Interview with Alejandro Mesonero-Romanos

Light is right. Colin Chapman’s philosophy was crucial to the success of Lotus’ sports cars in the ‘50s and ‘60s and it’s also something that SEAT’s design chief fervently believes in. Alejandro Mesonero-Romanos joined SEAT from Renault in 2001, and it’s his second stint at the vivacious Catalan marque – following a six-year period at VW Group from 1995 – that’s going to help define it.

Light, indeed, is never, ever wrong, and as Alejandro so poetically puts it, you wouldn’t want to end up with an “absolute cheesecake”.

Green Car Design: As we’re sitting inside the new Leon, let’s start here. It’s refreshingly honest.

Alejandro Mesonero-Romanos: Conceptually, we wanted to do something that looked simple. I don’t like cars where you get in and there are plenty of cheap plastics and highlights. I try to avoid all that – I want an interior that I can live with. Like the interior of your house – a pleasant place where the ergonomics are good.

GCD: Should I be asking, then, what you think of ‘bling’ cars over there like the Vauxhall Adam [sitting on the adjacent stand]?

AM-R: Maybe the first day in the dealer you say ‘wow!’, but then, I can tell you, after three months you get fed-up. This is not quality to me--you put the money where the client touches every day [gestures at the Leon’s solid-looking door handle]. This is designed with function--we don’t need to add extra decoration. To me design is a simplification problem. We are solving problems.

GCD: I think a lot of people would be interested to learn that so much money goes into fairly innocuous interior components such as door handles.

AM-R: But with decoration, what is the benefit for the client? I prefer to have something that’s expensive, yes, but use it every day and there’s real value. This is what I’m trying to do at SEAT, we try to be honest with design, emotional, but we are also very rational people. We like things that work out nicely, with attention to detail.

GCD: Is SEAT pursuing the development of ecologically sound materials, then, or are just quality and design to two chief goals?

AM-R: Today if you have just that, it’s not enough. It’s something that is taken for granted--we all have the same commitment in producing things that are more efficient in terms of recycling and the materials we use. This is a must, but there is not added value directly to the client. Maybe he knows that the car he buys is very efficient, but what we wants, first, is a very nice product.

GCD: Whilst it’s unlikely that SEAT will explore emobility at any time soon, you’ve arrived here from Renault, and they’re fairly serious about the whole thing.

AM-R: The funny thing is that I was design director for the Twizy, when I was at Renault. The project was already started when I arrived, but I took care of it from then on.

Let’s say that today, vehicle designers and engineers are ready to produce vehicles like that. It was a top down decision for Carlos [Tavares]. When he saw the car, he thought, ‘perfect, do it!’. We hadn’t even finished the design.

It depends very much on that engagement from the top down. To do things from the bottom up is really hard. As long as there is a committed CEO that really wants to do something new and take a gamble, it’s possible. The problem is that, today, I don’t know if the clients are ready for electric cars and so on. I also worked on the ZOE, and it’s a very hard decision for people to buy electric because of the limited autonomy. It has to change people’s habits, and we have to do it little by little.

GCD: ZOE aside, the Twizy is an absurd creation on the face of it. Brilliant but absurd--where was Genesis?

AM-R: When we started the brainstorming, we decided to forget about normal cars. If you have to drive in a city like Barcelona, what, exactly, do you need to move your body around? Today, a person that weighs 80kg, let’s say, moves with them 1,000kg. So to move 80kg you need 1,000kg – this is life today.

Most of the time you’re taking your car to the supermarket, which is maybe just two roads away from you home, but you also need to take your children on a trip and you’ll need a bigger car for that. So we kept the scenario in Barcelona, leaving very rarely, and when we do we take the train or plane or taxi. What do you need in Barcelona? A moped? Ok so it’s wet, and cold, and you fall down, but we started with that and said that the base of moped is the envelope – the packaging. It’s very small to go in the traffic, but you we need windows? Probably not.

