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Innovation & Design

Luigi Colani: Translating Nature

London's Design Museum's retrospective traces the designer's unique career, from aquatic animations to aircraft design

One of the most influential designers of the past half-century, Luigi Colani, is the subject of an exhibition at the Design Museum in London. With a career spanning almost six decades, Colani has applied his unique design style to produce cars, trucks, boats, aircraft, ceramics and consumer goods, as well as creating futuristic concepts for as-yet unrealized transport systems and architecture. There are Colani tea pots, mineral water bottles and sun glasses, but much of his work remains in the form of dream-like models or photographic montages. While operating firmly outside the mainstream of the automotive design industry, Colani's work has had a huge influence on automotive designers. We met with Colani in London, where he explained his design philosophy.

Born Lutz Colani in Berlin in 1928, his father was a movie set designer from Switzerland, his mother an actress from Poland. Colani studied sculpture at the Akademie der Kuenste, Berlin, and moved to Paris in 1947 to study aerodynamics at Universite de Paris-Sorbonne. Lutz became 'Luigi' with his 1952 newspaper feature on a jet-powered motorbike, under the brand name 'LuCo'. At the 1954 Geneva Motor Show he presented a sports coupe based on the Fiat 1100, for which he won the Golden Rose prize. He later won the 'Golden Shoe' fashion prize for his 'elevator' high-heel shoe design.

Colani explained to CDN that in his early studies he was strongly influenced by the world of classical sculpture, and that he "frantically tried to mix both high technology and beauty", to mix function and form in a way found in nature… "I respect nature".

A prime characteristic of Colani's design work is rounded, organic forms, which he terms 'biodynamic'. He is famous for avoiding straight lines in his work: "Everything on the microcosmic as well as the macroscopic plane is made up of curves… I can only obey the laws of nature."

The exhibition 'Translating Nature' includes Colani's studies of sea life, and animations that mix aquatic life with Colani's own 'bioform' designs. Colani explains that his father advised him as a child: "Try to go in the garden and look at the plants and animals, and try to imagine, all the problems were solved over millions of years". Colani sketches a cross-section through a bird's wing, explaining how all the aeronautics design answers are already there, shaped by evolution, from variable wing geometry to wing leading-edge slats.

Colani presented an ideal vehicle aerodynamic form with his 'C-Form' concept in 1968, a vehicle where the whole body forms an inverted wing. The concept was featured in Stern magazine, and has influenced a generation of student designers with its architecture of four wheel-pods suspending a central cabin form. The 1982 'Le Mans 82' sports coupe and BMW 'M2' were studies that while somewhat baroque, defined a unique form language seen years later in vehicles such as the Corvette Indy and Porsche 959.

Colani's aircraft designs have ranged from lightweight personal aircraft to huge heavy-lift flying wings and re-usable spacecraft, all photographed by Colani in a distinctive style that presents scale models as if full-size, with meticulously modeled sets and tiny figures to complete the illusion. Colani has also been involved in production aircraft design, his 1976 Fanliner the first plastic sports airplane with a Wankel rotary engine.

Colani moved to Japan in 1982, where he was named 'Designer of the Year' in 1984. "I stayed 10 years in Japan, with the aim to help them extrapolate from their own culture, instead of trying to copy Europe". He designed the groundbreaking 1986 Canon T90 camera, which applied bio-forms to previously angular camera design, and featured a prominent forward-set hand-grip with ergonomic controls that has become a standard architecture for most cameras since.

Colani comments that his vacation time while in Japan was spent diving, studying the forms of undersea life. "What an institute!" he exclaims.

Colani has some strong views on the mainstream automotive industry: "Amongst today's car industry management there is not one that understands the real problems". Colani believes the whole emphasis on new vehicle development is wrong: "We have hundreds of electric motors to do jobs normally done by human hands. Car design should not be about the small details. It should be about the bigger picture… Cars should be "simpler, less features, streamlined, lightly built." He uses a slogan (in German): "langsam, leise, lustig, liecht"—meaning slow, quiet, spirited, light. Colani believes the mainstream manufacturers are all missing the point, "to build cars to go from A to B with a smile… to give answers to problems of our time".

We asked Colani if he considered himself to be a designer or an artist. He answers: "I'm not a designer, I'm a 3D philosopher".

Colani sketches a crankshaft from a Jaguar racecar, showing how he modified it with smoothly shaped counterweights to reduce drag within the crankcase. The car went on to win LeMans. Colani explains that he "looks at, and works with the philosophy of the machine", and is often involved in areas some would consider the realm of the engineer, but which really come within the realm of '3D philosophy' and a broader view of the role of the designer. "We need a new generation of thinkers—philosophers," says Colani. He is currently assisting in the development of a new BMW aircraft engine for a Russian commercial airliner.

30 years ago Colani built the first streamlined trucks, during periods of 'fahrverbot' (driving bans) in Germany. The trucks achieved a 25% reduction in fuel usage. In the Shell marathon "we covered 1800km with 1 liter of fuel". Colani is the world record holder since 1991 with a four-seater using 1.7 liters/100km of gasoline.

Colani is currently working on new truck with Siemens, aiming for a 50% reduction in fuel consumption. His prototype build facility in Karlsruhe, Germany, employs between 5 and 30 people depending on the projects underway. Colani lives in a baroque castle in Harkotten.

He is currently on a global publicity trip. He explains that if Europe doesn't react positively to his proposals following this trip, then he will be going ahead with projects in Shanghai, where the Chinese government has offered space and support. Colani has lived in Shanghai for 10 years, and is Professor of transport Design at Tsinghua University.

Commenting on design in China: "Chinese designers will only need 3-4 years more to catch up to world standards". His message to China, as it was for Japan, "Don't copy European influences". Colani believes that China will fast become the most advanced in ecological solutions "because they will have no other choice".

Colani is currently doing research for Air China, for a flying wing airliner. China needs high-capacity passenger aircraft: "There are 12 747's flying in each direction between Shanghai and Beijing every day". A flying wing has 5 times the capacity of a conventional aircraft.

He explains he is looking for "capital to sell his life's work, to stay in Europe, and to found a 'club of Europe's brains', to fight the coming challenge from Asia". "If I go to China, and they jump on me with their ability to build quality… If they can get first hand information on what the world needs, they could wipe out Europe".

At 79, Colani shows no sign of slowing down. His recent projects included a sidestick controller for the Airbus A320, a gas-powered truck for Qatar, police uniforms, and a "logical and healthy (and nice looking)" shoe collection in Japan. Colani says he may get into more fashion work, a field which he regards as "even more stupid" than the other fields of design.

We asked Colani which is his 'favourite' amongst his past work. "All were advanced thinking in their time, but there is not one I love best, the focus is always on the child I am nursing at that time."

The exhibition 'Luigi Colani—Translating Nature' continues until June 17.

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