Trends in car design from Paris

Earlier this month we attended the Paris Motor Show, one of the most important annual international exhibitions (it rotates yearly with Frankfurt). These shows are intense… they are loud, bright and pretty exhausting yet it is a great place to spot the latest trends in car design, and generally catch up on industry news.

This year most of the pavilions displayed pretty bland products – your mainstream hatchbacks, saloons and sports-utilities… and increasingly the crossover which is basically a hybrid of SUV/family car/hatchback, and whatever else the designers can incorporate. I am still waiting for a single design to inspire.

There were some concept and production cars to take note of though. On the Jaguar and Land Rover, the smaller SE Jaguar and Discovery Sport are pretty intelligent production cars coming from a car company that seems to be going from strength to strength.

Elsewhere, we loved the stylish Superleggera Vision Concept on the Mini stand (read our interview with Adrian Van Hooydonk, BMW Group’s design director here).

Here are our highlights from the show which appeared in Wallpaper*.


Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

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

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Car, body, fashion

I was 18 when I first read The Nude by Kenneth Clark. Published in 1956, it was a sort of Bible for young aspiring aesthetes. I was on my way to becoming one, so I hoped, having enrolled on a pre-grad foundation in art and design.

Many of Clark’s observations have been tirelessly quoted but the one that always resonates is this simple line: ‘The relation of head to body determines the standard by which we assess all other proportions in nature.’ Even abstract shapes like the square and the circle are male and female, he argues. Clark believed that the human eye is disturbed by bodily imperfections and therefore doesn’t judge the nude as a living organism, but as a design.

From all the objects I can think of – and perhaps this is due to my close relationship with this particular one – the car is shamelessly anthropomorphic. This is one of its strengths, a winning point as such in that we can critique it in much the same way as a person.

Cars can have taut athlete’s muscles, or be lean like a runner. They can be as skinny as a model on the runway, or voluptuously sexy in the Rubenesque manner (although somehow this doesn’t work too well with cars). We criticise a car for looking bloated and sneer at the ones with a big behind. You could argue that the car’s skeleton is draped in metal in much the same way our bodies are in cloth.

Chris Bangle understood this well with his 2008 GINA concept car. GINA – or Geometry and functions In ‘N’ Adaptations for the full title – had been a study vehicle kept behind iron doors at the design studios in California and Munich and used to explore ideas within the department. Bangle revealed GINA to the public in June 2008 not long before he took his leave from the BMW, incidentally taking the concept with him, but I had heard this interesting designer hint at the concept years ago at a lecture at the Design Museum in London.

Addressing a starry-eyed group of young designers, Bangle who really knows how to command a room, quoted Clark adding: ‘replace nude with car, and you will understand everything about cars.’ GINA took this notion of car as human to a different level with an outer skin made of cloth – the virtually seamless polyethylene-coated Lycra stretch fabric shielding a moveable substructure beneath.

If metal is clothing, then how closely do the frivolous world of fashion – where trends come and go literally by the season – and the more sedate world of the motorcar interact? It takes years for a car to evolve from concept to production, with the design having to stay fresh for another five years at least whereas fashion is fast moving and fickle.

Things are changing, albeit slowly. Cars are coming to market in a much quicker pace, and with such extensive personalisation programmes on offer (see picture of the Fiat 500 special edition), we are seeing a stronger dialogue developing between these two unlikely worlds.

In both worlds the most important aspect is the initial architecture, as there is a limit to what you can camouflage if the proportions are wrong. Nargess Gharani, fashion consultant co-founder of Gharani Strok, agrees that the initial concept needs to work before you even consider developing it further. She explains: ‘If an original design is beautiful and therefore flattering but that the trim used is badly positioned, or of poor quality, it will destroy the original design.’

This is very much the case with cars. For Audi this means following a clear genetic code, which involves having a very high shoulder line and a very condensed green house. ‘Our cars have to seem like they are laying down like a crocodile,’ notes Stefan Sielaff its former design director now in charge of Volkswagen. ‘Once the proportion is right, we add the details.’

Slimming in fashion is directly related to sleekness in the car. Vertical lines create a longer, leaner figure in the same way horizontal ones form visual length on the car. Gharani notes that on a garment it is more effective to work with seaming, which is a more subtle way of creating the same visual impact.

The BMW way is to sculpt its lines. They have to be authentic intersections of surfaces and only applied when two surfaces happen to intersect – much like seaming in tailoring.

Other tricks of the trade include elongating the DLO (day light opening), blending the hood for a slimmer visage, or using light and shade on the surface to create the feeling of slimness.

Gharani also suggests shading the inside of a dress to make it appear slimmer. ‘Use a darker colour on the back and sides of a dress, but keep a slim silhouette in a light colour. This way the eye will only see the light colour as the silhouette.’

Then there is the power of accessorising. ‘Heals make you look slimmer and give better posture,’ says Gharani. Similarly, the positioning of buttons and the size can completely alter the impression of a garment. Wheels, headlights, the grille and other graphic elements on the car can work in a similar way to hide flaws or direct the eye to selected area.