We then built several objects, and eventually settled on the one that was the most interesting. There were other things that were completely open or completely closed – like the Toyota [i-Road] we’ve seen today.

GCD: But do you think this is the future? Could your bosses at VW ever sign off something like the Twizy?

AM-R: I think that the future will be made from small ‘animals’ like that. It’s a question of usage; we’re very limited, but for the price it’s a very nice product.

It’s very fresh. What you see [in the Twizy] is the result of the first sketch. It shows a bit – it’s a little bit raw and caricatured – but that’s part of the culture of Renault. Renault has always been doing things like that – like the Twingo and the Espace – visionary stuff.

For Volkswagen Group it’s more evolution. Until we have the perfect thing – perfect in terms of engineering, perfect in terms of design – we are not going to release it. The quality demands are extremely high but the level of creativity also. We are always proposing things to the board—what we want to make sure of is that we don’t make any mistakes. This is one of the qualities of the group.

GCD: With carte blanche, what kind of car would you build for SEAT?

AM-R: We are designers. We dream about cars. So, in the chapter of dreams I would like, of course, a nice two-seater spider.

GCD: So you admire the stillborn VW BlueSport?

AM-R: No, this is too complex. I think I would like to have something that is a little bit back to basics—like we were saying before; it’s an exercise in subtraction. What can you take away from something like the [Porsche] Boxster to make the basics of driving and the pleasure of driving right?

GCD: So something like a Toyota GT86 Roadster?

AM-R: Something ever simpler, in the spirit of what the Mazda MX-5 did or the Lotus Elan and things like that. Not something retro – this is not the style of SEAT, we are looking to the future – but in terms of spirit. I don’t think you need electric windows – we have arms and muscles and can do that [winding up an imaginary window]. And all this is weight, and money. You can take this and that away. Air conditioning? I don’t need that. What I want is a beautiful dashboard made in leather so I can smell and touch the leather, which gets old and beautiful. Look at the classic cars.

GCD: That sounds a lot like an automotive parallel to the Italian Slow Food movement?

AM-R: Yes. Also today we have big consoles because we have the climate controls behind – maybe we could have something simpler – and why four outlets for the air diffusers when we could have two. Go back to basics, and when you take all the weight out you don’t need such a powerful engine. Fuel consumption goes and CO2 goes down. Colin Chapman used to say, “Light is right”.

The problem is that the marketing guys say, “No, the client – they want this, they want that,” and you end up with an absolute cheesecake.

GCD: So you’re in a constant battle with marketing team?

We try to work with them together. I think it’s good because design is really well positioned in the company. I don’t feel any constraint from that point of view, neither with engineering. Of course I would like to do some nice products, but I understand on the other hand that we are here first of all to make money, otherwise the company wouldn’t exist, and maybe once we have the basic pillars of the company in the right place we can think about extras. First of all we really need to implement the new Leon – and there is a new car coming in Frankfurt – and then complete the whole family.

GCD: The new SEAT design language is a considerable step forward from the slightly butch, puffed-out chest attitude of the older cars. There’s no false bravado anymore—the cars are lean and mean. What’s the atmosphere like in Barcelona, in the design studio, in terms of competition?

AM-R: Creative management is always very difficult because we are managing people with a lot of individuality and a lot of egos sometimes. You have to deal with frustrations and the constant competition between designers. Just one guy gets the design of the car – the others have to jump in on another project - but the atmosphere is very good because the people are moved by passion in this industry. You don’t get a single guy who doesn’t love cars. Most of them have classic cars, we talk about cars, and we breath cars and we love to see our work when it comes out in a nice way. It’s really rewarding and everyone’s really motivated.

Obviously people only see the top of iceberg – the car – but we have studio full of models. Some cars will come to market, some cars won’t. They have to have solid business model.

GCD: What’s your favourite car, ever?

AM-R: 1968 Ferrari Daytona.

Photography Olgun Kordal

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