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Stephen Bayley on the personalities of car design

Stephen Bayley on the personalities of car design Classic and Performance Car

Bayley talks about some of the industry's biggest personalities, and also credits a few of the lesser known car designers for their outstanding work

Something strange is happening in the industrial world. Consumer fatigue is mounting, demand is wilting and rates of innovation are slowing. Has there been a better office chair than Charles Eames’ 1958 ‘Soft Pad’ classic? I think not.
Meanwhile, entire product categories are disappearing: still cameras, movie cameras, typewriters, hi-fi and landlines will soon be no more. Before long the private car might join that melancholy list of redundancies. There is less work for designers to do, yet designers have never been more prominent.
Most prominent of them all is Apple’s Jonathan Ive. Q: How much would a Chinese company pay to lure him from Apple? A: Whatever he asked for. What would Apple do to prevent that? Best not to ask. He is in a gilded cage. Every designer aspires to his condition.
The word ‘design’ once described an activity, but it now means a commodity to be acquired rather than a vocation to be pursued. Designers have become trophies, talismans or fetishes, and the presence of a mediagenic designer immediately confers value. Car designers now move between employers like footballers in the transfer window; aware of the malaise in their sector, they see more security in personal advancement than in a lifetime of disciplined tenure. But it’s lifetimes of disciplined tenure that tend to produce the best design.
This started me thinking about designer personalities and which type might be the most valuable. Harley Earl was the Jungian original, a huckster of brute genius who wore cinnamon or sky-blue coloured linen suits and lounged in Saarinen’s oddly Euronormal GM Tech Center in Warren, MI, pointing out details on clay models with the well-polished toe of a crocodile loafer.
Today’s equivalent is Land Rover’s Gerry McGovern. Dapper to a fault in waisted and sharply cut Savile Row schmutter, Gerry has big watches and a big twinkly aspect. Never mind the cars, his presence alone has helped drag the brand out of the mud of utilitarianism into the coruscating universe of international catwalk luxury product. Of similar specification is Mercedes-Benz’s Gorden (sic) Wagener, who has persuaded a stern Supervisory Board in Swabia that he can operate best from surfer-dude territory in California.
But I like arguing that design was at its most influential when designers were least well known. At Mercedes-Benz, Bruno Sacco used to insist on ‘continuity’, not momentary sensation. And that applied to the cars as well as to the staff. Under Sacco was Johann Tomforde. No one in this country seems to have heard of him, but his handwriting is all over the meticulous 190 of ’82 and the superlative R129 SL of ’89. He is also credited as the father of the epochal Smart. Of his SL, Tomforde said: ‘This is a shape that won’t bore you. In five years, it will still be desirable.’  
Let’s take this investigation to Italy. What about Piero Castagnero at Lancia’s Centro Stile who, as the company was already looking into the abyss, drew the utterly beautiful Fulvia Coupé? Yet Castagnero was never well known. The supreme example of how great design evolves from continuity and commitment, though, is surely Dante Giacosa. 
He created the original Topolino and its Nuova 500 successor. His last car was the Fiat 128, technically interesting and aesthetically perfect. He describes in his 1979 autobiography an enduring engagement with the company, its products and its culture over 40 years. That’s what I call tenure.
Giacosa’s description of the design process was of something  thorough, pragmatic and organised, but requiring imagination and an understanding of aesthetics, ergonomics and biology. I would add another dimension. Good design balances stability and evolution. You need a good idea to start with, but it must also be one capable of development over time. Job-hoppers can’t do that.
That’s why I think the R129 Mercedes-Benz SL was supreme. At its launch, so obviously new, but so obviously Mercedes: the result of a settled and respected tradition. So the next time you see a car designer pirouetting before the media and doing rhetorical mash-ups, talking of BBQ surfacing, sun-dried swage-lines, emotional intelligence and, Gawd-’elp-us, DNA, remember what can be achieved by commitment, continuity and modesty.
And you’ll be wondering about Johann Tomforde. He now runs a mobility consultancy in Boblingen. And he is thinking electricity.

Stephen Bayley – Author, critic, consultant, broadcaster, debater and curator, Stephen co-created the Boilerhouse Project at London’s V&A, was chief executive of The Design Museum, and fell out with Peter Mandelson when he told him the Millennium Dome ‘could turn out to be crap’.

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