Speed Bumps at the LA Auto Show

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Acura Advanced Sedan Front View

Geoff Wardle, a faculty member at the Art Center College of Design, met me at the entrance to the L.A. auto show.

Geoff Wardle happened to see me at the entrance to the show. For the first time ever, I was the one dressed all in black, not him. Since Wardle is a faculty member at the Art Center College of Design, where all-black apparel is a kind of high-fashion signature of membership in the world’s extended family of car designers, it was a surprise to see him out of uniform.

“I’ve been all through the show,” he said in his soft British accent. “I’ve seen the concepts and the debuts. And everything has bumps and swollen surfaces and fender blisters, like an affliction. Not just a few cars, either. Everything.”

Wardle looked worried. “Call me old fashioned if you want to,” he said, “but when I was trained as a designer, we learned that once you had form and proportion, you were there. I think a lot of what we’re seeing is styling, not design.”

Wardle and I found ourselves reluctantly agreeing that we were modernists, bound to a design ethic which believes that form should follow function and that less is actually more. Such restraint is hopelessly out of fashion, of course.

Modernists like to believe that design comes from within a car, expressing both its character and its mechanical composition. But we live in a time where cost considerations have severely limited the number of mechanical platforms that are available, so one package is required to shape-shift into a sports car, a sedan and even a sport utility. As a result, design becomes a soft sheet of styling, a bit of personality draped over a familiar package.

As we went our separate ways, Wardle and I shook hands as fellow modernists, irrelevant and yet hopeful for the future. He said he was hoping that none of his former students were involved in this new fascination with decoration.; I recommended detention for any offenders.

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