Car crash seminar

With some design big guns on stage to talk about luxury and the new BMW, what could do wrong? Everything. Aidan Walker survives to tell the tale

Bear with me for a moment while I quote some of the corporate blurb for the BMW 5 Series Gran Turismo. ‘[The car] combines elegance, space, comfort and variability in truly unique style. The BMW 5 Series Gran Turismo is quite unparalleled worldwide in the upper middle segment, combining the characteristic features of a prestige saloon, a modern, highly versatile Sports Activity Vehicle, and a classic Gran Turismo in brand-new, unprecedented style…

‘The luxurious and surprisingly generous and variable interior gives both the driver and passengers a spontaneous feeling of comfort and well-being. … The sheer space and the inspiring, modern design of the interior team up to provide a truly luxurious ambience and the supreme long-distance comfort of a modern Gran Turismo.’

Enough already. We more or less know what buttons the car company is trying to push. And I could be forgiven for thinking that one of those little buttons was marked ‘luxury’. What did I know?

This is a story against myself, which I tell because it’s a story of lessons learned. I found myself recently in a position to mount a seminar/event/presentation, for The Tramshed exhibition at London Design Festival, on not just the BMW 5 Series GT, but on a project that BMW (and perhaps its collaborators, Danish textile company Kvadrat and Italian lighting institution Flos) chose to call ‘The Dwelling Lab’. You may have seen it in Milan. You may, like me if I had had my critical journalist’s hat on, have wondered what the whole thing was about. But that hat got left on the rack and I was wearing the one next to it, the one that fits the conference and seminar producer in search of some pizzazz in a week crammed with events trying not to be ordinarily ordinary.

The Dwelling Lab, thought I, fit the bill perfectly, not least because it gave me a chance to put Patricia Urquiola and BMW’s Group creative director, the charming Adriaan van Hooydonk, on a stage together.

More quotable quotes: ‘The BMW 5 Series Gran Turismo… is… creating a visionary interior that is as luxurious as it is modern and functional. Urquiola and Giulio Ridolfo (Italian designer and colourist with a fashion background) have translated this concept into a design sculpture whose most daring elements – huge cone-like structures that seem to be growing out of the car’s body – draw the viewer inward just as they reveal the usually sealed-off interior to the outside gaze.

‘Patricia Urquiola describes her inspiration for the design: “Usually we perceive cars from the outside, and then the inside follows. However, our direct interaction is with the inside: it is the core that protects and comforts us, the space in direct contact with our bodies and our functions and needs in the process of travelling. I investigated this interface and tried to understand the possible evolution as a softer, dwelling experience.”

Says van Hooydonk: ‘”BMW contributed expertise in automotive design and construction. Patricia Urquiola approached this project from a different perspective and with a different perception. With her openness and creative vigour in finding innovative solutions, she allows people to see the car in a totally different way. And above all underscores the emotional connection that people have to this very technical object that is a car.” The Dwelling Lab creates a daring shift in perspective, challenging boundaries.’ (Gobbledegook. But we’ll come to that.)

Aha, says I to myself, luxury. Now there’s a design topic for the 21st century. I’ll get them talking about new definitions of luxury in a world where sustainability is becoming the imperative. I’ll get them to balance the urgent global need for economy and restraint with the familiar human need for comfort, indulgence, conspicuous consumption, the ability to reward oneself for… er, for being oneself. And what’s more, I’ll get the CEO of Quintessentially Soho, the articulate and elegant Sandra Schembri, to talk about Quintessentially, a luxury brand if ever there was one, and its collaboration with the House of St Barnabas, Soho’s oldest charity for the homeless, on a pop-up member’s club designed by Russell Sage for no money. And I mean no money – no fees, no labour costs, no budget for interior fit-out, furnishing, finishes. That should make a great panel.

Here’s how I pitched the idea: ‘The distinct but related themes of the discussion will be: new definitions of Luxury for a modern world in which sustainability is paramount; the relationship between “soft” or “humane” issues in design and the advance of technology and engineering; similarly, the relationship between luxury and functionality; and, as Adriaan puts it, “the modern understanding of well being.” I am particularly interested in emotion and emotional intelligence as a key element of making sense of design for the modern world, and believe that this project is an ideal platform to discuss and extend these ideas.’

