Course power

Petrolhead appeal is taking a backseat as environmental and social issues increasingly drive development in automotive design. As the Royal College of Art’s specialist course reaches its 40th birthday, John Stones talks to some of those involved

Forty years ago, Ford of Britain launched the Capri, a lithe and affordable coupe; that captured the aspirations of a generation. The way a car looked had suddenly become a lot more important and car manufacturers realised design could tap into a whole series of positive emotions and aspirations. With this in mind, Ford sponsored two students on the Industrial Design course at the Royal College of Art and the Automotive Design course was born.

Now, 40 years on, things are, of course, very different. The unthinkable is happening and the car manufacturers are in crisis, some only surviving by the skin of their teeth. Production has crashed and consumers have to be coaxed into buying with Government subsidies. Rather than items to be aspired to, cars have become social liabilities. Ecological alternatives are being seriously investigated, while Hummers and 4x4s litter our landscape like so much detritus from the recent bingeing, unhappy totems of greed just like the Porsches of the yuppified 1980s.

Design itself is implicated, largely relegated to dealing with superficial styling details. It’s become virtually synonymous with branding, or ‘design language’, as the overused industry jargon has it. Car design has been fiddling while Rome burned, and not surprisingly, there’s been precious little of note happening in recent automotive design.

One of the original two students who founded the influential RCA course is Peter Stevens. He has continued to teach as a visiting professor, except for a spell while he was designing the legendary 385km/h (240mph) McLaren F1, and has been well placed to witness the radical changes that have been taking place. ‘It’s not about horsepower anymore – the new language doesn’t need to be about tangible things, it’s a different mindset,’ he says.

This is clearly reflected in the work of this year’s graduating students. Take the BMW Pixi, the graduation project of Bavarian student Magdalena Schmid, who had initially trained as an architect. Highly conceptual, the car is represented as a porous space that doesn’t just move you from place to place physically, but also ethically from position to position. ‘It is no longer about designing the surface of a car, but about the values it represents as an object, not only for the users but also for the cultural environment,’ she says.

Fellow student Andrea Mocellin from Italy takes a slightly different tack. His concept, the beautifully detailed Audi Exo-line, does not give up on the car’s ability to be a desirable and fashionable object, but does so by drawing ingeniously on the aesthetics and tactile experiences of sportswear, the trainer in particular. ‘I think that the main priority is to be sensitive to all the global changes, to understand the evolution of human behaviour and the constant demand to own something clean and – especially – cool,’ he says.

When the course started, social concerns weren’t considered at all, says Stevens. Now they are overwhelming. ‘The automobile is becoming the most hated object of our times,’ says RCA student Thomas Smith, whose eco-friendly Deka concept is constructed out of biodegradable materials, typical of the concerns of most of the graduate projects.

The cult of the car from the 1960s through to the 1990s allowed car designers such as Giorgetto Giugiaro and Marcello Gandini to become celebrities. Now, with the sudden departure of the much vilified BMW design chief Chris Bangle earlier this year, there are few actually designing cars today whose names will be known outside of specialist circles. As someone revered for the design of the McLaren F1, does Stevens think it is sad that the glamour and big names are no longer? ‘No, not really. A lot of that was marketing-driven, to make it all seem more human,’ says Stevens. ‘Either students want to be a designer, or they like designing – thankfully, most are the latter.’

But getting jobs in the industry is going to be much harder than before. While China and South Korea are crying out for design talent, Stevens says students are reluctant to go there. ‘I fear for the students more than they do themselves. They see new opportunities and are admirably positive. And some really don’t want to be designing the next but one Ford Fiesta,’ he says. Mocellin, for instance, believes the current crisis will allow ‘fresh air’ in, while Schmid thinks it will allow ‘designers to make a tremendous impact on the future of transportation’.

In some ways, it is as if design has come full circle in the past 40 years, returning back to industrial design, and considering the design of transportation as a whole rather than the privileged single car. Look, for instance, at the capsule shuttle concept being developed by first-year student Gabriel Tarn as a part of a collaboration with Seymour Powell, designed to replace buses in congested areas. ‘It is a bit like the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century – there are hundreds of transportation options. It’s all very exciting,’ says Stevens.

In 1988, the RCA course changed its name from Automotive Design to Vehicle Design. While there might be an argument for changing it again, to Transport Design, this aspect looks as though it might be subsumed into a new systems and services course in 2011. It’s a far cry from Ford Capris.

The show RCA Two runs from 26 June to 5 July at the Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, London SW7

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