Lighting especially is increasingly manipulated to highlight design and brand identity. Front lights can also enhance the car’s face adding to the human association. One aspect of Audi’s philosophy of Vorsprung Durch Technik (advancement through technology) is to have a clear light design strategy to define the brand and the product line day and night.

I ask Gharani what contemporary car excites her. She mentions the Nissan Cube, saying she admires the fresh feel of the 60s inspired cabin with its clean lines and use of colour. She says she appreciates the clever manipulation of material that pushes boundaries yet maintains functionality. ‘This I believe is very important in both fashion and car design as you have to be fresh and push boundaries but never keep your eyes off what is commercially viable.’

It is tough for cars to truly represent immediate trends be it in fashion, furniture or product and electronic gadget design. With the outer fabric body exchangeable, and the car transformable into various shape to suite the desire and needs of its occupants, Bangle’s GINA has conceptually come pretty close.

‘We are going to have to find new ways to adapt to how the world sees cars,’ Bangle said at the Design Museum. ‘We have to offer a product that is more about lifestyle and personalisation statements. We need to get some of the individuality of the consumer as well as the producer into the product.’

Here Chris Bangle talks about GINA a little while before the car was unveiled to the public.

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

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Tokyo Motor Show 2011 in picture

Japanese car design is an interesting mix of a thoroughly modern minimalist aesthetic and stylised animation. It really is different and exciting to witness some of the work created by local designers at the motor show that took place in Tokyo earlier this month.

Car design here sits at the polar side of German car design that is usually perfect and polished. In Japan it seems to be more of a refection of their inventiveness and playfulness.

Small urban commuters and pure sports cars – mostly with a focus on sustainability – were the main themes of this year’s show.

Read my full review published in Wallpaper*.


Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

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

All rights and labelled images are covered by ©

Learning from manga

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.’

redefining beauty

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.’

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

I originally wrote an article on a similar theme ‘Manga Cars’ for Esquire which appeared in the November 2010 edition.

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

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Car design trends from Paris Motor Show 2010

The mood at the Mondial de l’Automobile in Paris could be summarised in the few words uttered by Peugeot’s design director Gilles Vidal. ‘We are going through big changes in the automotive world,’ the visionary French designer said as he guided me though 200 years of Peugeot’s research and development displayed on the stand.

‘Progress in this area won’t only be through engines and technological solutions, but about making our cars lighter, more efficient in terms of recycling,’ he said before concluding: ‘This is a global effort.’

We are in the second centenary of the motorcar and it is about time we reinvent the automobile to perform according to 21st century needs. This means taking a much more dramatic view of not just design, but as Vidal rightly noted, the entire package.

The good news is that at the final international show of the year, there appeared to be a genuine shift towards this way of thinking. This is still a new adventure, but judging by the array of innovative concept and production cars on display, perhaps we have reached a turning point in the life of the automobile. And the vast halls of Porte de Versailles showed that there are multiple solutions for clean, green driving – some clever, some bananas.

Renault and Nissan were one of the first to commit to electric driving. It was therefore good to see much progress in this area with the French marque showing three electric cars: the 2011 production Twizy city runabout, the Zoe and DeZir concepts. Sister company Nissan beat many of its competitors earlier in the year when it unveiled the four-seater production Leaf electric car. At Paris the Japanese firm unveiled a brand new electric concept, the flexible Townpod urban vehicle.

Audi and BMW presented more electric variants to join their respective eco sub-brands – Audi the e-tron Spyder and BMW announced plans to build a car based on its Vision Efficient Dynamic concept. This and the Megacity Vehicle (see our earlier report New Urban Mobility) will form part of the firm’s Project-I electric sub-brand.

Another clever proposition came via Porsche who announced its commitment to produce the exciting 918 Spyder hybrid supercar for 2013 first seen at the Geneva Motor Show in March. This is a beautiful piece of sculpture – the notes almost perfect. To marry this, speed and ecological is how the German carmaker sees its response to clean driving. ‘The 918 shows that you don’t have to compromise a sportscar by being ecological,’ noted design director Michael Mauer.

Away from the green theme, but worth noting is the Audi Quattro concept based on the fantastic original 1984 Sport Quattro with its iconic boxy and angular shape. Design director Wolfgang Egger explained to redesign such an car ‘you have to move away from the car and just keep the essence of its purity, the impression. This was a very angular car, but the modelling technology we have now allows for more dramatic surfacing,’ which he sees as the modern impression of the Quattro.

However, despite some excellent thoughts on clean mobility, it was down to the small sportscar maker Lotus to steel most headlines by unveiling six new cars – three sportcars, a coupé, a saloon and a city car concept. This is part of its young boss Dany Bahar’s multi-model ambitious plans to enter more segments.

Luckily design director Donato Coco promised that all the cars will remain in the tradition of Lotus design. ‘This is the most exciting British brand in the sense of originality and eccentricity,’ said the Italian ex-Ferrari designer. ‘To me this means the capacity to assembly unexpected elements, materials and shapes. This is what we have done in these cars – assemble a lot of innovation in a scheme that looks really classic.’

Read the full report and interviews with the designers at the show which appeared in Wallpaper*.


Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

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

All rights and labelled images are covered by ©