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INTERVIEW: Icona Vulcano designer Samuel Chuffart believes 'good design can change the world'

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Published: 14 October 2013



This is the Icona Vulcano. It's a spectacular car set to cost around £2.6m. Only five will ever be made and it took designer Samuel Chuffart eight months to design this masterpiece.


We caught up with Icona's Design Director and discover what lies ahead for design.


How important is the emotional aspect of designing for a designer? And to what extent does emotion affect the design of the car?

The emotional aspect for me is the number one. I think if a car does not have the emotion the car completely fails. I think the car is an emotional object, probably the most emotional object you can have. There is a dynamic aspect to it and somewhat they are timeless, especially if I think about the works of Williams Lyons with the old Jaguars.


They look like they have movement when they’re standing still. In a very elegant way, the acceleration of each curve or this kind of spirit. The gravity of the lines is so much. All of it is so elegantly put together and it’s like when you look at a human face and you can feel when the person is ready to smile. It can be engaging. And an engaging face will be an engaging volume for a car.

The shape tells you something. I think the shape expresses something. Like in architecture, you know, architecture can make you feel comfortable, going into a room and you feel the space and you breathe, or maybe it will try and impress you somehow.


There are tricks that they can play with the volume for that. I think it’s the same thing. You can express with emotion and volume here and express it even more so because it’s a dynamic object which you can somehow master like a horse. 



What challenges and pressures do you feel designers are facing over the next few years?

I think there is a big challenge for designers over the next few years. I think the designers of today are born to love cars. The biggest challenge is to bring back the heart or the love of cars for the next generation. There are two current designers right now, but one is diminishing. There is a current which I like it for what it is: the product design approach.

The product, which is the white product. And I will not say the Apple product. It is not an Apple product because Apple’s products are quite loveable things to touch and feel.

I’m really talking about the white product. This is really what they try to achieve.

It’s really trying to remove the emotion of this and of course, it is at the opposite of what we used to think was a car. Cars were always an emotional thing even if they were a Mini and this is addressed to a public who wants this white product.

And the young generation, as you know, love their tablets, their iPods and they’re always going on Facebook. If it’s not on Google, it cannot be reality. There’s been a sudden change of culture in people today which changes the way of perceiving the world that exists. It doesn’t have to be eliminated or reduced or whatever. I’m not against that progress or that point of view. I just would like to be able to integrate again more emotion into the product to make people love.

I mean, people believe what they see and if people have never liked a car before and they come to see a car and say ‘it’s just a beautiful shape, it’s talking to me, I just like it’, it’s like a beautiful person. That’s why we use models to sell clothing for magazines. We say that person is engaging. ‘I’d like to look like this man in that suit’ or whatever.

People need to relate to what they see and the next challenge, I feel, is to make people love cars again, so they need to relate to what they see.



Do you think that’s where the car industry in terms of design is going?

Basically, the last 20 years has brought a quality of design that was unprecedented. 20 years ago, you had the Mini. Cars that were like a joke. You’d look at it and you were like, obviously they don’t know what they’re doing. Today that’s not true. Today, you will see cars that did not mean much before and are excellent today. Look at Kia, for example. Kia, for me, is really the proof that good design today can change the world literally.

The designers have the chance and the power to communicate because every product is now reliable. We are buying because of the image that we perceive from it and the emotion that we get out of it and therefore, it becomes a totally personal choice. It’s not an objective choice or ‘ah, I need to buy this because it can do exactly this’, except for the ergonomics and practicality. But the reliability is no longer an issue. So in the last 20 years, I’ve seen this which is a positive move and a lot of quality of the design studio.

However, there is all the regulation of crash tests and regulation of this and that. And mostly regulation which has been taking quite a toll on the possibilities of design.

The long front overhang of some cars years ago were disguised by a large number of graphics and they were becoming more graphic design in the sculptural volume, simply because the crash tests were there and there was no way you could get around it.

These kind of difficulties have not been playing in favour of car design and probably not in favour of cars as a whole because you end up with a graphic design type of car which goes naturally out of fashion progressively and that’s why people say, ‘bloody hell, the E-Type is still looking bloody good’. This comes from these constraints.



Where do you source your inspiration and how do you predict future fashion trends?

Architecture, right now. Architecture is really a field. When I look at the work of Zaha Hadid or in Shanghai, where I live, I see this tower, twisting up to the sky. It is really impressive to see this kind of new thinking.

And not just the building itself but the integration in the landscape, which relates to its environment. I really admire that every day. And there’s a lot of this in these cars where the surfaces will twist and play with the rest of the volume. It is not something linear or necessarily expectable everywhere.

Architecture is a big influence for me and naturally, I would say the sensual shapes that I find in the objects. If I look at the low-drag E-Type, it is quite a feminine shape. Design is everywhere. When you start looking at it and being creative, I might find a beautiful shape in a cup of tea over there.

What specifically on the Icona Vulcano can on associate with specific things?

Yes, sometimes it’s pretty hard to remember what inspired you in the first place but actually the inspiration of that car came from the fuselage. The fuselage which we did two years ago was an aerodynamic car to be electric. And the design language which we developed for it is the base and foundation of this car.

We have an extrusion, a very strong bone that has a very strong section. And we have very straight lines as much as possible, which actually complement the volume instead of trying to fight against it. 



How international is this car?

It’s an Italian car. It’s built in Italy. I used to be Chief Designer at Bertone. We realised that a lot of customers today and a lot of projects are happening there (in China) and it’s a lot more practical to be there. So we are an Italian company, we have European competence, we have a very international team, we have 11 nationalities in our studio, some Chinese but a lot of foreigners. But we based the creative studio in China. So I work mostly there for design and also in Italy.

