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.
As traditional carmakers study what their place will be in the next chapter of the automobile, this EXP 100 GT by Bentley Motors sets out to explore luxury in the context of clean autonomous travel in an imaginary world of 2035.
The form may follow a classic motor car design theme, yet it is conceptually and materially where the EPX 100 really makes a distinctive statement.
‘I’m told there is something Japanese in my prototyping,’ says professor Yamanaka Shunji, ‘that it has this “Japanese style”’, he smiles as he guides us around ‘Prototyping in Tokyo: Illustrating Design-led Innovation’ (until 17 March, 2019). The design engineer and University of Tokyo professor continues: ‘I don’t go about trying to be so, but perhaps there is something in the attitude that is Japanese.’
We are at the latest exhibition in Japan House London. Exhibited on long floating white tables, in this minimalist basement gallery of the deco building, are examples of objects showing the possibilities of advanced design and engineering in positively shaping our future. Perhaps it is the meticulousness of this collection, the earnestness of each object on display, as well as the modest presentation of the creator which makes the show distinctly Japanese in style.
‘Prototyping in Tokyo’ takes on three main themes: additive manufacturing, bio-likeness robots and prosthetics. The first looks at prototyping and rapidly evolving technologies like 3D printing which allow engineers and designers to create infinitely more complex structures in a fraction of a time it would take to do this otherwise.
Bio-likeness robots proposes adding life-like motion and behaviour to typically mechanical metal-and-motor robots. Yamanaka has therefore injected the impression of intelligence to these man-made objects. For example, the robot ‘Apostroph’ examines mechanisms that allow living organisms to stand. Or ‘Ready to Crawl’ are a series of working robots, created to be fully formed just like a living thing. This means all the various parts were created and fully-assembled simultaneously, with form and movement closely mirroring living species. The professor moves his hands across the sensors and one by one these intricate little robots come alive. We are encouraged to touch and interact with select displays, to feel the structures and textures of the future.
The final section feels like the area closest to impacting on reality. Prosthetics presents various interpretations of elements of the human body – limbs etc – and the advantages of working with 3D printing in terms of speed and accuracy of construction. For instance, ’Rabbit’ are a series of bespoke prostheses designed for competitive running. They are made to measure for Takakuwa Saki, the Japanese Paralympics athlete who is now part of the development team at the Yamanaka’s laboratory.
He is keen to also show how new tech can advance old tech. For this the professor takes on the karakuri ningyo automaton, popular puppets that perform continuous movements, yet their clothing traditionally hides the clever mechanics beneath. Yamanaka wants to highlight the beauty of the machinery, commissioning a ninth-generation master craftsman to make a doll of bare mechanics as the wooden ‘Young Archer’ plucks an arrow out of the quiver, notches it to the bow, and shoots.
‘Prototyping in Tokyo’ is a glimpse into the future with a touch of the present. This is about exploring the potential of prototypes to act as a link between cutting-edge technology and society. These 3D printed objects, moving mini robots and prosthetics offer a human touch to machinery. This is warm tech – technology not made for the ego, but for progressing life.
Yamanaka returns to his initial statement: ‘A professor from the US described his understanding of “Japanese style”, as the fusion of organic and machine-made. Although what I am doing is simply searching for the common ground between science and beauty.’
Once-upon-a-time design theory was considered art history’s inferior sibling – a bit of a side-subject. When in 1989 Terence Conran and Stephen Bayley opened the doors to the cubic white Design Museum at Shad Thames, it was such a revelation. Finally, the applied arts were given a platform to talk. Some years later I recall my excitement at discovering a university course in Design History that promised to dissect and analyse the subject in the context of social history and wider ideologies.
Now, design is everywhere. The Design Museum has moved to a bigger place in Kensington, the V&A’s exhibitions challenge design in all directions, whilst the Barbican is instigating dialogues between art, design, creativity, music, dance. When I first began writing, and my work took on the motor car, discussing design in the context of the automotive world was considered novel. All this has changed, and it is a great time to be involved in analysing the world of design. To reflect the trend, publishers now offer a grand choice of design books. Some can be a touch superficial; then again, a seasoned hunter will find plenty of excellent, thought-provoking, and at times beautifully-bound books to relax the festive weeks away. Here are my recent finds.
