Worth The Paper
Very occasionally, mere brochures can be surprisingly meaningful.
Nuance and subtlety are not what brochures are about. They are about getting their message across - swiftly, bluntly and with little room for interpretation.
Yet two brochures created by Renault, more than twenty years ago, are defined by being subtly nuanced. They are neither shouty, nor blunt. Instead, they exude a delicate sophistication that is very much at odds with the usual notions of printed marketing efforts.
These are not any old brochures, but were created to present two concept cars in printed form: the Initiale from 1995 and the Vel Satis from 1998. Among the generally outstanding Renault concept cars of the period, these two stood out, as they embodied upmarket aspirations not necessarily associated with the brand - and which remain unrealised to this day.
Yet despite the Renault brand’s lack of inherent luxury allure, both were highly appealing, somewhat left-of-field takes on sophisticated motor cars.
If trying to come up with comparisons for the Initiale, one could describe it as the ‘French Phaeton’. Not because it shares any characteristics with the least volkstauglich of Volkswagens, but because it attempted to define luxury for a marque hitherto associated with other values.
Yet where the German saloon went for a decidedly conservative concept - albeit executed with obsessive ambition and attention to detail -, the French grande berline deviated significantly from the beaten path.
Initiale’s exterior, penned by Florian Thiercelin, was no retro design by any stretch, but very much in the postmodern aesthetic idiom that was de rigueur in architecture, interior and product design at the time. Accentuating simple geometric shapes - just like certain Audi designs from that period, albeit in more playful a style -, the Initiale’s silhouette was defined by its arced roofline, which nods to the designs of Avions Voisin, a French car maker of luxurious avant-garde automobiles before the war. Its semi-fastback outline immediately lent it an appearance distinctly different from the conservative three-box saloons that defined the luxury market. Its large window area - shared with quite a few other Renaults designed under then-chief designer, Patrick le Quément - suggested an altogether different interior ambience than that offered by the German establishment.
Indeed, the Initiale’s cabin - which was designed by future Pininfarina chief designer, Fabio Filippini - was a similarly idiosyncratic take on automotive luxury as its bodywork. Combining the sinuous aesthetic of ‘90s organic forms with the postmodern, neo-art déco flair established by French furniture design legend, Andrée Putman, the Initiale’s cabin is as luxurious an environment as it is decidedly French. Technology remains hidden away whenever possible (a concept later on pursued in a production car in the 2003 Rolls-Royce Phantom), with natural materials - leather, unpainted wood - defining the ambience. Certain details that betray its vintage apart, it remains an environment of becalming, pleasant minimalism.
Minimalism, incidentally, is also the first impression conveyed by the Initiale’s brochure. In contrast to the usual marketing materials, it is low on shouty imagery and rather high on words. Those words are printed in unobtrusively elegant Venetian 301 typography - a font that is visually pleasing, yet does not prioritise attention-grabbing style over legibility.
The photos - and one illustration, by Axel Breun - are all presented in a small format, framed by copious amounts of empty space. Attentive readers are thus led to study them particularly diligently, whereas the appeal to casual observers is likely to be rather limited by this layout.
Even casual observers, should they be gifted with average tactile capacities, would be impressed with the brochure for the Vel Satis concept car Renault published three years later. The thick, patterned Canevas rag paper it is printed on is exceptionally pleasant to the touch and provides a delightful grounding for the dapper Golden Cockerel font used throughout.
Overall, the Vel Satis brochure is rather more spectacular than its Initiale counterpoint: Larger in format, made of impressive materials and featuring not only some wonderfully moody photography, but also annotations by none other than Andrée Putman herself (edited by Serge Van Hove, Patrick le Quément’s long-serving assistant).
That being said, the Vel Satis itself did not necessarily need this kind of endorsement - yet the fact that Madame Putman’s praise does neither feel forced, nor misplaced speaks volumes. For the Vel Satis remains a fabulously striking piece of design, even more than twenty years after its original unveiling. A coupé of most unusual proportions, the Vel Satis’ exterior was once again the work of Florian Thiercelin - one of the most interesting French car designers of the past few decades. Combining a long front overhang with a rear aspect that combines an almost upright, curved rear window with a sloping roofline and a rounded boot profile, the Vel Satis’ appearance should be peculiar, in a Citroën Ami 6 vein, rather than truly attractive.
Yet the skilled way in which Thiercelin combined these seemingly odd features and clad them in cleanly surfaced sheetmetal, adorned with simple-yet-striking graphics, turned Vel Satis into something else entirely than the sum of its parts. A coupé truly like no other. It would have been intriguing to see this concept put into production - while an acquired taste in the best sense of the term, it was not nearly as challengingly peculiar as the Avantime MPV coupé that eventually was available brought to market.
The Vet Satis’ interior, the work of Dominic Marzloff (who would design the fabulous Renault Espace IV cabin later on), is even more minimalist than that of Initiale. Like that car, Vel Satis keeps the high-tech contents out of the driver’s and passengers’ sight when not needed - the sat-nav display, a keyboard (!) and even the main gauges can all be stored away, resulting in an utterly clean, almost clinical appearance. The asymmetrical steering wheel (this is a French car, after all) and a centrally placed analogue watch are thus given centre stage.
The latter obviously turned out to be a highly prescient feature, finding its way into cars as diverse as the Bentley Continental GT, the Rolls-Royce Phantom, the Mercedes S-class and the VW Phaeton - among a great many others. Madame Putman clearly saw this trend coming, back in 1998: ‘(…) the clock - in this case a Mauboussin - parted company with the instrument panel, distancing itself with respect to the other dials and trip computer. But all cars will soon follow suit. Time deserves space of its own.’
Time, and these two cars’ brochures, also lend an altogether different perspective onto these outstanding concept cars. In that sense, the usual ‘they should’ve just built them!’ mantra is not the point - even though both cars would have constituted wonderful, highly original additions to the streetscape. Yet, with two decades of hindsight, it becomes abundantly clear that, at least in design terms, Renault had a firm grasp of luxury - so much so that the designers even played with it, resulting in two variations on the concept that (technological details excepted) still feels fresh today.
What is of greater importance now than it was twenty years ago though is to understand that luxury is not about tinsel and excess, but selection. In this case, also the selection of elegant typography and exquisite, 320 gramme-heavy rag paper.
Photos: Auto-Didakt (4), Renault (9), all rights reserved
Excerpts/quotes © Renault
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