The future of the automobile may be as close as that chic new hotel in your home city.
Consider this: a hotel is a home for a night or two and provides the basics – shelter, bed, bath, and certain other amenities depending on the price and corporate image. But a new generation of hotels brings the hotel room squarely into the realm of the experience economy: a place not ‘owned’, but experienced.
Why is this important to automotive designers? Because the future of the automobile is more like that of a hotel room than what we think of as a 'car' today. The car will be a mobile place experienced for a short time, probably autonomous and fleet-owned, and with less focus on instrumentation or controls. It will thus have an identity focused on interior design, providing image, amenities and a comfort level at a certain defined price point, both in single-use and subscription schemes.
Think of the possibilities. For many future fleets of cars, a predictable, comfortable interior and nondescript design image may be part of a large corporation’s marketing strategy, or there may be a hip, modern image, or family-friendly atmosphere. And there can also be the ultra-low-budget but still-hip places – both for travel and for accommodation at the end of the road. Mobility systems will be extended not just for commuting but for long-distance travel, as automotive companies pair fleets of cars with hotel accommodations.
Trains and Planes
Just this past week a new train service, the Shiki-shima, was launched connecting Tokyo with Hokkaido. This train is an ultra-luxurious riding experience for 34 passengers, featuring 10 cars with 17 suites, some furnished with lofts and cypress bathtubs. It also sports a piano bar, two glass-walled observation cars, and a Michelin-accredited restaurant.
Up in the air, Lufthansa has a futuristic design for its A350 private jet. A joint project with Mercedes-Benz, the concept presents a luxury apartment in the sky with a bedroom, social spaces, kitchen and dining spaces, and a mini-office. Curves and soft angles allow spaces to flow into one another, while still maintaining spatial definition and privacy. Luxurious appointments and advanced electronics are provided throughout the cabin.
Finally, moving down to business class, the new United Airlines Polaris features new seats in a configuration that allows for lie-flat sleeping on long haul flights in a snug cubicle that feels like a little ‘cabin within a cabin’. With advanced controls, special lighting and lounge service at major airports, Polaris goes beyond a business class seat to a mobile concierge experience. This is a trend across the airline industry, further pampering first and business class passengers.
For the automotive designer, such first-class accommodations can point the way to the luxurious and even mid-range car cabins of the future, when autonomy will bring an increasing focus on interior design without a steering wheel and other controls. Ergonomics and comfort are a must, but the careful orchestration of colour and materials, the scale of elements, the framing of the views will become even more critical.
Louis Vuitton’s display at the Palazzo Bocconi, part of the recent Milan Furniture Fair, was more than a new collection of modern furniture: it was a social statement as well. The show, the fifth instalment in Vuitton’s Objets Nomade collection, comments on the peripatetic lifestyle of a new nomadic generation of the well-heeled who can afford to travel from place to place – with their possessions elegantly stowed in LV luggage and trunks, of course.
The collection is a group of furniture featuring Vuitton’s bespoke leather. There are screens, tables, seating and lighting, many of which can fold to become small enough to fit in a Vuitton suitcase. Many play with the theme of modularity, but in interesting ways. Modularity is intimately linked with mobility: break it down and move it on.
But beyond the obvious appeal to the one percent, Louis Vuitton asks a number of questions and makes a number of statements about the new nomadic landscape of work and dwelling in our century. These issues were also the theme of the British Pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale. Though presented there in a more abstract way, the issues of the nature of dwelling, ‘home’ possessions and creature comforts are all at the forefront of decision-making about our lives in a new era. How and where do we work? Can we settle in one place and call it home, knowing we may have to uproot and move in a few years or less?
Also at the recent Milan show, one term, ‘maximalism’, seemed to be heard repeatedly throughout the week-long exhibition and to signal a new emerging design ethos. Maximalism, as one might expect, is a reaction to the minimalism that has dominated design in recent years, in part because of the strong influence of Apple, and Jony Ive’s admiration for minimalism’s Jedi Master, Dieter Rams.
Maximalism connotes a richness, even an excess of design expression, but there is a range of maximalist expressions rather than a hard set of rules. At one pole is a sort of 'mannerist minimalist’, a fascination with minimalist forms but with new colours and materials which would seem transgressive in a purely modernist context. In the middle are practices like Boca do Lobo, whose booth at the Fair was an eccentric, even surrealist, take on more modern and traditional pieces.
Finally, at the other extreme is the residential expression of maximalism, most associated with the style: a promiscuous mashup of various colours, patterns, and historical styles. Too bold and busy for many tastes, maximalism at this extreme has a no-holds-barred quality to it, but makes for great spreads in interior design magazines, and allows for easy decorating – just use everything!
It could be argued that automotive design has been in a ‘maximalist’ phase for some time now, both exterior and interior designs showing multiple strong character lines and flowing surfaces, plus interesting material combinations. Is this a trend likely to continue, or will a simpler aesthetic take hold? Certainly, Mercedes-Benz is arguing for ‘sensual purity’, a return to an elegantly composed form stripped of excess creases and folds.
Does this mean automotive design is flying retrograde to other design trends? Probably not, as there are different cycles of design for different products, and different influences as well. Witness the architectural 'High Modernism' of the 1950s with its austere glass boxes and minimalist interiors: also in this era were Rubenesque automotive designs with all manner of tail fins and rocket imagery. Later in the 1960s, architecture broke free from the glass box to explore other forms, while automotive design adopted a simpler ‘fuselage style’ based on purer forms with less ornamentation and chrome.
Will the maximalist design impulses influence car design as well? Or will cars chart their own design course, with a minimalist, sculpted look? Probably a bit of both, but automotive design demands a careful orchestration of colour and material, particularly for the interior. There is little room for error, so a bias toward a minimal aesthetic is probable.
A sub-style of maximalism [above], blobs represent a breakout from the strict rectangular functionality of much modern, modular furniture, yet are forms that do not veer off into overly florid or decorative designs.
The Bomboca Sofa, by the Campana Brothers for Louis Vuitton, is named after sweets served at celebrations in Brazil. Inspired by cloud shapes and sea apples, this blobby, pouf-shaped sofa is actually a modular piece of furniture with pieces that can be removed from the rigid leather covered shell.
The Mutation Sofa by Maarten de Ceulaar reinterprets the classic deeply tufted Chesterfield sofa into a collection of padded spheres.
The most functional blobs are more chunky and geometrical than the name implies. Patricia Urquiola’s new Floe Insel collection for Cassina shows a modular character, but with angular and chunky massing. The furniture was inspired by icebergs, ‘whose sculptural, monolithic bulk floats weightlessly on water’, according to the manufacturer.
The shape of the Floe Insel suggests a possible use in an automotive interior – soft, but angular forms, modularity, directionality in design. Perhaps there is a place for the blob in the automotive interior of tomorrow.