Architects since Robert Venturi’s landmark discourse in “Learning from Las Vegas” have split their world into “Giant Ducks” – buildings that look like an interesting shape first and find function later (taken from animal-shaped gas stations in America) – and “Decorated Sheds” – those that are basically a functional box with embellishment (such as a cathedral) ¬– but most people probably don’t think about the difference between the words Car and Automobile.
Besides their differing etymological origins, these terms represent unique approaches to our role as creatives in the world of car design. In short, there are two schools of thought: “an automobile is what I use; a car is what I am.” An elevator is an automobile: it is self-moving. Auto~Mobile design is bounded by parameters: Form that follows function, purpose and efficiencies, regulations and restrictions. Fortunately, “one man’s automobile is another man’s car,” and many spectacular examples are beautiful enough to be an “art form” – the car. Car design, on the other hand, is first and foremost an idea. It is the fusing of paradoxical incompatibilities – sex and safety? – into an engaging experience of form and function that represents you in another medium. Car design is people-centric – it cannot exist in a vacuum. This is the basic property of all the avatars in our lives: it needs the passions that the observer/user reads into the work to complete the picture. As opposed to the smart phones that have subsumed our identities into faceless slabs of flat glass, cars must combine and transmogrify the gesture, dynamic, attitude, and intention of life in both the fast lane and in the primitive jungles of our minds. A Jaguar car is a non-figurative embodiment of the feline predator, it is an emotion made visible. Many people assumed I had left car design behind when I concluded 17 years as BMW Design Director and opened my own studio in the Langhe wine region of Italy. But after almost 30 years in the automotive world, I had come to recognize that we car designers can practice our craft anywhere, with any subject. Our skill is that of putting emotion first among functions. Our methodologies are focused on re-forming the mix of brand identity with the customer’s self-image (in all its complexity) into something that is both and neither; our art is that of sculpting steel and glass and chrome into a functional avatar that compels someone to observe: “That car is him!” Every design challenge has opportunities to choose between either/or; car design teaches us to embrace opposing solutions to get both desired results – if only greased with the interpretive power of story and meaning. In a car, this may be achieving the feeling of cocooned security while surrounded by glass, or communicating nimble park-ability despite being twice the size of your father’s automobile. Though my clients are as diverse as French cognac bottles or a Japanese nursing home, car design thinking allows me to offer an innovative alternative to traditional creative methodologies. At our studio we created “treeness” in a 4-meter steel and colored polycarbonate; a sculpture that reconciles my wife’s wish for a colossal shade tree with an unfortunate soil-less location over a concrete garage. Then, when installing a swimming pool on a hillside, we opted to cantilever 60 tons of water 9 meters over the vineyards in a perpendicular bridge and make it “invisible” to the neighbors (sheathed in mirror-grade stainless steel). Being an American in Italy is in of itself a lesson in combining contrasts. Like these projects that merge the incompatible, experience has shown me that by embracing a re-think of norms and canons, new and unforeseen advantages emerge. Standing under a giant “Art Nouveau lampshade” in a the winter watching the dappled rainbow of light illuminate the icicles is a beautiful type of “treeness” that no one expected. Engaging our neighbors in the construction of such art pieces brings us “foreigners” closer to them; they tell me they find our experiments as fascinating as we do. Together we are “negotiating” – to use Olafur Eliasson’s term ¬– a new perception of this part of the Langhe, one that is not just bucolic farms but of intriguing innovation as well. The future of the automobile is certainly open to debate but I am convinced the translational nature of car design will keep it a valid approach to creating new and important meaning in the objects and devices of out lives. One area ripe for exploitation by car design is that of robotics; imagine the ideas that can unfold once we stop seeing them as anthropomorphic “plastic people” and allow the gesture, dynamic, and intention of their spirit take form. They can become avatars, yes, but need no more look like a human than the Jaguar car looks like Panthera onca. The organism of house and studio has become our avatar. If you think about it, it really is all “car design” – as I imagine the current crop of architects busy making their own “giant ducks” are discovering.