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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

    £28000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer and Markets Development Executive

    £22000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company's mission is to ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Guest Services Assistant

    £13832 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This 5 star leisure destination on the w...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Account Manager

    £20000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Account Manager is requ...

    Day In a Page

    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border