Design & desire

Putting the art and science of seduction under the glaring academic light of a “symposium” has its downside. A four-hour examination at the Center for Creative Studies of how automotive industry insiders get us all excited about colored sheet metal that goes vroom seems more than a little self-serving. Don’t we already know how this is done?

Endless commercials and billboards tell us that we can drive 85 miles an hour on a road that, oddly enough, has no other automobiles on it. They tell us that our trucks can climb up sheer walls of a cliff to the adoring giggles of a 19-year-old model bouncing happily in the passenger seat. They make us laugh at country folk on an endless quest for the all-powerful “hemi.”

It seems like an easy sell. We all have to drive one of these things, or borrow one of these things, or suffer when we don’t have one of these things. Unless you live in the “big city,” where trains and buses and trolleys and trams and cabs can take care of all your transportation needs (unless, of course, you live in Detroit), it’s a foregone conclusion that you’ll be doing business with the good folk who make up one-tenth of the country’s economy.

That’s right, one-tenth of our entire economy is fueled by automotive companies and their associated industries. It makes sense when you think about it. Cars, trucks, vans and sport utility vehicles are more than just things that get us around. The five men who “symposed” so eloquently and humorously at the CCS lecture, dubbed Cars and Desire, made one thing perfectly clear to the design students, car people and others who showed up for the midafternoon cookie break: Our cars are more than four wheels and a greasy engine. They make up our very being. They aren’t just complex machinery with shiny paint jobs. They represent our personalities, our urges and fantasies. They define us. They are us.

“Design is the sex of this business,” says Dutch Mandel, editor of Autoweek magazine and our emcee for the next four and half hours. “Cars pull at our heartstrings. But they’re also tools. They get us to work, get us to the store.”

Mandel goes on to say that there are serious and powerful emotions connecting us to our rides: Need, Want, Lust, Loathing.

“Car ownership means you’ve made it in society,” Mandel states.

When did we really fall in love with the automobile? Mandel explains that after World War II, soldiers came home with a fair amount of mechanical prowess and started tinkering with their wheels. Soldiers had been introduced to European design, small and spindly and sporty, and wanted a piece of the action.

Mandel talks of automotive iconography: Steve McQueen driving the souped-up Mustang in Bullitt, Richard Dreyfuss ogling Suzanne Somers in her white T-bird in American Graffiti, Howard Johnson’s, the teenager passion pits where the car became our bedroom.

“We see life through the lens of our cars,” Mandel argues.

Freeman Thomas, head of advanced product design for DaimlerChrysler’s Pacifica Designing Studio in Carlsbad, Calif., takes the helm after Mandel and cranks up the PowerPoint with pictures of aircraft and jets to demonstrate what kinds of things inspire him when he’s designing a car.

“It’s always a negotiation between aesthetics and functionality.”

From gorgeous shots of big fat World War II aircraft, Thomas turns our attention to a picture of a shark.

“Nature is the ultimate designer. The shark is mysterious, lethal, a loner.” He shows a picture of a hawk, “aspirational, free, beautiful.” He ends with a close-up of a pig’s face. “There is a fine line between character and beauty,” he says.

Airplanes and sharks and pigs and cars — the stuff of life.

Camilo Pardo, internationally known Ford designer, artist and 1985 graduate of CCS, takes the PowerPoint buttons away from Thomas and shows us a video of himself at work in his huge Detroit studio. Pardo uses a fine art approach to design. His auto creations blur into his paintings and drawings that segue into his clothing designs. A model joins him on stage wearing a shiny jumpsuit adorned with a Gulf emblem. Architecture and furniture and sculpture and pop art and music get him “outside of the automotive thing” and allow him to bring all kinds of influences into his work. He not only will design you a car, he’ll create the outfits that the models will wear when they’re standing in front of it at an auto show.

Pardo speaks of “deep crevices, deep contours, very sexy. …” He speaks of Man Ray and Duchamp and the Marlboro Man before he shows a short clip of his latest creation, the GT-40. Before hitting the play button, he softly offers this preamble: “I’ll let you all fall in love.” Oohs and ahhs rise to the ceiling.

We get to meet Bill Morden, the ad guy who came up with the “That thing got a Hemi?” campaign for Dodge. His job is to “create an emotion to get out and buy a car.” His job as Chief Creative Officer of BBDO/Detroit ad agency is to “make you have an emotional connection” to what you drive. But he insists, “You cannot will pop culture onto your products. But when you ‘got it’, you really ‘got it’!”

He “got it” all right. So much so, he’s designing a brand of high-energy drinks with the “Hemi” logo as well as stocking Nordstrom’s with, “That thing got a Hemi?” T-shirts. It’s the, “Where’s the beef?” tagline of the decade, and he’s going to milk it for everything. He’s an ad guy. You expect less from him? He says he wants to take “Hemi Envy” to new heights, so we can expect that this Hemi thing is going to be with us for a while.

A hot rod designer, Larry Erickson, takes us on a tour through the American infatuation with customizing our cars. He talks about Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, that enterprising genius who churned out hot rod models and Rat Fink dolls in the ’60s, adding a sense of humor to the slightly shady world of drag racing teenagers looking for cheap thrills.

The seminar closes with an Englishman, Dan Ross, who publishes an “international car culture publication” out of London. He shows us pictures from articles (ads) he’s done on the Gumball Rally and Gucci Cadillacs and people in Japan who hum along, trying to imitate the sound of a fast-moving car, as they watch car races in their native country.

For the most part, these lecturers’ lives and careers are dependent on the automotive game. The symposium would have been more well-rounded with the inclusion of some less esoteric themes, such as: “Why is that guy flipping me off when I’m going the speed limit?” or “The light just turned green! Stop your fucking honking!” or perhaps, “I fight rush hour traffic for two hours just to get home every night. I think I just might kill myself one of these days.”

No. These were the furthest things from our minds. Not to mention that while blinded by the dazzling artists of design and persuasion we can barely remember that these metallic expressions of “individualism” and “style” continue to keep us in an international headlock with oil-soaked governments that give a rat’s ass about individualism and freedom. Environmental blight, road rage and the insulating, corrosive effects on culture and society, those issues get pushed back by the undeniable sexual distraction of the fast and curvaceous lines of the next hot model.

Well, maybe next year.

Dan DeMaggio writes nearly constantly now for Metro Times. Contact him with retorts and suggestions for his future enlightenment at [email protected]