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Automotive Design Culture: Aesthetic Trends Originated in Technology

2004, Barcelona / G.D.Liamadis, N.Tsinikas


Ever since the Futurist’s Manifesto, first to see the inner beauty of speed and progress symbolized in the form of early automobile’s mechanical parts, automotive history has often experienced paradigms of technological breakthroughs grown popular to establish aesthetic trends. The car, this highly influential cultural icon of the last century, has often drawn its stylistic inspiration in the product’s technological nature, in the attempt to express visually human’s inherent need for more power, for “better and faster”. Great pipes on early racing cars (1910’s), recalling images of “snakes with explosive breath”, had soon given their place in a new formal language, an aesthetic refinement known as streamlining (1930’s). The expressive force of streamlining provided an effective visual metaphor for progress, which soon became a formal topos and established aesthetic trends extended to a whole series of industrial products. Aircraft-referential tailfins on American cars of the 50’s, took automotive styling into the supersonic age, expressing the power of flight and the optimism of the post-war period. The 1973 oil crisis brought up an automotive culture, which shifted the goal from maximization of speed to the optimization of effectiveness. Within this context, streamlining has retained its significance, now justified in terms of ecology and environmental politics. Having managed to split the ultimate goal of the least possible wind resistance from the ‘shape’ in which it appears, modern aerodynamics defined a new formal language, quite different from that of streamlining, but still attached to our inherent tendency in Modernism. Such tendencies have met their formal expression through other engineering achievements as well. Following Ralph Nader’s book “Unsafe at any speed”, stricter laws and the extended research upon passive safety have turned protection into a major issue in automotive culture. Consumer’s attitude towards safer cars, apart from engineering improvements, has brought about aesthetic changes necessary to serve the subjective ‘feeling’ of safety. While, achievements in advanced materials and lighting technology already introduce minor styling cues effecting consumer’s perceptions of progress and modernity. This paper, forming part of an extended PhD research on social issues in car design, aims to research the inner relation between technology and socio-cultural trends and how effects of the former upon the latter are reflected on styling of industrial products such as the car. Study of this complex interaction between engineering achievements, cultural horizon and perception of progress and beauty is crucial for a deep understanding of market trends and an effective design manipulation of contemporary technologies (regarding drive by wire, ITSs and alternative fuels) towards more friendly and desirable automobiles.


2004 FISITA World Automotive Congress "A new auto-motive culture for the 21st century", Barcelona

  Automotive Design Culture: Aesthetic Trends Originated in Technology