Fat chance. How wrong could I be. I did my homework, but clearly I hadn’t done enough. What I really hadn’t done was stand in front of this bizarre concatenation of forms and fabrics, with its weird, giant trumpet-like extrusions bursting out of all four sides of the car, and get someone with an independent intelligence to explain what it was about and why. And most importantly, what it was for.

So, the date and time arrives. Urquiola and van Hooydonk turn up to complete one of the best panels I have ever put on a design stage. They range themselves on high stools along with Ridolfo and Schembri, and I launch into my Q&A routine. But it’s a bit like an Oscar acceptance speech from Jasper Morrison. He’d say ‘Thanks’ and walk off. It’s not quite that bad, but the experience reinforces my innate understanding of why actors and comics refer to an excruciatingly underwhelming reception from their audience as ‘dying’. It was one of the most uncomfortable 45 minutes of my professional life – because there just wasn’t that much to say.

Van Hooydonk, bless him, rose to the challenge of distilling the ideas behind this ridiculous waste of time, talent, energy and money; but he was on a hiding to nothing, because as far as I could tell – and way, way too late – there aren’t any.

Urquiola was, I suppose, at least honest, but her honesty didn’t help me. Was it a new approach to automotive design, Patricia, an attempt to suggest the new importance of femininity in a world forever dominated by the macho? ‘Not really,’ she shrugs. ‘It’s just as good for men as women. We played around with it and I enjoyed it.’ Ahem, thanks. Is that all? Er, Adriaan, what does it have to say about car design for the future? Are we seeing a new definition of luxury? ‘Well, not really. We were basing it on the idea that the interior of a car should be more important than the exterior.’ To which, if I’d had the balls, I should have replied: ‘Ah, I see. So we can expect to see BMWs without exteriors then?’

And spare a thought for the brave and courtly Schembri, who could see which way it was going, but who nonetheless stoutly proceeded with her account of the House of St Barnabas project and its relationship to Quintessentially and the luxury it stands for. But I was pretty much all done with my Q&A; there was little or no momentum in the proposed examination of the real meaning of luxury in a changing world, and poor Sandra was left high and dry.

Phew. Torture hour over. And as I stand in front of this damn thing and try to work out where it all went wrong, Ridolfo offers mean insight. ‘You know, Ai-eedan,’ says he: ‘In Italian, the worrd “lussuria” means something quaite different from “luxury” in Eenglish. It has a sense of, ‘ow you say, something laike, I don’t know, you know, sleazy? Dirty? Sinful?’

Aha. So maybe, for a panel that included a Spaniard working in Milan, a Dutchman working in Munich, and an Italian working, Italy, I should have covered the cultural references a bit more closely. One more insight. One more lesson learned for when the critical faculty has to give way to the showbusiness one.

And here’s another quick one, returning to van Hooydonk’s comment about the underscoring of the emotional connection that people have to this ‘very technical object that is a car’; you don’t have to upholster your baby bottle with what looks like hessian to appreciate the emotional connection that people (usually men) feel towards their cars. It’s almost all about emotion, even when it’s the family people carrier that he’s had to chop in his Subaru Impreza for. That the emotion is profound regret doesn’t make it any less an emotion.

This Dwelling Lab project reminds me of the sort of thing companies like Driade, Edra and Moroso used to do in the luxurious, selfindulgent late Eighties’ Milan design scene: give designers a lot of money and not much of a brief and see what they come up with to make a talking point for a fab party.

It was a shock to see notionally responsible companies like BMW and Kvadrat underwrite such a crass waste of space, time, energy and money. It hasn’t furthered our understanding of where car design should be going one jot. Couldn’t they turn their very considerable resource into figuring out how to solve some of our enormous – and sustainable – problems, with wit, style and grace? Apparently not.

Upholstered baby bottles? Patricia, Adriaan: shame on you.

This article was first published in FX Magazine.

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