Free of the corporate strictures of Ford ownership, Aston Martin has just opened its first dedicated design studio. Hannah Booth gets a tour, and looks at
the implications for the future of this coolest of cool brands
For a brand that trumpets its design credentials so loudly, Aston Martin has kept quiet about its lack of a dedicated design studio. Perhaps that’s why the car manufacturer, beloved of James Bond, is shouting now about the opening of the first such studio in its 94-year history. ‘In the past we used external designers, consultancies from Italy, and leased buildings,’ says design director Marek Reichman. ‘Now design is a complete item – all in-house and finally located with the [other] disciplines on the same site.’ And it’s in the UK.
In keeping with the company’s high-performance, stylish cars, the studio is an elegant, contemporary pavilion with floor- to-ceiling windows and a soaring wood-clad roof. It is also an environmentally-aware structure, according to Aston Martin, with a low-energy heating and cooling system, and natural hemp insulation – although any Green credentials are rather negated by the gas-guzzling cars themselves.
The new studio gives the team more space, vital when you are working with a big product. ‘We never had the correct desk space before – now we have room to view the cars from all angles,’ says Reichman. ‘It will enable us to work faster, and it should increase communication between design and engineering.’
The building might appear more impressive if it was located in a more desirable spot. As it is, it squats in the unlovely automotive industrial estate of Gaydon, just outside Leamington Spa. Designed by Birmingham-based Weedon Partnership in collaboration with Austrian prefabrication specialist Holzbau Saurer, the studio took just 12 months from drawing board to opening night on 11 December.
During construction, Reichman, who graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1991, was busy recruiting an in-house team, shedding external consultancies and nearly tripling the studio staff from ten to 27. Alongside a core team of four designers, including Reichman, are eight clay modellers, two ‘craftsmanship’ experts, interiors and colour specialists and two ‘mathematical modellers’. The team works four years into the future, says Reichman. ‘Two thirds of our design work will find its way on to actual cars that are built,’ he says. ‘The rest of our work is designing concepts and working on current products.’
But it’s what the design studio represents that’s most important – particularly under its new owners, a consortium of shareholders led by David Richards, which bought the company from Ford in March 2007. To claim you have strong design credentials, you must demonstrate it. ‘The studio is a commitment from the new shareholders of how important design is to the company’s future,’ said chief executive Ulrich Bez at the opening.
‘I’m not sure whether a slick design studio will make any actual difference, it’s just evidence of Aston Martin’s commitment to design,’ says Nik Roope, founder of Poke London and CoolBrands council member. Aston Martin was voted the UK’s coolest brand by the CoolBrands council in September 2007, for the second year running. ‘It’s impressive how [the company] has put itself at the top of the desirability pile, arguably above the likes of Ferrari or Lamborghini, who feel brash by comparison,’ says Roope.
What elevates it above other car brands? ‘Heritage plays a large part in “coolness”, and the James Bond association doesn’t hurt either,’ suggests Roope. ‘But in the last decade, Aston Martin has rediscovered its mojo. It feels understated, and cool is like that, never shouty and ostentatious.’
December saw a rash of announcements for the quiet ‘cool’ brand in Warwickshire. It has signed a ‘creative and strategic partnership’ with Bang & Olufsen, so aficionados can expect some seriously slick car stereos. And it has just unveiled a new concept car, the V12 Vantage RS – and invited the public to christen the new blue colourway. Then it has also announced, to the surprise of no-one, that its DBS model will feature in the next James Bond film.
There’s unlikely to be a vacancy for design director for a while yet. Says Reichman, ‘I pinch myself every morning.’ l