Monday, December 05, 2005

#8 Time for something a little more serious

Ok, so it's taken a bit of a while to get this up here, but here it is. Sorry it's so long - the clue there is in the colour... For those of you who don't like scrolling (which I'm told is a problem with the internet) - get a new mouse.

Anyways, sorry for the delay.

…The business of car design.

Thursday was a good day for me – I had a pretty fun time. Officially opening Friday 2nd December, the Coventry University, School of Art and Design, MA Automotive Design Degree Show 2005 (try saying that with a mouthful of olives), had its corporate preview, forum, and prize-giving the Thursday before. Somehow, they let me in. The honours are for ‘Best Vehicle Design’; I’ll cut right to the bone – the winner was a remarkable one, but I’ll beg your indulgence before getting to that.

Soundbite warning.

The show was called Fifteen. The reasons given being (and in case we didn’t get it, the points were drummed home not once, but twice – by the course representative first, and by its tutor, later):

Fifteen students on the course;

Fifteen months in the course – for the first time, and;

Fifteen minutes of fame.

I’ll stop being an arse and say I actually thought that was kind of cute. On top of which, I do have a vested interest in the success of this university – I should cheer when something goes so right. Although I’m hesitant to confuse these incidents, it has been a good couple of weeks for the Auto Design Dept here: success first in the Ferrari design competition for a Coventry University entry, and now the very obvious consistency in quality design displayed at the degree show.

The forum was a success, too. The event is sponsored by metals magnate, Corus –marking the ninth year of their involvement with the MA, and their fifth sponsoring the forum. The panel was chaired by Edmund King, Executive Director of the RAC Foundation for Motoring, who was joined by David Godber, Director of Nissan Design Europe, Richard Jones, Engineering Director, Corus Automotive, Gerry McGovern, Director of Advanced Design for Land Rover, and Professor Emeritus Garel Rhys OBE (no less).

Rather than prolythetising with any pre-prepped material, they took a series of questions handed in in advance – some of which (mostly the ones from us bunch of aj reprobates) they only received on the day – under subheaded themes including environmental and industry issues. Topics ranged from the future of supply-chain in the automotive industry to solving the problem of freezing windscreen washer jets in winter-time. The answers were universal in their informative nature and entertainment value, but for the most part diverse enough to keep the debate interesting. I’m sure, for example, Garel Rhys’ analogy of the abandoned merger between GM and Fiat will make an appearance elsewhere. (‘Two people drowning don’t make a swimmer,’ is the applicable quote. Speaking to the Professor afterwards, it’s clear his knowledge of the auto-industry and its history is simply vast – if anyone can get away with that, he’s the man.)

After the forum it was time for the degree show – where there was a satisfying chunk of hob-knobbing and face-stuffing before the awards were handed out. As I may have mentioned previously, I am fortunate enough to share a domicile with two of the new crop of budding design genii; speaking to one of my housemates at the event, the quality of the show is apparent – ‘there’s a lot for us to live up to.’ Knowing how many hours this guy puts in, I can only take that as a substantial endorsement.

Even to a relatively (natch – I am attempting to do this critic thing for a living, after all) inexperienced eye, the vehicle models on show here are good. And there’s diversity, too – everything from city car to Chanel-influenced sports limousine, rally-weapon, beach-buggy, taxi – plus a heavy emphasis on alternate propulsion methods and environmental acceptability. I was really impressed with a couple of the more real world renderings. Seung Mo, Kang had two models based on Hyundai lineage – one Kia, one Hyundai – and he enthused me with his attempt to differentiate the two brands, currently perceived as fighting over the same market-space; a real world dilemma, and a worthy attempt. There was also David Imai’s Honda concept, although I wonder whether his choice of name – Hammerhead – really fits with the Honda ideology. Still, a believable form.

Third prize went to Englishman Alexis Julian Waterson for “Space, Form and Structure” – the MiCity compact. A Northumbria University Transportation Design undergraduate, Waterson’s MA project focuses on making the compact city car competitive in an urban environment cluttered with oversized SUVs. A neat concept, it has no obvious design cues that I could see from any existing automotive heritage – with the possible exception of the “visible structure” being reminiscent of Smart’s Trident safety-cell. Indeed, he is quoted in the show book as suggesting “This visible structure supplies the occupant with a greater feeling of safety in today’s world dominated by the 4x4.” Forward looking – which, no doubt, is the point.

Second place: Christopher Lavelanet. A New Yorker himself he’s taken on the New York City Taxi, turning around the obscenity that is today’s V8 gas-monster, the Crown Victoria. Three-box in the most literal sense of the term, the Future NYCT has a central passenger compartment given the greatest priority, with a trunk slung out back and the driver, pod-forward, in front. It has a very strong horse and carriage feel – gladly that’s what he was aiming for. I prematurely dismissed it as design for design’s sake at first glance, but by placing maximum emphasis on fare-space, and dodging the packaging nightmare an engine bay represents (the concept relies on four in-wheel electric motors for drive) Lavelanet has created the kind of customer-focused vehicle that might realistically represent the future of paying-passenger transportation. I have a bit of an issue with the probable turning circle for an urban vehicle – that’s a long wheel base – and designers will insist on demonstrating rubber-band tires – not the greatest for ride comfort – but the centrally located driver and the deconstructive thought-process in analysing the absurdities of the current solution make for an inspiring piece of work.

