Thanks to Apple, industrial design - or product design - is an idea much more familiar to the general public than it ever was in the previous 100 years of the mass production of 'consumer durables'. Jonathan Ive - who graduated in 1989 with a BA in Industrial Design from Newcastle Polytechnic - is famously Apple’s ‘Head of Industrial Design’.
If you look at Apple’s output since the company was founded, its products - right from the early stuff developed by Californian consultancy Frog Design - have always benefitted from being developed by industrial designers.
A few weeks ago, I heard internal rumours that VW’s new Up city car was not selling quite as rapidly as the company expected. This tied up with some of the comments on the Autocar website that compared the Up to ‘white goods’, calling it ‘boring’.
I was very surprised to hear that anyone could take against the Up’s precision execution. Compared to rival small cars, the Up is surely the absolute exemplar of modern design. It is exceptionally crisp, considered and admirably simple and unfussy, especially inside. There’s hardly a line out of place and the spirit of the styling is reflected in the construction.
Who wouldn’t thrill at the laser welding used to join the side pressing and roof panel. Or the impossibly tight shut lines between the front bumper and wing? Of course, the Up was heavily influenced by Apple’s design and construction language, all those big, sweeping, surfaces and seamless construction.
Apple’s industrial design attempts to deliver something that is modern, clean, beautifully made and not consciously over-styled. But’s there’s another branch of industrial design - the original branch - that thinks ‘form should follow function’. The shape of any industrial product should reflect its purpose and the materials used in its construction should be true their inherent nature. This approach is as far from ‘styling’ as possible.
Few cars have ever been conceived as a pure piece of industrial design. Even the 2CV and Beetle were influenced by Art Deco styling, though the 2CV’s semi-circular doors and hinged windows are purist solutions. Oddly enough, the original Range Rover was exhibited at the Louvre in Paris as an exemplar of industrial design. But then, the final design was a very cleverly cleaned-up version of the engineering mule.
Perhaps only one production car can be described as a real example of industrial design: the Ital-styled 1980 Fiat Panda, famous for its flat glass and hammock seats. Last week I had three hours with Fabrizio Giugiaro, chief designer for, and son of the founder of, the prolific Italdesign.
With the Up rumours in the back of my mind, I suggested to Fabrizio that the Ital-designed Mk1 Panda was the only successful expression of the idea, much beloved of creative types, of an ‘industrially designed’ car. He laughed at the proposition and said it took the little car as long as eight years to be fully accepted by the buying public. “It was said that only architects and designers bought it at first,” he said.
“The idea was conceived in 1976 by the then-boss of Fiat. He had a house on Sardinia and wanted a Renault 4-type rugged vehicle. Light, with high ground clearance. It was intended to be very easy to build, but all sorts of problems were encountered. The glass company did not originally have ability to make flat glass, so that feature became expensive. Then the lower half of the body was meant to be plastic mouldings, but that was expensive, so the lower panels were painted, which added cost.”
Fabrizio also revealed that the one-sided grille was developed because the two types of engine (air-cooled engine and water-cooled) had their respective cooling fans on the right and left of the engine bay. The grille panel could be flipped to match each engine. Now, that is pure industrial design.
The first Panda was in production for 20 years, so it eventually gained a decent following. But applied styling is clearly still the overwhelming choice of global car buyers - as the spectacular failure of the super-budget Tata Nano also shows. Which probably also explains why the best car stylists are in such demand.