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Understatement of the Year

Lovaro made an effort to tone down the flash in its European contest submission. Both the styling and the presentation contain less exaggeration than typical American car portrayals.

American firm takes a modest approach in Renault 4 remake

The original Renault hatchback of the 1960s.

Allen Zadeh and his partner Robert Foote approached the Renault 4EVER challenge as they would a suitcase design.

This exercise was intended to free them from conventional automotive thinking.  Car culture has accumulated a lot of unwritten design rules. For instance, vehicle forms feel compelled tell us what is under their hood:  this car is fast, or this truck is muscular. The exterior must be reflective with a metallic finish and chrome edging. Particularly in the U.S. market, vehicles are careful to stay within a narrow band of emotional expression, between flatly serious to moderately aggressive.

The design of a suitcase, on the other hand, doesn’t carry nearly so much baggage.

“There’s no rule that says luggage has to be intimidating,” says Zadeh, who is co-founder of the Brooklyn-based design group Lovaro. Like a car, a suitcase is a companion that travels with you.  The best designs strike a balance between fashion and practicality. “People form an attachment with a piece of luggage because it’s beautiful, durable, simple to use, and feels personal.”

Can a car be designed just like other consumer products? Zadeh and Foote decided to find out.

Rendered mute -- Lovaro's winning KeyShot renderings used settings with less reflectivity on surfaces. The result is more emphasis on smaller and more intimate details.

Paris meets Brooklyn

Last fall, French automaker Renault gave out three awards in a contest to redesign its iconic hatchback model of the 1960s, the Renault 4. Lovaro was the only American team recognized out of 3000 entries worldwide.

Traveling companions -- Like cars, suitcases travel with you. Lovaro argues that the same emotional bond owners have with personal items can be applied in the automotive realm.

Its award-winning submission is called the Eleve, meaning “student” in French. While it borrows on the form of the original Renault 4, it advances several progressive ideas like a removable roof, interchangeable components, recycled materials, and an interior concept that has more common with furniture showrooms than car dealerships.

“At the ceremony in Paris, the head design director at Renault asked me if this is the American take on the Renault 4,” Zadeh recalls. “’Is this what you envision fitting into the New York City market?’

“Our main focus was staying true to the spirit of the original car,” he says but admits that his surroundings may have subconsciously played a role. “The younger generation of urbanites particularly in places like Brooklyn are getting more and more design savvy.”

To the kids in Brooklyn, style and personality trumps the tradition selling points of speed and horsepower. Rather than feeling materially competitive, they seek experiences that enhance their social network.

“Younger people have been raised on the best of design, fashion, and technology,” says Zadeh, “I think they’re looking for something new that goes beyond the current trends in auto design.”

Intrinsic value vs. glamor

The generation that grew up with design and technology has developed a strong aesthetic sense of intrinsic value. A software app gains popularity not due to advertising hype but by the simple fact it’s not frustrating to use.  As it smoothly executes even the smallest task, it gives an impression of friendliness.

U.S. car culture still relies on an older, industrial-age marketing formula. Glamor is an external additive to the product, which has more to do with re-engineering our belief systems. Rather than simply selling the product because it integrates well with our everyday reality, glamor tries to sell us a fantasy version of ourselves: You are the type of person that belongs in car x.

Lovaro is not normally in the automotive realm, but the firm prides itself in working across industry lines to find straightforward solutions that embody an honest attitude. The simplest expression of the intrinsic value of a product is generally a successful formulation of the design challenge, regardless of industry, according to Zadeh.

“Whether we’re design cosmetics, fashion, or personal electronics, we always try to see them in the same light in terms of attitude. Inevitably, the same person who buys an iPhone today tomorrow buys a watch, eyewear, or a car. These products might come from very different worlds on the industry side, but on the retail side, they all converge through the individual.”

The danger with over-glamorizing a product, Zadeh believes, is that it lacks honesty. Too much glitz can backfire on a brand and be viewed as disingenuous. “It’s making a sales promise that can’t really be kept.”

Continental drift

The early Renault 4 helped establish a more practical car sensibility in Europe.

The roots of American car culture grew from the 1950s and 60s, when the industry was surging with confidence. At the same time, France was still rebuilding its infrastructure of its postwar economy. The roomy, reliable, and utilitarian Renault 4 was the one car in reach for many French families emerging from a decade of recession and inflation. Along with the VW Beetle and Citroen 2cv, the best-selling model would define European passenger car design for the decades to come.

In the context of the times and culture, the original hatchback’s expression was not aggressive or flashy, but cute and dignified. To this day, Europeans don’t dramatize and overstate the meaning of the automobile to the extent of Americans. Rather than symbols of status, cars are treated more like extended members of the family.

The recent design contest on the occasion of the Renault 4’s 50th anniversary gave Lovaro the opportunity to borrow a few notes from both car cultures, in an attempt to strike an emotional chord.

A modest proposal

An understated approach is seen in even the small considerations for the Eleve, right down to its finish: It doesn’t have one.

“In auto design, people automatically reach for super glossy finishes. We don’t really believe that should be a given,” says Zadeh. Lovaro proposed new composite plastics for the exterior panels. “What’s interesting is that these materials look beautiful in their raw form. They don’t necessarily need to be painted.”

Lovaro was careful to tone down the veneer in the presentation of the design as well. The submission illustrations were rendered in KeyShot, a CGI application that gives computer-design models the professional cosmetics of car ad photography. In this case, Zadeh kept its KeyShot output intentionally low-key.

“Given this was a European audience, we didn’t want too much sheen on the renderings. We used reflectivity instead as more of an accent on the smaller features.”

Unlike typical car ad depictions, sensually lit body surfacing is not the center of attention in the Eleve visuals. Instead, smaller features jump out. A faint blue emissive material inside the LED headlamps gives the car a clever blue-eyed gleam.  With the car’s detachable roof off, viewers are drawn towards the interior features.  Like a suitcase,  the Eleve is an object best appreciated close up, rather than from a distance.

Asking the right questions

Zadeh and Foote accepting the award in Paris.

Whether a true commercial revival of the “4” is forthcoming from Renault remains to be seen, but designers at Lovaro see a window opening for alternative thinking in automotive concepts.

Zadeh believes that by toning down the prevailing over-dramatized design aesthetic, one can communicate on levels that are more personal and lasting. By refusing to rely on rote expectations and commercial hyperbole, the industry can turn towards finding new intrinsic values that directly relate to today’s consumers.

“As a designer, you have to ask how does the product represent the sort of attributes that people really care about when using it — not just qualities that have been idealized over time by producers and other designers. If you look at a problem carefully you can both draw new inspiration and connect to people in a right way,” says Zadeh.

“In the case of the Eleve, it’s not about communicating speed or horsepower, it’s about emotional connection and enhanced relationships.”

See more of Lovaro’s products: www.lovaro.com
See more automotive rendering: www.keyshot.com

Written by Brett Duesing, Obleo Design Media
A version of this article was published in Desktop Engineering.

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