Book Review: Masters of Modern Car Design/Bart Lenaerts

Masters of Modern Car Design, Bart Lenaerts

WAFT Publishing

English, hardcover (300x300mm), 252 pages

Salvador Dali once said ‘Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it,’ and reading Lorenzo Ramaciotti’s reflections on designing Ferraris, it has rarely seemed truer.

‘People expect the new one to be unique, and to be more attractive than its predecessor, which they already adored. It’s hard to continuously excel your previous work, considering you already performed at your absolute best back then.’ It brings firmly home some of the incredible difficulties involved in the design industry.

Presented in a conversational style with each designer directly addressing the reader, this substantial hardback book offers a candid, intimate and frank glimpse into the careers of nine of the world's most celebrated heads of design. The style of the book has a hint of irreverence, and in stripping away any trappings of pretence offers a deep and touching connection with the designers, beginning briefly with their childhood before leading into an in-depth view of their work today and reflections on their past.

Leitmotifs include the challenges of working processes, financial and technical limitations, and the realities and constraints of design today, yet all choose to embrace them as a positive challenge and a factor to make today's cars better than ever before. It is agreed that simplicity in design is the key to longevity and that design today is an enormously different process from in the past – which came from an engineering rather than artistic discipline. Yet every designer quotes the cars of the past, in particular the Citroën DS and Jaguar E-Type, as pinnacles of design. De Silva however makes no bones about his disdain for Japanese and Chinese designers.

Each man possesses a cool confidence and self-assuredness and speaks frankly; sometimes in a way one would doubt their marketing department would fully approve of, even. Occasionally you think 'you can't say that!' But they can, and do.

Competition in the studio is another commonality, and conducive to the advancement of design. Having not personally been involved in the inner workings of car design, I was ignorant of the process, perhaps imagining a creative nirvana where one prodigy comes up virtually unaided with the Next Big Thing. The reality is a large number of designers competing furiously to have their design taken forward to the next stage. Only one is chosen, and many of the men speak of their methods of handling those designers whose designs, sometimes numerous times over, never reach production. Other than Welburn, every designer is strongly of the opinion that ‘green’ cars shouldn't look different for the sake of it; only if the differences in mechanical configuration can allow for new design. Even then, each one is extremely aware of recognising the point to which innovation in any new car can be taken before the consumer begins to become scared.

Many other themes are covered: the responsibility of design in terms of the company, the designers, and its influence on humanity; religion, nature, magic, beauty, philosophy, architecture, fashion, future trends, public polarisation, the perception of cars always looking the same, and the roles concept cars have to play.

More images supportive of the narrative would be welcome, and the author confesses that 'Japanese brands are absent [from the book] because they don't cultivate a genuine design culture with strong personalities.' I would argue that perhaps it is more a case of us not being cultivated enough to understand it, but these small points certainly don't take anything from the strength of the book.

Personally the book has helped me to understand a little more about why I am so attracted to cars - although mere machines, they are also art: the embodiment of other humans' experiences, feelings, emotions, creativity and passion. A few years ago, I was in a prestigious Mayfair gallery looking at a piece of deformed concrete. It was rubbish. Then the artist came over and explained the work to me and magically I suddenly saw the art. I didn't appreciate it, yet I understood it. The point of car design is to appeal to the audience, so generally the product is far more palatable from the off, but this book has made me more forgiving of designs I considered to be bad: one appreciates the constraints far more and realises that perhaps the limitations in terms of finance, practicality, niche, brand and regulations often leave few options open.

Whether you're intimately involved in the car design industry or merely possess a passing interest, this is a wonderful book which offers an invaluable insight into the personal thoughts, feelings, motives, inspirations and differences of nine men. It gives anyone interested in cars a deep insight into how much more they are than a simple transport mechanism. Having read it, it will add a new dimension to how you perceive cars in day-to-day life.


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