California Captured, published by Phaidon,brings together the work of the brilliant photographer Marvin Rand. Los Angeles was a kind of utopian dream in the mid-twentieth century. The sunny southern Californian city had attracted a progressive set – experimental filmmakers, independent artists, writers and patrons of design came here for it offered freedom of expression. This coupled with urban growth and industrial expansion led to a period of exceptional architectural innovation. Rand captured this spirit. Throughout the post-war period, the native Angeleno photographed the buildings of Richard Neutra, Craig Ellwood, John Lautner, Louis Kahn, Frank Lloyd Wright and Rudolph Schindler. He also played a crucial role in helping shape the mid-century Californian modern style – all of which is explored in this stylish book.
Also by Phaidon, Designed in the USSR: 1950-1989, created in collaboration with Moscow Design Museum, is an account of life under Communist rule told through the design of everyday objects, graphics, illustration and advertising. The images here, selected largely from the Museum’s collection, tell the compelling story of design behind the Iron Curtain.
Modernist Design Completeis comprehensive study of last century’s progressive movement. Published by Thames & Hudson, this impressive hardback brings together most facets and scales of design under a single volume to present the vast breadth of towering and lesser-known figures within modernism. This lavishly-illustrated book reveals unexpected connections and aims to form new insights. Elsewhere by the same publisher, The Iconic House features over 100 of the world’s most important and influential residential homes designed and built since 1900. International in scope and wide-ranging in style, each has a unique approach that makes it radical for its time.
Then a trio of architectural books take on a more academic position. Le Corbusier: The Buildings, is a comprehensive survey of the work of the modernist pioneer. The features his vast body of work – the early Swiss villas, his mid-career buildings, his role as the first global architect to venture out to Argentina and Russia, his late contributions including the extensive civic plan of Chadigarh in India – an unforgettable place to visit. With an authoritative text by scholar and curator Jean-Louis Cohen, the book reveals the creative evolution and global breadth of a great practitioner, theorist and evangelist of modernist architecture.
Santiago Calatrava: Drawing, Building, Reflecting is an intimate publication in which the celebrated Spanish architect reflects on the nature of the his work’s imagination and reveals the breadth of his influences. The architect’s words and thoughts are extensively illustrated with photographs of his buildings and drawings from his private sketchbooks, work rarely seen outside his studio. Elsewhere, Kengo Kuma, Complete Works records the work of the acclaimed Japanese architect. It features Kuma’s thirty projects, including the brilliant V&A Dundee. There are personal and architectural reflections on each project alongside specially commissioned photography and detailed drawings. An essay by Kenneth Frampton frames Kuma’s work in the context of post-war Japan’s flourishing architecture scene.
Social Design is a timely book – a survey of architects and designers hoping to make a positive impact on society. Published by Lars Müller, the 27 projects featured here look at cityscape and countryside, housing, education and work, production, migration, networks and the environment. They are framed by three research studies that trace the historical roots and foundations of social design and look at today’s theoretical discourse and future trends. Projects here include Fairphone, Little Sun by Olafur Eliasson and Frederik Ottesen, and Shigeru Ban’s Paper Emergency Shelters.
Radical Essexfollows a similar theme. It sets out to reveal another side to the county at the edge of London that has been a victim of crude stereotyping. The book captures the raw rural beauty and the radical spirit of Essex. It features some excellent finds – the 1960s student halls at the University of Essex in Colchester, the bungalows at Silver End at Braintree, built by Francis Crittall and fitted with his famous steel frames, London Underground stations designer Charles Holden’s cottages near Maldon, and there is the brilliant white crop of International Style houses at Frinton-on-Sea.
Lastly, another relevant design book delves into the approaching age of sustainable mobility. The Current – New Wheels for the Post-Petrol Age by Gestalten takes a closer look at some of the pioneers of eco mobility, introducing a selection of the more inspired products and concepts to include vehicles with two, three or four wheels. The combination offers an interesting glimpse into what to expect from a new generation of creatives in the next decade.