The theme chosen for this year’s panel discussion was a reflection of the present climate of crisis and change: “Art and Design: Is Modesty the new Luxury?”
An audience of international media members and select guests witnessed an exciting exchange, hosted by Cornelia Zetzsche, a renowned critic and anchorwoman with Bavarian Broadcasting.
Despite their various backgrounds the designers and artists agreed that the present economic crisis has already led to a revaluation of priorities.
Sustainability, modesty, quality and respect are aspects of this new creative spirit blending elegance and sensuality. The challenge will be to find an expressive vision capable of extending beyond the present turmoil.
For 80 years the Concorso d`Eleganza, set against the lush background of Lake Como, has traditionally drawn the most beautiful cars ever built.
Again this year, collectors from all over the world joined in the Villa d`Este to present their rare classic automobiles for the contest – grand luxury sedans and convertibles from Great Britain, sleek sports and racing models created in Italy and Germany and stunning prototypes possibly inspired by science fiction.
Given this array of opulence and high performance, the topic chosen for this year’s BMW Group Design Talk might seem like a contradiction in terms: “Art and Design: Is Modesty the new Luxury?”
However, collecting is not the same as speculating on future profit, but rather an exercise in the care and preservation of a historical legacy.
How will the present crisis influence design? How significant are sustainability and new technologies? And will there still be room for passion, sensuality and desire in these sobering times?
“Art and Design: Is Modesty the new Luxury?”
For the French designer Inga Sempé the current situation has enforced a correction long overdue.
“Modest design is not new, but part of our cultural heritage. Think of the spoon. Over the last years, design has been predicated to mean extravagant – like Haute Couture in fashion.”
The award-winning creator (and daughter of the famous cartoonist Sempé) of designs for Ligne Roset, Baccarat and LucePlan views luxury as a wealth of possibilities – “and by that I mean more than just gratifying material desire, like chasing after the next overpriced it-bag.”
Her position was shared by Thomas Demand. The famous contemporary photo artist then added a provocative question.
“Why do we immediately associate luxury with wealth? One does not need to own to be able to enjoy.” Luxury, he pointed out, “is a state of mind”.
Unlike the artist Demand, architects like Louisa Hutton and industrial designers like Adrian van Hooydonk, Director Design for the BMW Group, and Alfredo Häberli work within large team frameworks, where creativity must be measured against feasibility and accountability.
Long before the outbreak of these turbulent times van Hooydonk and his designers dealt with issues like the responsible use of resources, implementing cutting-edge technology, profitability and changing customer attitudes.
“As car designers we necessarily need to think in terms of extended product cycles and long-term trends. Presently, we are working on concepts that are three, five and even more years down the line, by then the crisis might be long overcome. Certainly, the present situation has taught us to eliminate the superfluous.”
The new sustainability.
The English architect Louisa Hutton also agrees that the crisis has created a return to essentials.
“We were overindulgent, there was just too much of everything. There will be less rush for the latest must-haves and more time for reflection and ecology.”
Over the years her company Sauerbruch Hutton has shown that responsible, sustainable construction and architectural aesthetics can go hand in hand.
The award-winning architects have also returned a sense of color and vibrancy into cityscapes dominated by anonymous glass and steel skyscrapers.
Their latest feat is the museum for the Brandhorst Collection in Munich with its façade reminiscent of signature Missoni textile designs.
“Not only does a building enter into a dialogue with its context and setting, it creates an emotional space for the people that live and work within it.
“This aspect of wellbeing is just as important as calculating costs and efficiency. But we should also beware of turning sustainability into a fashionable label.”
Tags like “green washing” and “recessionist chic” are already making the rounds.
The influential designer Alfredo Häberli has worked for companies like Alias, Camper and Kvadrat and is able to blend – as his name implies – two very different cultures. Born in Argentina, he now works and lives in Zürich.
“For me, sustainability is to create designs that are fun and honest. Thoughtful, expressive design has always been sustainable.”
Chuckling, he reported his personal encounters with the changing times: “Switzerland used to be considered boring because of its careful, eco-conscious culture. Now this is sexy!”
France, as Inga Sempé knows, still has to catch up.
“As a Frenchwoman”, she ironically pointed out, “I am always for beauty first. Change in my country must be driven by the industry’s initiative.”
Responsible, ethically compatible products and beautiful, desirable design enhanced with luxurious qualities: is that a viable partnership for the future?
A new word has been coined to describe this leitmotif for an emerging consumer climate.
“Sustaethics” could indeed function as a frame of reference within which Adrian van Hooydonk creates new forms.
“People are reassessing their priorities. As they are think about what kind of car they want they are also looking for intelligent solutions. It will be up to us as designers to combine the power and precision traditionally associated with BMW with these evolving values”
The BMW Concept 5 Series Gran Tourismo that recently debuted at the Geneva Motor Show is an example of this approach. The car which seems part SUV, part coupé, part elegant sedan is an expression of what van Hooydonk calls “inner luxury”. “A combination of aesthetics and sustainability in my work might also mean looking to aerodynamics again.”
Sensual experience as stylistic device in design
Obviously, these crucial times have created windows of opportunity for designers, a chance to re-examine their philosophy and their work, to shape the changing lifestyles of a discriminating clientele. But what of those deeply human traits such as emotion and passion, Cornelia Zetzsche asked her panellists.
Whether architect, designer or artist, all agreed that “clean and green” susthaetic design still needs to be touched and experienced to be enjoyed.
“We should be careful about criticizing luxury”, Inga Sempé pointed out.
“The desire for refined and exclusive things drives the cycle of innovation and invention. Wealth is not such a bad thing.”
While strolling past the automotive beauties of the Concorso, Thomas Demand wanted to touch the surfaces, feel the different materials.
“Sometimes, there was even the unexpected birth of a new idea in my head, for example when I touched the soft skin of the BMW Concept Car GINA – so unlike hard metal.”
For Louisa Hutton an end to ego-architecture is in sight: “We are returning to a human measure of things.”
Alfredo Häberli suggested we learn from children. “They know what they like immediately and do not feel the need to justify their choice. Hence, they are the best critics.”
Despite his optimism he reminded the panel of a human constant: “I’m afraid, humans just cannot be modest.”
Thomas Demand countered this with “the ability to project a vision of desirability into the future”.
This is what he tells his students in art school: “Surprise me with your ideas, then I have been able to teach you something I couldn’t have done myself.”
The present turbulences have far-reaching consequences not only for the worlds of finance and business.
In a rare, shared moment they have forced politics, society and culture to reassess and reflect.
The exhibition and contest of classic cars in the Villa d`Este might appear to be nostalgia, a yearning for a past that seemed less complex and challenging. Yet it is an example of lasting allure.
What Adrian van Hooydonk said about car design equally holds true for architecture, industrial design and even art: “If it has character it will survive.”