Motoring: It may be a car - but is it art?

The best car designers are effectively artists. So where better to celebrate their work than the RCA?

I HAVE just been browsing through the book that goes with the Moving Objects exhibition at the Royal College of Art. And never before have I come across such an insightful window into the culture of car design. If you appreciate cars, how their forms are created, the language those forms speak, the way they fit into a social context, you should read it.

You could, of course, go to the exhibition as well. Should you? This is not just a display of automotive imagery for an audience of petrol- heads. It rises far above such a brief, for this is the RCA. And the RCA runs the foremost post-graduate automotive design school in the world. It has done this for 30 years, and Moving Objects was originally conceived to celebrate that fact. Stephen Bayley, design critic, style observer, Millennium Dome escapee and exhibition director, is adamant: "This is an exhibition about design, not just about cars. The idea is to offer the public privileged access to what they hitherto will not have seen."

These concept cars include several Ford-related ones such as the Zig sports car, the GT90 supercar, the Mercury MC4, the Aston Martin Project Vantage and a proposal for a new Ford Thunderbird, because Ford is sponsoring the exhibition.

This is fitting, because Ford also sponsored the first degree course back in 1969, when the design and arts establishment still treated the notion of car design with disdain. (That 98.3 per cent of all RCA automotive graduates work within the industry, the best success rate of any vocational RCA course, suggests that the establishment's view was misjudged.)

There are concept cars from other makers, too, such as Volkswagen's Noah MPV, and the compact, aluminium-made Audi AL2, a version of which will soon enter production. "It was extraordinarily difficult to get some of these concept cars," says Bayley. "If they are new enough to be germane to a manufacturer's needs, they are usually kept secret after their first showing. If not, they teeter on the edge of destruction."

Set in a simultaneously open and claustrophobic space that's made to resemble a confusing multi-storey car park, the concept cars form the climactic end to the exhibition.

At the beginning, you are confronted with several scene-setting statements, such as these from Professor Ken Greenley, the RCA's vehicle design-course director and still an active car designer: "Man's ownership of the motor- car has produced the first privately owned, manufactured object that is used entirely in the public domain. No other manufactured object relays as many subliminal signals - related to user, viewer and manufacturer - as the motor-car in all its modern variations."

Thus the tone is set. No other technologically dense consumer object generates as much passion; you don't bond with your fridge or (unless you own an iMac) use a computer to project your personality.

We are taken through the birth of car design as a distinct discipline, at General Motors in the 1920s with Harley Earl's Paint and Color Department. Earl and his associates developed clay modelling, still used today even though computer-aided design now takes out many of the time-consuming blind alleys. It contrasted with the technique used by the other centre of car-styling proliferation, Italy, with its wooden formers around which metal would be shaped.

Moving Objects explains many technical design terms, looks at objects from crustacea to missiles that have influenced cars' shapes, at colour preferences, and at how manufacturers create an identity for their products.

It examines why women are no longer patronised and marginalised in car culture, and how car design will have to change to suit an increasingly ageing population of car users. We learn about form, and down-the-road graphics, the story-boards laced with quotes from many luminaries.

A minute change in a line can have a massive effect: "There are fat rounded cars and thin rounded cars," declared former Jaguar design director and RCA graduate Geoff Lawson, who died suddenly last month and to whom the exhibition is dedicated. "The difference between a curve that is muscular and one that is anorexic is about 3mm."

There are displays of door handles and petrol caps past and present, and of today's most dramatic front and rear light units which are extraordinary objects when viewed away from their setting. You can sit in a Ferrari seat, you can see a board showing the names of all the past graduates whose work is now seen by everyone, on every road. There are few women among the names, itself a subject debated.

And there's the issue of useful change against mere change to stimulate demand for the new: "We haven't depreciated these cars," said an anonymous General Motors executive in the 1950s to counter allegations of built- in obsolescence. "We've appreciated your mind."

`Moving Objects' runs from 29 July to 19 September at the RCA, Kensington Gore, London SW7 (next to the Royal Albert Hall). It's open every day except Wednesdays, from 10am to 6pm (Fridays 9pm). Admission is pounds 4, or pounds 3 for concessions, and it's free to students and those under 15. While there, you may be asked to give your views on car design for a MORI poll. Admission money goes to funding the RCA's vehicle-design courses. The `Moving Objects' book is available only at the RCA, price pounds 14.95

Arts and Entertainment
Supporting role: at the Supreme Court, Rhodes was accompanied by a famous friend, the actor Benedict Cumberbatch
booksPianist James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to stop the injunction of his memoirs
Sam Allardyce
Steven Gerrard scores for Liverpool
Arts and Entertainment
Bob Dylan
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

    £40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

    Guru Careers: Software Developer

    £35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

    Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

    Day In a Page

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?