And now for something entirely different; I hate to go all clichéd on you, but boy, is this out of leftfield (damn, there I go again).

This is not – repeat NOT – A Bad Thing. In fact, that this guy won – and the reasons for it – is probably the most inspirational thing that I’ve experienced all year.

Let me introduce you to…the MOOV. Designed by Jean-Michel Raad, the MOOV appears at first to be a four wheeled “bike” – by which I mean the front and rear wheels are very closely laterally spaced, though the hub design is intended to enable variation in the track width.

You’re already going “what?” aren’t you.

So was he, I guess, as when it came to modelling it Raad made a radical choice; rather than present a static model, formed of clay or fibreglass, Raad instead chose to animate the vehicle in 3D and cut its movements into a short film.

You see, the concept is inspired by "the art of displacement": “Parkour” – also known as “freerunning” – the French for messing about on buildings. Again, I’m being glib – this is actually an incredibly physical, athletically demanding discipline, personified by Sébastien Foucan, its best known exponent. It’s kind of like skateboarding, only without an inch of plywood, four wheels, and the attitude – the challenge is conquering all in your path, turning the entire would into your playground, and the MOOV is the motive vehicle equivalent.

Just to prove he isn’t just talking the talk, the parts of the film not involving the animation of the concept are clips of Raad himself practising the discipline – including a nice slo-mo of him forward somersaulting over a bench, climbing sheer surfaces and generally looking incredibly dynamic; the vehicle is then shown replicating these feats. In terms of both design and execution, it’s absolutely unlike anything else – what an incredibly glorious risk.

The judges awarded Raad first place on the basis that the concept – and, again, its presentation – represents a totally unique proposition in this year’s show. It’s also a very complete expression of its architect’s personality and passion. It therefore seems unfortunate that Raad is the only student whose cartoon is not pictured on the front of the show book – in fact, while many of the others are repeated throughout the program, his only features on the two pages dedicated to illustrating his design.

Of all the people this is likely to upset, Raad doesn’t actually strike me as being one of them. Immediately after the award ceremony ended with Raad’s reception of his first place prize he was ushered back to the show area, for interviewing, flashbulbing, and to receive further congratulation from the judging panel. While being positioned into a more ‘natural’ pose by the photographer – legs crossed, leaning casually-but-awkwardly on the plinth supporting his film projector – he complains jokily that ‘It’s natural – but it’s so vain.” This is a man who appears to shirk the normal pretensions of the design-set stereotype.

All the while that David Godber and Gerry McGowen are telling him that it was a triumph of ‘completely out of the box’ thinking, and truly the ‘personification of an individual,’ Raad grins bashfully, and repeats several times that he ‘wasn’t expecting it.’ He acknowledges that ‘the project was a big risk,’ and even gets in a few PR pleasing utterances such as his insistence that there are ‘very few limits between dream and reality.’ And as if that wasn’t enough, he did his undergraduate work here at CU – he’s Coventry through and through.

Once the video cameras and official photog are pointed away, us ajs still hanging out at the show grab a few words with him. I’m particularly interested in the use of a virtual model in presentation of his design. He begins by making sure we understand that it was the dynamic nature of this specific concept that led to his decision, but carefully acknowledges that it does represent an alternative future for the development of new ideas. This is something I’d be happy to encourage. If ideas can be demonstrated in virtual 3D then adaptability becomes closer to the forefront of design – a more fluid medium can perhaps lead to more creative solutions to the design issues of the future.

Raad is also certain in his conviction that his background is key to his success. That background is Lebanon, and a war he says leads to acute ‘sensitivity’ about the world that surrounds him – and a different way of looking at things. ‘Building dreams’ for Raad is ‘a way out’ rather than just rhetoric, even if it does look good on a press release. He’s a very happy man at this moment – until we stumble by accident onto a raw nerve.

The Ferrari design comp – an issue I suggested should remain separate at the head of this piece – is a slight point of contention for this young man. I would not accuse him of being bitter – it appears that he’s taken it rather philosophically – but Raad was part of the three-man team behind the F-Zero concept, one of the non-winning Coventry entries. And before you think this is poor sportsmanship, the F-Zero received over 40% of the popular vote via the internet, but wasn’t considered good enough for a place on that podium. Worth keeping in mind though is Raad’s particular part of that work – the repositionable three-seat interior. Expertly computer modelled once again, Raad suspects this may at some point be destined for production – though it won’t come from anyone else anytime soon. Raad grins again as he explains the ergonomics modelling for this system is ‘challenging.’

This disappointment shouldn’t overshadow the potential, however; he has a bright future – as should the rest of his year if the quality of talent on display demands any justice. But talking to Raad in the bar afterwards, the direction may not be the one you’d expect. Despite the presence of five new job offers on the night, he seems more relaxed talking about chucking it all in. His creativity is hungry for a new challenge it appears, as he speculates about an alternative path in film making. The creation of virtual worlds is what interests him – where he’ll have the chance to build all the dreams that he wants.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that it is realy cool and wonder when, where, and how i can get the 'Moov' or one of the other cool bikes or moter things. Also can you post the next show and where the university is on you web sight. This is so cool. yo, yo ,yo peac out

12:36 am  

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