Terroir and Contemporary Automotive Design Trends

by James Kraus Bad Design

Ominous, malevolent and sinister front ends of the 1950’s. Source: Design Quarterly

Automobiles have become more and more aggressive looking of late. A number of them, with their snarling grilles and squinting headlamps, have in fact crossed the line to surly and repulsive, displaying an unpleasantness last seen in the 1950’s.

This may have something to do with the fact that most of the world’s automobile manufacturers established design studios in Southern California some years ago.

Wine aficionados frequently discuss the effects of terroir on their favourite cuvées. The concept of terroir is that the local environment in which the vines grow (weather, soil, etc.) significantly affects the final product. In the same vein, could it not be that the local environment (architecture, clothing styles, attitudes, etc.) affects designers and their output?

Los Angeles mural. Robert Morrow photo.

The infamous Southern California sprawl, with its indigenous architecture of nail salons, tattoo parlours and pit bull kennels adorned with razor wire, graffiti and chain link fencing, seems to have had an effect on current vehicular design.

Wild in the streets: bullet-riddled patrol car door. Los Angeles Police Department

Besides the most obvious effect of creating contemporary vehicles more closely resembling main battle tanks than automobiles; the deceptive artificiality of Hollywood movie sets has now found expression in Porsche’s Wood Look (wood-effect plastic) and Aluminium Look (silver-painted plastic) interior trim and the skidplate-look paper-thin aluminium trim found on the lower fascia of nearly all ‘crossover’ vehicles to convey the facade of rock-busting invincibility to potential buyers who would otherwise be too timid to contemplate venturing into traffic.

Menace with flash. Threatening and rather deranged looking Hannibal Lecter-like countenance in combination with enough LED’s to rival the signage along Las Vegas Boulevard

There are a number of established centres of design in the Western world; New York, Paris, Milan, Florence and Rome come immediately to mind.

Munster Koach by George Barris, Los Angeles, 1964

Nevertheless, automotive manufacturers, possibly influenced by California automotive design classics like the Munster Koach, decided that Southern California was the place to be.

Los Angeles does indeed have a creative corridor of sorts that stretches from Santa Monica, through West Hollywood and Hollywood, and on to the downtown loft district. This area incorporates most all of the local museums, concert halls, architectural and interior design firms, and couture ateliers. This is an area where designers from various fields can mingle and share ideas. However, only one of the the California automotive design studios is located anywhere near this area. The rest are all located in the outlying suburbia.

Southern California suburbs offer up endless vistas of mind-numbing sprawl as inspiration to local automotive designers as they commute to their studios

These suburbs offer little in the way of cultural edification, inspirational architecture or public spaces, but plenty of roadside fast-food drive-throughs, big-box retailers, franchise restaurants, auto-malls, Starbucks outlets and gargantuan parking lots.

One cannot help but notice that the products of Mercedes-Benz, once characterized by minimalist, tasteful and sober Bauhaus-inspired design have become quite baroque and flamboyant. This trend in all likelihood emanates from their California studio as denizens of the Golden State have, as described by automotive writer Brock Yates, an inclination to “throw dignity out the window.”

The new ostentation. Something seems vaguely familiar about those flamboyant chrome-embellished quad bumper lamps…

But of course! They were a salient feature of Harley Earl’s theatrically styled baroque-period 1957 Cadillac.

As a result, instead of the Blitzen Benz (the 1911 World Speed Record car), we now have Blingin’ Benz’s designed to appeal to the likes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and their consorts de jour.

This four-eyed visage with evil-looking trapezoidal crosshatch grille is engendering a feeling of déjà vu…

Indeed: It accurately mimics Virgil Exner’s garish and sinister 1958 “Forward Look” Chrysler 300D

The bulk of the creative work that does take place in Southern California involves the design of films and video games featuring a plethora of bondage, sado-masochism and spraying bullets as well as the occasional beheading and disembowelment.

Perhaps the cars of today are not being styled to look good on actual streets, but rather to have the proper menacing demeanour when rendered in Grand Theft Auto.

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5 thoughts on “Terroir and Contemporary Automotive Design Trends

  1. The Chrysler 300D was a corporate twin of the 1958 Plymouth Fury in Stephen King’s “Christine”. You can see the evil genes, which now have apparently been transferred to the Porsche Cayenne!

  2. Without doubt the local region, environment (and nationality) can play a big part in design creativity. This can be seen for example in older French cars. While post-war Citroens, Panhards and Renaults have a distinctly French look, Peugeots never did. This was due to the fact that since the mid-1950’s, Peugeots were styled in the North of Italy by Pininfarina.

    Nationality plays little part now as designers come from everywhere and frequently jump countries and continents as they switch from firm to firm. Unfortunately, this has led to a boring “universal” look to the automotive world in which regional styling cues have all but disappeared.

  3. And let us not forget that it was California gave us that paragon of tasteful automotive styling; the surfer van.

  4. It is a shame that today’s glitzy Mercedes’ seem designed to appeal chiefly to footballers and rappers.

  5. I thought the SoCal design house deal had something to do with Art Center College. Great article as always Mr. Kraus.

    And yes Nikos, Mercedes does seem to be pursuing the Escalade crowd.

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