga. Bangle may have said this to ruffle the stiff collars of the automotive world, but can car design learn from this, and is it right to assume that with clean car design, it makes good sense to reference such a futuristic, fantasy world?
Felipe Roo Clefas seems to thinks it does. The Belgium designer, who works in London at Nissan Design Europe, has an almost visceral connection to the clean graphics, the intricately designed machinery and robots, and the narrative that makes anime almost believable.
When asked to lead the project team for the Terranaut concept, Roo Clefas almost gave the car a science fiction narrative. ‘The story is most important in anime and with this I created believable fantasy,’ he says. The 3D user interface in the car references the anime Ghost in the Shell. ‘I see more of this 3D interaction happening in the next five to six years,’ he adds.
François Bancon believes the young have a different sense of reality. ‘They interface with the world through the computer,’ says the general manager at Nissan and Infiniti’s Advanced Design studio in Japan. ‘They are no longer interested in products but in experiences.’
Bancon works with an international team in the Yokohama studio penning the next-generation of Nissan and Infiniti cars. He believes anime and manga’s stylised graphics and fascination with the virtual world is having a major impact on how the emerging generation of car designers are approaching the profession.
One of his team members Eunsun Yoo admits that depending on the given project, anime and manga have philosophically influenced her work. She recalls the Nissan Mixim scheme where its interior was conceptually rooted in computer games, and visually connected to anime and manga. ‘It was more of a philosophical than a physical influence. It was about having no boundaries between the real and the virtual world,’ says the Korean designer, adding that her generation – she is 29 – who were raised on computer games and Second Life see no margins between the virtual and the real worlds.
The Mixim cabin is blatantly futuristic and also influenced by Ghost in the Shell. ‘The Mixim like Ghost isn’t a utopian future, but a little bit dark,’ she explains. ‘This was a car aimed at a young future generation and therefore I worked on the idea of how to blur the boundaries. The centre-positioned driver seat is F1 and computer game inspired, as is the steering wheel, and the control panels.’
Many of the new generation of car designers, especially those coming from Asia, have a different concept of beauty that isn’t necessarily rooted in classical proportions. ‘To them beauty isn’t just about looking like a Jaguar E-Type, but a sense of proportion multiplied by features,’ observes Victor Nacif who heads the multi-national Nissan design team in Europe. He admits that the fashion is predominantly led by Asian themes and Japanese designers who tend to have a different notion of beauty.
Kimberly Wu says she has always been inspired by traditional and contemporary illustration of anime and manga. A transport design graduate of the Art Centre College of Design in Pasadena, she now works at Honda’s California advanced design studio where they conceive future, mainly green cars.
‘To me, anime is an idealised fantasy version of reality,’ she explains. ‘With body parts pulled, stretched and exaggerated, these characters hardly resemble real men and women. Yet, one cannot deny a certain appeal in the doll-like figures. In some respect, car design follows in the same formula: we pull lines, stretch form and exaggerate wheels – all for the sake of a sexier proportion.’
Her former tutor Bumsuk Lim says that many younger car designers are exploring ways in which to translate the extreme emotional expression found in anime and manga to a real-world product like the car. Electric cars open the possibility to add expression to the front-end. With only minimum openings required to cool the engine, affectively you are left with a large blank canvas to project a new face for the car. This, and sophisticated lighting technology, creates endless possibilities for designers to create new expressions.
Lim agrees the connection between the two makes particular sense as we enter the second phase of the automobile. ‘This virtual reality world ties in with what car designers are doing with the green movement, creating their own fantasy world,’ he explains. With the mechanical part – as in the engine – no longer the sole fascination, the next generation of the automobile can affectively be any shape it chooses to be.
One of his students James Chung recently created a city car with a cute face visibly inspired by anime. ‘It proves that an electric car can be any shape. The concept of the automobile as a machine will change to the concept of automobile as a device. And a device can have any look,’ he says. ‘I tell my students this is the best time to be a designer.”
But is this all limited to Asian carmakers? On the whole yes but there are designers like Luc Donckerwolke who have always loved manga. ‘I came to car design from the cartoon world,’ says the Seat design director who previously headed Lamborghini design where he was responsible for such cars as the 2002 Murciélago, the 2004 Gallardo and helped pen the Miura show car.
Donckerwolke notes that the car to him is like a manga caricature in that you have to capture the essence of the person’s face with just three simple lines. ‘With my cars too when I close my eyes I want to have a clear architecture of how the eyebrows are, how the muscles are.’ Donckerwolke even leads a double life as a cartoonist. ‘I am a virtual chief designer in the comic and the real world,’ he muses.
According to Bancon this language has no national barriers anymore. ‘It may have originated from Japan but it’s now a global vocabulary.’