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The Car Design Review 5 Interviews: Samuel Chuffart, Icona

05 June 2018 | by Farah Alkhalisi

Gandini used to say something very important, and I always repeat it to my designers: when you make a design, put everything together, all your ideas; you combine them. Once you have put everything together, delete everything that is not necessary; and once you have deleted everything that is not necessary, you delete one more thing. You can see this in Neo, which was literally influenced by the Shanghai Tower: you have the twist or the high line that goes forward, and two lines in waves that combine together. All our show cars have in common that they are very sensual cars in the sense that their shape is simple, supple and soft, with a gentle basic volume, like a human. But at the same time, to complement that softness, very sharp lines and divisions going through by contrast: this transition of soft and sharp, the sharp against the curve. 

The most influential piece of design that has shaped the Icona cars is probably the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest aeroplane in the world: if you look at its shape, the delta and the extrusion, and the section a triangle, the most simple shape. The transitions from positive to negative are very soft, very sweet, but the lines are still extremely sharp. You will also find this in architecture in the works of Zaha Hadid. 

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I was always so impressed by the cars from Italy when I was growing up; my parents had a Peugeot dealership, and the cars Pininfarina was doing, like the 504 Coupé or later 406 Coupé, were just astonishing and had a huge impact on me. And Fioravanti, with the Ferrari 365 Daytona and 288 GTO – modern, elegant, timeless, sensual, you had everything in those cars!  You see just one line to hold it all together, and on the Jaguar E-Type as well, you see the curve and the tension of the front panel, the gravity of the front, again on the rear and the sill, a complete flat extrusion, and the shutlines dead straight, complementing the shape. The shape is so beautiful and perfect, you can put a razor-sharp shutline and it just stands there. You exaggerate the volume so you don’t have to do tricks on the graphics. That’s what I always appreciate, always admire. 

I also love to see stuff that disturbs me, and then it works for me and I accept it, like the flame-surfacing of Chris Bangle. The [BMW] GINA was great advanced thinking. And when I was working for Nissan in Germany and first saw images of the Cube: we looked at that car, a box with the rear door like a fridge, the side windows completely vertical, and I thought, are they nuts? Then they explained to us, ‘this is honest design’, and I thought that this was quite a beautiful approach, very pure Japanese. I love that, being disturbed, and for me our studios are rich because people disagree – I want them to disagree! 

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What I started to discover when I was chief designer at Bertone is that working with different customers gives you many advantages: life never gets boring, and you have to be much more creative, with more fresh ideas, be more flexible and more versatile.  

The main reason clients come now to Icona is that we have a fresh eye, a proposal they may not have been thinking about, and the most common way we work is to do a complete job, generate a design from scratch. We are very hands-on to the nuts and bolts of everything, the big picture, from designing the package to influencing the technology, refining all the time, and our own studio engineers will work to discuss innovative solutions with the OEM’s engineers. We have them open their eyes to see that there is not only a benchmark to consider, but other options that can happen. 

We are not an engineering company doing some design: our engineers work to help design go further. A manufacturer needs to have partners that can give them the right input, open their eyes to the right things, and this is very much our role. 

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Design is more frequently changing, and outside and diverse and global influences have to be there: I think that much more intense research of shapes and styles is going to be very important. We need to go out into the street and see what is going on, feel the vibe of the day, in relevant cities which are vibrant and creative, where new tastes and new generations and ideas are embraced. We know that some places in Africa, for example, will become places of interest that we need to look at. The automotive future is not going to be in one direction as we progress, but like our society, it is becoming more multicultural, more mixed.

Most of our projects today are happening in Shanghai, although we are having three projects built right now in Italy, and two going on in the USA. We have over 150 people with 45 designers in Shanghai, 16 in Italy and 14 in America, of 23 nationalities; I have 22 programmes going on, and each time there is a new one, I open it to every designer in the group and all of them can propose an idea. Everybody sketches and then we start from there, to have a more rich approach. So that means Italians may win the design and follow the model to China, or vice versa; we have some of the American team in Italy currently. This cross-exchange programme, a cross-functional team, is very important to us, and also for the client. Everything is changing so fast, and you need to really have a flair for understanding what is going on – it’s not just about recycling another car, changing a platform by a few millimetres, many things on mobility are being questioned. 

I’m convinced that cars will remain something people love. It is possible that autonomous cars will cost more, because of their technology, and it is very possible that they will live a very short life of three to five years, but like a mobile phone, we will do a lot more with it; we will have fewer cars per family, or we may share one with a number of people we are close to. Our latest show car, Nucleus, is influenced by Neo, but is a much more luxurious type of transportation, a very large minivan fully-autonomous to Level 5.

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The Rolls-Royce Vision Next 100 concept was very thoughtful, very clever and forward-thinking; Nucleus is of that level of pure thinking on how we are going to live our lives in the future with these cars, when we don’t have to look at the windscreen or the traffic. Designers have a responsibility to give people the choice and flexibility to behave in a sociable manner – not to force them, but to give them that comfort. The definition of luxury is not that you would, but that you could.  And we have to present something that is relevant, that makes sense for the future moving towards autonomous driving. 

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We take it as our role to be influential and innovative, whether we’re making something with the Icona name on it or a car for a client. We want to be visionary in the creative process that an OEM wants to pursue, and to work together with them to push the edge of what’s possible. 

Nowadays, what is making life very interesting is that established manufacturers realise that tomorrow they may not be there, because things are changing very, very fast.

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This interview is from our Car Design Review 5, a beautifully-produced 200-page book published this Spring and containing the past year’s finest concept and production cars, plus trend reports, an in-depth feature on our lifetime achievement award winner, industry legend Wayne Cherry, and interviews with many of the world’s foremost designers. If you’d like more details or the chance to purchase your own copy, go here.