In an age of excess, form and function become increasingly decoupled.
It is what made the automobile such a special consumer durable in the first place that is rendering it increasingly offensive in this day and age.
An automobile was never simply a device. Even in its early days, when it was little more than a motorised coach, it was as much about carrying people from A to B, as embodying either social status or aspiration.
With traditional automotive engineering and design having reached maturity, the weighting of these functions has changed, certainly in terms of automotive design. Whereas in the past, most stylistic choices were driven by necessity or technological advance, today they are motivated by an altogether different set of motives.
‘Form follows function’, the famous quote by architect, Louis Sullivan, appears increasingly more hollow, the more it is (mis)used. For while cars anno 2018 still possess the capacity of carrying people from one place to another, their design has taken on a life of its own. It is no longer about presenting the function of the automobile in an interesting and/or attractive way, but has recently changed into an act of masquerading. A sideshow, whose undercurrents are rather worrying.
Just as we have recently learned of the existence of ‘fake news’, we are also confronted with design that is not about the art of either presenting or hiding an element of engineering in a pleasing manner, but about deception. It is, for lack of a less drastic term, dishonest design.
Two examples of this phenomenon are particularly aggravating.
Hardly half of the air inlets on current production cars’ front-ends are what they pretend to be, for example. Alongside these proper grilles, we are presented with an onslaught of black plastic panels sporting some kind of mesh pattern print that is so unconvincing, no onlooker would ever be fooled into thinking these are the real deal for a second. In terms of subtlety, execution and context, they are akin to Inspector Clouseau’s hunchback disguise kit being employed by real police, during actual detective work.
Also in the real world, cooling requirements have changed dramatically in recent years, as have aerodynamic functions. Yet car design’s response to this is to pretend neither of these developments has taken place. Instead, the viewer/customer is obviously taken for a fool, who not only does not see through this ridiculous visual smokescreen, but also (supposedly) thinks ‘oh, that car’s engine needs so much cooling, it must be extremely powerful, and that’s cool’. Are customers this stupid? And are designers this cynical?
Another case-in-point can be found at the opposite end of many modern automobiles, namely where its exhaust tip was once found. These days, all too often one is presented with either an exhaust tip that obviously does not correspond with the size of the actual exhaust at all. Or, and even more aggravating, one finds the outline of an exhaust tip printed in some mock-metallic hue on another piece of black plastic. What exactly does the world need fake exhaust tips for? Particularly ones that are, again, offensively unconvincing?
It is obvious that these stylistic choices were driven by the fact that car manufacturers do not take the customer seriously at all. Just as car designers all too often like to refer to their work as being ‘cool’ or ‘sexy’, as though they were an adolescent waxing lyrical about his modified first scooter, the pointless faux air inlets and exhaust tips suggest that the automobile of 2018 is not catering for an adult audience anymore. Seriousness is for old farts.
But is the car customer of 2018 really an impressionable youth? And would a modern car really be unacceptable without the regalia of the past? Does the eye really demand what the mind doesn’t require?
Of course, post-factual components can be found elsewhere in the modern automobile, too. Whether we are talking about fake engine noises being emitted through the stereo system or unnecessary stitching on (fake) leather: What used to be a side effect of an actual requirement is now all smoke and mirrors. It’s as though designers believed the ‘soul’ of an automobile was in overcoming manufacturing processes and engineering solutions.
So it must be constituted that a side effect of the maturity of traditional automotive engineering is that automotive design has truly entered the post-modern stage. Form and function have been de-coupled like never before. For utterly unnecessary air vents and exhaust tips must not be mistaken for tail fins or rear spoilers of our times - those were naïve embellishments, whereas today’s gratuitous décor is of a more obnoxious kind.
Neither tail fins, nor (most) rear spoilers served a real purpose. They were simple fads, like flared trousers or shoulder pads. And their propagation was limited to certain kinds of automobiles only. However, fake exhaust tips and vents are everywhere. And offend through the sheer cack-handedness of their execution - for they suggest that car design, rather than embracing the future, now sees fit to create an illusion of the past instead.
In the context of ominous threats to ban certain types of automobiles, not to mention all the other mounting challenges that will be brought about by changes in environmental legislation, the question needs to be asked whether fake exhaust tips and grilles really are where the energy and creativity of designers is best spent? And whether we dare to accept that the car, as we knew it, shall be no more.
Photos: Gemballa (1), Daimler AG (1), all rights reserved
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