Succeeding where others have failed, this feast for the eyes truly pays tribute to its subject.
Everybody with more than a fleeting interest in automotive design knows who Ercole Spada is. Official ‘car design legend’ status may have eluded the Italian stylist, but he’s in the excellent company of people such as Franco Scaglione, Aldo Brovarone or Paolo Martin in this regard.
Each of those designers (and a great many others) deserves a lovingly produced book which does their respective careers justice. In Spada’s case, however, this wishful thinking has been turned into a reality.
Produced and published by Waft Publishing (except in Germany, where Delius-Klasing are not only the book’s distributors, but also thought fit to spoil its cover’s monochrome appearance through the addition of their own logo), Spada benefits from the Belgians’ good taste and know-how, which ensure that it’s an utter delight in terms of layout, graphics and typography. The print quality isn’t quite up to this very high standard, but that’s a minor reservation and only really shows due to the contrast with the excellence of all other visual aspects.
Thankfully, the book’s subject also lives up to this standard of bookmaking craftsmanship. Ercole (as he’s referred to in Spada) comes across as a genuinely humble individual. Given how easily a biography such as this can turn into some kind of vanity project, this comes as more than mere relief. It lends the book’s contents some heart and renders certain personal episodes genuine pathos. This impression is only reinforced by Spada’s/Spada’s restraint when it comes to dishing out. Certain conflicts are mentioned, but only very rarely do any colleagues, associates or companions find themselves at the receiving end of severe criticism. And even on the few occasions this does happen, it never comes across as bitchy or self-serving bad-mouthing.
It’s this sense of dignity that also helps with the author, Bart Lenaerts’, occasionally idiosyncratic style. Throughout the book, a constant impression prevails that Spada wasn’t written by an English native speaker. Which obviously is no bad thing, but provides the copy with a slightly odd tone that takes some customisation.
Within that context, it must be mentioned that Spada is written from a perspective of affection and respect. On occasion, this ‘ode to Spada’ can border on the reverent, but in general, Spada doesn’t read like some bloody-minded hagiography - unlike certain other similar publications. Moreover, Lenaerts’ style makes it abundantly clear that he isn’t acting as an impartial reporter, but a particularly affectionate and respectful chronicler.
Being a book on such a visual topic, quite a few worthwhile pieces of information are also conveyed in non-written form. In that regard, it falls to Spada’s sketches and illustrations to paint a picture of the man’s creativity, literally and figuratively speaking. Which leads to a surprise, as the Spada’s illustrations vary wildly - not just in terms of technique (he was a keen adopter of new illustration methods), but also quality. For some of Spada’s sketches are surprisingly naïve, particularly in contrast to the sophistication and craftsmanship he exhibits elsewhere.
Spada’s aesthetic idiosyncrasies also become apparent through these pictures, and not just as far as his more avant-garde Zagato designs are concerned. In many of his sketches of what eventually became the BMW E32, Spada advocates a treatment of the c-pilar that’s rather challenging and inadvertently highlights the collaborative nature of the car design process. For Claus Luthe, Spada’s boss at BMW, and the other decision makers involved definitely made the right call to go for a more ‘conventional’ surfacing in this instance.
Equally interesting is Spada’s stance towards his body of work. He claims to be somewhat indifferent towards the much adored Aston Martin DB4 Zagato (his first job as a professional designer, by the way), which he deems too conservative, yet rates the little loved ‘Tipo 3’ platform cars he helped create (Fiat Tempra, Alfa Romeo 155, Lancia Dedra) whilst at I.DE.A Institute very highly indeed. Intriguingly, the Lancia Kappa saloon that’s credited to Spada isn’t mentioned once in the book, which begs the question what the real story behind that particular car may be.
Other fresh insight is gained when it comes to the chapters covering Spada’s stint at Ford’s Turin studio (where he was under challenged and frustrated) and his very brief and unhappy time at Audi (Hartmut Warkuß happens to be among the few whose reputation Spada risks to dent). His personal life is also alluded to in some detail, but this never feels like self-serving exhibitionism, but like a natural part of the narrative.
Of course, occasionally Spada lets Ercole off the leash a bit too easily. Particularly his one-off Ferrari designs (PPG, FZ 93 Zagato) are rather ungainly and overwrought, with irritating detailing. But one shouldn’t get too hung up on such minor irritations, given the overall quality of this tome.
Rather than filling the book’s last pages with superfluous illustrations or photographs of toy cars, the last chapter of Spada ends up telling the story another Spada - Paolo, Ercole’s younger, car designer son. Spada Jr’s story obviously isn’t quite as fetching as his old man’s (whose book this is, lest we forget), but Lenaerts invests enough into Paolo’s story to make it an interesting read nonetheless. This appendix-of-sorts also serves to illustrate the marked differences between the generations of designers: Whereas Ercole never officially ‘studied’ automotive design, his son embarked on a highly professionalised education to enter the exact same industry. How these differences affected either Spada’s output (and that of their respective generation of stylists) remains up to debate, of course.
Spada isn’t a book about wider design debates and issues though. And it needn’t be, as it covers its chosen subject just fine as it is.
Excerpts/quotes © Waft
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