March 2007 "DESIGN"
Colani's Concepts Make Concept Cars Look Tame
By PHIL PATTON Published: March 4, 2007
Ingo Wagner/Agence-France Presse
Luigi Colani and his truck with a round windshield.
"I AM at the moment building the most sensational Corvette ever," Luigi Colani said. Not that Chevrolet had asked him to design a Corvette, any more than BMW, Ferrari, Mazda, Volvo or other automakers had asked him to design the many models he has created over the last half-century. His artistry does not require an invitation.
A two-wheel racer to challenge a speed record. Design Museum, London
The car they have is pretty good, maybe a 50, but mine will be a 99!Ó Mr. Colani said in a telephone interview from his studio in Karlsruhe, Germany. "I want to show it to Bob Lutz, my good friend. "He was referring to the vice chairman of General Motors.
Mr. Colani, a sort of designer's designer better known for his far-out, free-flowing concepts than for his modesty, is showing up everywhere. Turn on the television and there (on Valentine's Day) he is on the Discovery channel's "FutureCar" series, gesturing with a cigar, his designs juxtaposed with praise from the chief designer of the real Corvette, Tom Peters.
"I am not a designer," Mr. Colani said on the program. "I am a three-dimensional philosopher of the future."
Yet he has produced consumer products of surprising practicality and longevity. His Canon T90 won awards and established the look of many future ergonomic cameras. His headphones for Sony in the 1980s were an early example of the ear buds so common today. His Drop tea kettle for Rosenthal, the German china maker, is considered a classic. He has designed glasses, binoculars, even a computer mouse. All share at least a bit of the dreamy quality of his cars.
"Soft shapes follow us through life," he said in the television program. "Nature does not make angles. Hips and bellies and breasts — all the best designers have to do with erotic shapes and fluidity of form."
Younger designers who avoid modern edges in favor of the softer shapes, like Karim Rashid, cite him as a hero. Mr. Rashid was 12 when he discovered Mr. Colani in 1972; they finally met a couple of years ago.
"He is one of the main reasons I decided to dedicate my life to design," said Mr. Rashid, known for his bloblike furniture and housewares. "His form and conceptual experimentation borders on the metaphysical."
Ross Lovegrove, the London-based designer of innovative furniture and products, also encountered Mr. Colani's work when he was a teenager in 1973. In the book "Colani: The Art of Shaping The Future" by Albrecht Bangert (Bangert Verlag, 2004). Mr. Lovegrove calls Mr. Colani "perhaps the most influential form visionary of the 20th century in industrial design," adding, "He has created dreams that push our limits of perception of space and technological possibility."
Now Mr. Colani is being recognized by a wider audience. The Design Museum in London opened a show of his work yesterday called "Translating Nature" (designmuseum.org/exhibitions). It runs through June 17 and is accompanied by Mr. Bangert's book. Mr. Bangert, the show's curator, writes that Mr. Colani is "the great maverick of 20th-century design."
The show includes his concept Utah, a yellow Bonneville streamliner designed for a land speed record attempt; his Mercedes 112, a phallic purple dragster; his Ferrari Testa d'Oro concept; images of his visions of a sexier space shuttle for NASA; and a 1,000-passenger airliner.
Mr. Colani's concepts make most concept cars look tentative. In the design community, his visions of airplanes, trains, furniture and other items of civilization have made him a sometimes secret pleasure. Designers pass his images around, shaking their heads at his temerity and eccentricity. Is he crazy? Did LSD inspire the stuff.
Mr. Colani has long occupied a place in the design world like Syd Mead, who shaped the distinctive look of the landmark science fiction film ÒBlade Runner.
In 2002, when the Pinakothek museum in Munich opened its modern collection, a Colani model for an imagined Mach 5 supersonic airliner, inspired by the prehistoric megalodon shark, was hung from the ceiling and his dramatic concept for a biomorphic motorcycle was given a place of pride. A show of his work has been touring German shopping centers for several years.
Mr. Colani's work, once called "super streamlining" and "bio-baroque," is now fashionably "organic." What he drew by hand 50 years ago is now being done by students on computers. These days, he is invited to Davos to talk about design to the most powerful chief executives in the world. He has been recruited by the Chinese to work on the 2008 Olympics and to teach at Tongji University in Shanghai.
In the 1960s, Mr. Colani in his Nehru jackets was the Peter Max of design and was known around the world. His melting liquid forms seem to be designed for a planet with some extreme version of the laws of aerodynamics and physics. They had natural appeal to the counterculture of the 1960s.
A motorcycle design study. Design Museum, London
But between the 60s and the revival of everything 60s, Mr. Colani was a slightly embarrassing guest at the design table, like an aging hippie cousin from the commune come home to Christmas dinner. Even as his hair grayed, his coiffeur retained the outlines favored by the Beatles during their Yellow Submarine period.
One of Mr. Colanis elaborate designs is his own legend, and as in his vehicle design, he tends to stretch and smooth the shape. He speaks of himself in the third person. "That is a Colani invention," he often says.
For all the exaggerations, the basic facts of his biography are fairly fantastic. He was born in 1928 and grew up in Hitler's Germany. "There was a Nazi air base about two miles from my house," he said. "Wild future airplanes flew past my window. I sat and did my drawings. These fantastic streamlined machines inspired me so much I dreamed only in streamlined."
His father took him to the legendary Avus racetrack in Berlin, where the streamlined cars of Mercedes and Auto Union ran on steeply banked tracks at 170 miles an hour while SS officers looked on. "We stood on little chairs to look over the wall," he recalled. "I was standing there shaking with this crazy sound and the earth trembling. It was the inspiration for a lifetime.
After the war, Mr. Colani said, he walked for miles through the ruins of Berlin to attend classes at the city's Academy of Arts. "There was nothing to eat in Germany, so I had the idea to go to France," he said. "There was only one chance for that: to work in coal mines. So I worked for one year making a lot of money. I was spending the day 1,000 meters below ground and in the evening drawing my cars like a madman.
He took classes in aerodynamics in Paris and was later hired to work on fiberglass concepts by Douglas Aircraft, he said.
He found work designing cars for Simca, then turned his hand to furniture. He worked on Le Mans cars and a version of the Citroen 2CV. In 1960, he introduced one of EuropeÕs first kit cars, the Colani GT, a fiberglass body for the VW Beetle. He dreamed up a light plane with a rotary engine.
As soon as he could, he began producing his own self-financed visions of future cars for established makers. If they wouldn't create dream cars that were far enough ahead, then he would do it for them. He proposed visionary Ferraris, Mazdas, BMWs and several Corvettes. He offered a concept for reviving Horch, the pre-World War II marque known as the German Buick.
For a speed-record attempt, he designed the two-wheel Utah. "I love America," he said. "That is where you can really make cars of your own. I love to go to Bonneville and drive there like a madman."
But by the 1980s Mr. Colani seemed as out of fashion as tie-dye. He moved to Japan, where he was appreciated. There he produced designs, like the Canon camera and Sony headphones, that were down to earth.
In 2005, he took on the tractor-trailer, dreaming up wild trucks with catfish mouths, quicksilver lines and a trio of wipers in the center of a round windshield.
"Once Americans built dream cars all over the place," Mr. Colani said. ÒNot any more. In this stupid world of today, we have to become dreamers once again."