Putting image into gear

Car companies are losing their hold on the market. But they’re fighting back with urban design studios to inspire both in-house designers and the public.

Ford Motor Company has 13 design centres around the globe dedicated to vehicle design and engineering. Those in California, Melbourne and Japan have a certain ring of dynamism and glamour that is not quite captured by their Whitley and Dagenham counterparts on our own shores. But that is about to change.

The motoring giant, which owns prestige car makers Jaguar and Aston Martin, plus Volvo and Mazda, as well as its eponymous global brand, is opening a London design studio within the next 18 months that it maintains will stand apart from the automotive crowd.

The move is a testament to the company’s own design vision, as much as that of vehicle design grandmaster J Mays, recently brought in from Volkswagen where he conceived the successful new Beetle.

Ford’s plans are sketchy at the moment as a location has not been confirmed, at least according to official reports. But we can expect more announcements over the next few weeks and a site in London’s Harley Street seems to be emerging as the favourite option.

From a manufacturer which knows the car sales market is altering forever, the double-edged scheme is clever. The idea is part brand experience, part design studio, the like of which we may never have seen before. On the one hand, Ford will convert a central London building that will feature a gallery, eating area and a shop, all open to the public. But it will be more than a Niketown-style temple of Ford.

The most important element, from a design perspective, will be the work practised by the 30- or 40-strong design team spanning the design of graphics, furniture, fashion, product and architecture. In fact, just about whatever takes its fancy.

The centre will serve as a base for a full-time team, currently without a manager, but also as a stopover for freelance design collaborators such as Marc Newson, who was recently approached by J Mays to conceive a concept car called the 021C.

Not only is this a deliberate move to increase the number of its non-automotive branded products and eschew areas of design beyond the vehicular, it is perhaps set to redefine brand experience. “What we have announced,” says a Ford US spokeswoman, “is that we will have a design studio in London in the next 18 months. What has not been agreed is where it will be, or who will run the studio.”

Discussions are currently taking place on both counts, and preliminary plans have been loosely drawn up.

A Ford UK spokesman says: “We have a couple of buildings in mind and one in particular, but we haven’t bought one yet.”

Imagination, which has worked with “Ford DNA” (its brand identity) for some 20 years, is expected to be at the forefront of the venture, although no official announcements have been made as to which design consultancies or architects will figure. A Ford UK spokesman says: “The extent of Imagination’s involvement has not been decided.” A US colleague adds that, “We don’t have a project co-ordinator that we have assigned.”

The eventual choice may not be a face familiar to the motoring industry, according to the UK spokesman, speaking on behalf of J Mays: “We need to make car design much more connected with other design disciplines. Nearly all car design studios are adjacent to factories, which limits the designers interaction with the buzz of inner cities.”

Other manufacturers have dabbled in design off-shoots, largely consumer products, but nothing like the Ford project. “I can see the logic of Ford offering more extended ranges of products, but I think BMW would only do it if the products reflected its technology,” says Silver & Co Design Consultants founder Jonathan Silver, who works with BMW.

“BMW is starting to push branded products like tie pins, jackets, wallets and golf club bags. It has an extensive range of upmarket clothing and accessories which you associate with or use in the car,” he says.

Silver points out that future legislation from the European Commission might be the reason for some of the change in thinking. Although not scheduled until 2002, he says the removal of the Block Exemption system will steal the exclusive rights of manufacturer dealerships, enabling any retailer to sell any brand of car at any price.

This could deal a severe blow to the traditional dealer-led industry, already suffering from overpricing allegations, the onslaught of on-line car sales and cheaper imports from Europe. One of the results is likely to be an increase in “car supermarket” operations, possibly for new cars as well as the current outlets for the second-hand sector.

“What people need to do is build their brand up in other areas,” says Silver.

For designers, this may come back to the NikeTown model of using retail presence to provide a first stage consumer brand experience, not simply a place to make your purchases. But the Ford US spokeswoman maintains this is only a part of the thinking. It is the new approach to design which will move the brand.

Ford Motor Company brands:

Ford

Jaguar

Volvo

Aston Martin

Mazda

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