The Culture Engine v1

Parody, homage, and irony in the contemporary automotive marketplace

with 2 comments

Modern objects are designed to induce an emotional response, be it a toothbrush, stacking chair or automobile. We are encouraged to anthropomorphise objects, to fetishise them, to aspire after them and to fervently believe that their aquisition will enhance our lives. At the same time, the quantifiable differences between things is become more and more marginal; the performance differentials between one camera or one car or one bike or one pair of thermal socks and another can only really be discerned at the very edges of the operational envelope. For the most part, everything works just fine, all of the time.

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Difference has to be designed. This is where the language of brands has been so successful. In order to convey a subtle emotional resonance that will make one object stand out from another, an arsenal of semiotic weaponry has been deployed. The past 15 years has seen a quiet revolution in car design, as manufacturers have revisited their archives, using stylistic and semiotic quotes to tie contemporary products into a wider historic context. So how did retro emerge and evolve in order to change the visual landscape not just of car design but of product design in general?

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The automobile is a highly designed object, with a visual language that has evolved over decades to illustrate the consistent progression of contemporary aesthetic concerns and priorities. These changes are influenced by external creative influences and moderated by advances in design and production technology. The production cycle that was established in the 60s and 70s relied on incremental improvements, signalled through an evolutionary design language (see, for example, Mercedes-Benz S-Class Generations).

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However, this evolutionary progress inevitably led to a dilution of visual language, as design elements that were originally functional (headlights, radiators, etc.) were transformed by technological change and legislation, so that any reference to their original forms were retained as a sop to the perceived reactionary attitudes of car buyers. As platform sharing proliferated through the 90s, the application of signature visual cues became increasingly important in order to distinguish one marque from another.

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Retro design went further. By wholeheartedly importing not just styling cues but also proportions, stance and even brand and model names, the key car designs of the last decade were more likely to offer a window into the past. According to the marketing strategists, the most successful retro designs mined a company’s ‘core characteristics’ and ‘brand DNA’, then distilled this raw material into new product. For a while, the car industry appeared to value design above engineering, communicating the latter through the former (and slipping up when the latter is in any way undermined – witness Toyota’s recent problems).

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Retro continues to be successful, but the spectre of pastiche is never far away. Retro was initially seen as a desirable novelty (Why Cars From The Past Are The Way Of The Future) but there are strong signs that it has become a tiresome imposition. Once, it was only brand strategists and designers who applied the term ‘DNA’ to an automobile’s key design elements. Now design DNA is a mainstream concept: the marketers of the 2010 generation Alfa Romeo Giulietta have chosen to call the car’s ride control set-up the DNA System.

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The idea of design DNA first came to prominence with the first generation Audi TT, a car that was influential for its clever blend of contemporary sleekness and vaguely art-historical references, buoyed and bolstered by marketing to cement the link between the company and the Bauhaus-era modernism of the inter-war period (never mind that the most advanced Audis of that period were the racing machines developed and raced under the decidedly anti-modernist but highly technocratic Nazi regime).

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While the TT only aped geometry, stance and modernist attitude, other companies went on to release cars that simply overhauled a classic design, from the BMW-engineered new MINI, the BMW-engineered Rolls-Royce Phantom, and the Fiat 500, as well as a couple of much earlier designs, the Jaguar S-Class and Volkswagen New Beetle, which drew strongly on their antecedents, deliberate attempts to recapture glories perceived as lost.

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Nostalgia also has a part to play, although its role in car design is rather under-researched. The idea of creating an object that triggers a memory from the distant past is almost unheard of in all other spheres of consumer design. But essentially, this thought process is exactly what these cars set out to do, turning the wistful schoolboy memories of the big Jaguar into a modern executive saloon or the rattling rasp of the anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist VW Beetle into a Golf-based city car for the well-heeled.

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There have also been a host of unbuilt concepts that drew directly on earlier models, like the Lamborghini Miura Concept of 2006 (based on the 1966 P400 Miura), the Ford GT of 2005 (the 1966 Ford GT-40), the 1996 Renault Fiftie (the 1956 Dauphine), the Rossi SixtySix (the 1963 Chevrolet Corvette), the Fenomenon Stratos (the 1972 Lancia Stratos) and many more. These designs were created on the premise that the cultural memory of the earlier car had not faded; instead, it was something that apparently endured in the customer’s mind, influencing the way modern products were perceived.

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Design language evolved to the point where ‘DNA’ could literally be applied to anything. Consider this collection of (mostly) ‘fan-rendered’ Lamborghini concept cars, a preposterous extrapolation of the company’s current origami-esque design language (originating with the 2001 Murcielago and culminating in the 2008 Reventon and the Estoque showcar from the same year. Why stop at cars? Indian architect Matharoo Associates created the Cattiva mobile blood bank, with obvious Lamborghini-derived design elements. And laptop makers Asus do Lamborghini-branded models that hint at the creases and intakes of the cars.

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MINI has made the pursuit of nostaglia its most effective marketing weapon, despite arguably over-egging the allegedly ‘cheeky’ character of the original Issigonis design to the point where it is almost indistinguishable from the cliche of stereotypical Hollywood cockney. Despite this over-egging, the design and marketing of MINI neatly illustrates the extension of object into fetish object, a key characteristic of Retro Design (a rather drab generic term that we haven’t found a catchy replacement for). It also neatly disregards the inconvenient truth that old and new Minis share very little beyond an invented ‘attitude’ (see ‘MINI Countryman vs Morris Mini Minor‘).

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The future can be played out in many ways. One of the few companies not to wholeheartedly embrace a retro-design strategy was BMW, which instead took a brave stab at reinventing the aesthetic language of car body design, using emerging technology in 3D milling machines and metal panel forming to create something dubbed ‘flame surfacing’ (usually associated with former design director Chris Bangle). Controversial at the best of times, flame surfacing bucked the trend. Even so, BMW has now moved on to ‘layered surfacing‘, an indication of a peripatetic visual approach that puts it at odds with its immediate competitors.

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A more mass-market interpretation of the BMW approach is shown by the 2010 Nissan Juke, a car that advances the brand, advances visual culture in general, while making a virtue of its unconventional appearance – a strategy of deliberate ugliness. Such an approach is reminiscent of the way the architectural avant-garde architectural movement of Deconstructivism elbowed its way into the mainstream through projects like Libeskind’s Denver Art Museum and lab architecture’s Federation Square.

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Post-retro, the brand is as strong as ever, now that the foundations for visual literacy have been dug and set. Carbon copy car design will never completely vanish (surviving perhaps as a minority, bespoke pursuit), but all the signs are that we are entering an era of New Ugliness, with provocation replacing nostalgia.

All images from The Blueprints and cut, pasted and re-sized to near-accurate dimensions

Written by things

August 3, 2010 at 14:06

Posted in design

Tagged with , , ,

2 Responses

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  1. [...] Ka-Ching!, a tumblr / Rs, a tumblr / The Spectral Dimension, ‘where the paranormal and popular culture collide’, like with these fabulous 1978 Horror Top Trumps / Follow the Yellow Brick Road, including a post on the Booktrust best new Illustrators award 2011 / Andrew Marr shimmies up the Shard. See also A Ballardian Shard? / 70s Fords in Camberwell, musings on retro car design and creating objects that are entirely tailor made for their presumed end consumer. At The Movement Bureau. See also Parody, homage, and irony in the contemporary automotive marketplace. [...]

  2. [...] Заметка об автомобильном дизайне. [...]


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