This is an Italian car, developed and built in Italy by the engineers. So the creative part was my job. I was based in Shanghai. The engineering is done by Claudio Lombardi who is the ex-director of Scuderia Ferrari and he conceived the engine that we are using here, the V12 60 Degrees.

We are a global company. If a lot of action was happening in New York, we would be in New York. But not a lot of action in cars is happening in New York.

What are you plans for the future for the company going forward?

The plan is to come up next year with a running car on the racetrack and to have the presentation of the car on the racetrack and understand that it’s not just a pretty face and that the car is very capable and can really put up a fight with the rest of the field.

Again, as a demonstration of our capability, not as direct competition, because we are not looking at making mass numbers. We are looking at a one-off here.

Why do you feel Italy has some of the best car designers?

I am French. I have one Italian designer who actually did not work on this car and I have no pre-conception on whether you are a better designer because of your passport. When I receive a portfolio, I always say to my management – whom are often complaining about the problems of Visa – I say that I don’t care where the people come from. They can come from Mars. They can have any passport, any colour. I don’t care. I just want the good guys. That’s what I want. So for me, the country’s really not an issue.

However, the culture is. It is a fact that somebody that has a certain finesse, a set of cultures, a certain approach of shape and certain innovation, is important. But he could come from Russia. He could come from the US. He could come from India or from France or Germany or Italy. I don’t care.

And a lot of cars that many people think ‘oh, that’s designed in Germany’ are designed by… the Porsche 996 was designed by a Chinese designer, for example. The GTR was designed by a Welsh guy, Matthew Weaver.

There was Ajay Panchal who is living in London now and designed the Nissan 350Z. The last Ferrari 458 was designed by a Scandinavian guy.

I know it’s easy to say ‘oh, that’s an Italian company so it must be good’, but in fact, what you need is good people. It’s not like ‘oh, you have this passport so you must be good’.

Do you feel where you’re from affects the way you design a car or is it very individual at heart?

I think it depends on anybody’s culture. And the thing is, for me and managing the design team, I see something that is really important is to have a diversity of people. It’s the same reason we have democracy. It’s to have people with different opinions coming together to agree on what is a good solution for everybody.

And for a good discussion and a good debate, you have to have people with differing opinions. Otherwise, there’s no debate and everyone agrees. Design is the same thing. We have people from different backgrounds with different ideas. It’s so important to question ourselves.

If we are happy with what we do, that is not good. To create a good discussion, with good agreement and disagreement, you need people from different backgrounds, not to create cows but to be able to see through what is objectively a good recipe.

Nobody could question whether something is a good design or not. So it’s got to be a correct recipe.

And often, this is found through simplicity, coherence, a clear message, harmony, and so there are certain things that will make it happen. There is also the taste.

Volvo and Google are really pushing forward with autonomous driving technology and want it on our roads. Do you feel that it could take away the fun aspect of driving?
   
Not at all. At first, I was really questioning and wondering about the technology and thinking, ‘oh bloody hell, cars are just going to become like washing machines’.

And now I changed my mind, especially after looking at the Chinese driving cars, anybody would change their mind. I think it’s pretty good if they just enter on the GPS the destination where they want to go and let the car do it. The car will probably do it better.

I think we had the driving skills of the last generation where we had cars with no ABS and no anti-slip and things like this. And now it’s normal to have all this assistance. And it’s becoming difficult to crash or even get injured in a car.

You’ve seen the crash with 130 cars in the fog (Isle of Sheppey accident). And not one person was injured. That’s the way cars have evolved and that’s certainly a step in the right direction.

Now, some purists will tell you ‘no, I want a Porsche. I want an early Porsche 911 with no assistance and it’s lightweight and I can skid it’. Okay, that’s driving pleasure and that’s for skilled people. But the reality is that today, anybody can drive a Porsche and not kill themselves and that’s fantastic.

And the next thing is that yes, you’ll have the Google car for everybody, why not? And why not have a supercar that can take you from A to B, but in the meantime I have these calls to do and I have this to do?

I just enter the GPS and then maybe I will arrive at the racetrack and I can really enjoy it and I can take control myself. I can just put it in autopilot for now. Why not?

And you can choose. I think to have the choice at least is rather a nice thing. And everybody will feel safer if people do not feel too confident because they are taking medicine. If you’re not too confident about taking the wheel, you can say to the computer, please help me. And it’ll be safer for everybody.

How important are aerodynamics in fuel efficiency?

They are very important. In the ‘90s, we had this fashion of cocooning with a lot of cars taking a lot of space in the air, huge frontal area and of course, the engines were becoming better at performance and using a lot less fuel but the fuel consumption stayed the same all over the ‘90s because our cars were getting heavier for safety and larger in frontal area because of this cocooning fashion.

So that’s actually put a halt to this. So having cars that are sleek and low and have a small frontal area, I think, simply makes sense.

We don’t need to have a lot of head room. I remember there was an advertisement in the UK for a Ford Focus where a guy with an Afro was driving the Ford Focus and it was great because he could drive a Ford Focus with an Afro. Why the hell would you want to push air for wearing an Afro for nothing? Do you want to drive your car with a hat?

I understand for Land Rover, it’s not a priority and you don’t want to make a low rider out of a Land Rover.

But for most cars, the trend should not be going up so much. Remember the cars of the ‘80s? Take the Peugeot 106 to a small Peugeot today, you have ten centimetres difference in height. That’s quite a lot. And it affects the weight, the handling and fuel consumption.

So the trend of going lower, as long as the ergonomics are good enough so that people can go in and out, is definitely one which I will encourage in terms of aerodynamics.


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