Paolo Tumminelli, you are a Milanese architect specialising in automobile culture and you wrote a trilogy “Car Design”. Is this choice a passion of yours?
I think it’s a bit in my DNA. Each one of us has an automobile history in his own memory. We were born and raised inside automobiles. My first emotionally strong experience was something that happened in an automobile.
When my brother and I were young children, my grandmother used to take us for a drive in her Citroen DS. The ride was magic – just like flying. In fact, she had been a rally driver, which I did not then know. Once she came unexpectedly, in the morning of a lead grey day. We headed up for the west shore of Lake Garda, the road she loved most, but she drove quite slowly. On the way back I realized she was crying. I noticed a police car in the distance, so I told her “Nonna, why are you crying? You are driving so slowly the police won’t do you any harm.” She just would not answer. She left us to go to hospital. She had cancer, and did not survive. I was three and a half years old and it took decades for me to understand the full meaning of this last moment. Then I knew that the automobile means more to people than they admit, and I wanted to study why it is like that.
“It is important to understand the automobile as a political issue.”
Cultural trip from Turin to Berlin aboard the Italdesign Brivido concept car, “Torino incontra Berlino” Festival, 2015
Why did you go to live in Germany?
It was an unplanned experiment. I never wanted to be seen as an automobile guy. Architecture had no consideration for car design, and I really struggled to convince my professor to assist me in my thesis with Alfa Romeo. After university I became the PA of race driver Gianpiero Moretti at MOMO, and it was all around cars. My first essay for Domus magazine was about the Renault Twingo. Soon people were only talking to me about automobiles! One day Domus sent me to London to meet Terence Conran, whose view on design was enlightening. Then I knew I had to take a break from cars so I moved to Rosenthal and went into porcelain, the most old-fashioned industry. I relocated to Bavaria, near the Czech border, and there I discovered the world of branding. In the 90s I was caught up in the ecstatic whirlwind of the New Economy and ended up with ‘frog design’, back then the world’s largest design consultancy.
When did you go back to the automobile?
At 35 I realised that you cannot fulfil your dreams as an employee. Luckily, at that point I was offered a professorship in Cologne, home to a revolutionary design school which broke with traditional design disciplines. My approach was still universal, but in Germany you have to be precise and focus. People asked me again and again: “What are you an expert of?” I said to myself: “The thing that matters most to you is the automobile, so go for it!” In 2002 I wrote my first little book, simply called ‘Car Design’.
Car design has changed a lot over the years hasn’t it?
Yes, the business has changed, the society, the function of the automobile has changed. But it is important to understand the automobile as a political issue. In Europe, the newly born automobile was developed by Fascism as a propaganda instrument. Hitler decided that Germany needed Volkswagen, the peoples’ car. Mussolini actually anticipated him, first came a car called Balilla and then the really popular Topolino. The fascist dictators saw speed as a vehicle to show the symbolic power of a nation. This explains all the conflicts we had later in Europe, the political struggle and disrespect for the car. In post-war Europe the automobile was considered fascist, for this reason they would not better roads or build parking lots. In America they loved the automobile because it was free from any concern, a vehicle of freedom. So Americans got big cars, Europeans small cars.
Big cars in America because petrol was cheaper?
Yes, cheaper by law. In America they built highways and cities around the automobile. The automobile was part of the dream. Likewise, in the revolutionary 60s, America gave the Beetle the “candy color“ look, while in Europe the car was abused to address the social conflicts. I find an obvious parallel between images of the flood in Florence 1966, with cars rolled over in mud and those set on fire during the May revolts in Paris two years later.
Why do these changes happen?
The price we pay for conspicuous consumption is an unbearable sense of guilt. I see a new political plot. The new dictatorship is that we have to care and we have to share. Even from Merkel’s voice we hear that in the future, self-driving will only be possible with “special permission”. Big thinkers seem to agree that ownership is not sustainable. I am not sure that we humans are ready to accept this. Self-determination has been the primary driver for the evolution of mankind, ownership came as a reward. Changing the rules in mobility implies changing all rules. Since 4500 years we have lived within an automobile society. There has been one straight line from the myth of Icarus through the initiation ritual of Dustin Hofmann in “The Graduate” down to nowadays’ “need for speed” in video gaming. I cannot see this being cancelled by government within the span of one generation.
“The price we pay for conspicuous consumption is an unbearable sense of guilt.”
How come in a time like this you think of organising ‘Grand Basel’. What will it be?
In the first place it will be a Salon of the automobile. We are aiming to establish a new, more comprehensive way to look at the automobile. I feel that it is still necessary to explain the quality, the culture, the value and the meaning of the automobile in full, in connection to the arts and so to fashion, to design, to architecture…
And what is happening?
We will exhibit classic, modern and contemporary collectable automobiles. Selection will not be based on price, but rather on value and meaning. Furthermore we want to have content that shows how the automobile interacts with politics, society and lifestyle. Grand Basel will be a place to celebrate the culture of the automobile and to promote its evolution.
How and where will Grand Basel take place?
Like Art Basel, the event will be in Basel, followed by Miami Beach, Hong Kong and Abu Dhabi. There will be no hierarchy in the show, so a single collector car will receive the same attention as a manufacturer’s fleet. Applications are limited, as we target quality rather than quantity, so our benchmark is clearly Art Museum rather than Motorshow. Each exhibition will be curated.
Who will choose the cars?
The advisory board will bring together personalities who share a passion for the automobile but who represent different disciplines. I strive for diversity and am proud to work with Sylvie Fleury, Giorgetto Giugiaro, Lapo Elkann and Stephen Bayley. The board will grow over time and will be assisted by a council of car experts to guarantee the quality of the exhibits.
Maria E. Tumminelli aboard the Alfa Romeo Giulietta that she raced for the Milanese Sant’Ambroeus team, Gardone Riviera, 1957
Book Car Design – Europe, America, Asia, by Paolo Tumminelli. TeNeues Publishing, 2011-14.
The provocative exhibition “Rettet ! den Panda” (Save ! the Panda), Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, 2008-09
mindset, Europe’s first “born electric” vehicle design, Grimsel Pass, 2008.
Adolf Hitler & Benito Mussolini in a Mercedes Typ 770, Berlin 1937
The past and the future of car design on show at the avantpremiere of Grand Basel, Basel 2017
“The upcoming Google Car may cause Ferrari to change, but Ferrari is never going to die.”
Do you think that the automobile as it is today, driven by a person, will disappear?
This is what research indicates. In fact Tesla claims that their cars can drive and park by themselves, but it is as yet illegal. The transformation will take decades. We must see such augmented-cars as a chance to redefine the concept of mobility. Imagine kids autonomously driven to school, while mothers can be relieved of their role as chauffeurs. And imagine how elderly people can extend their sociality thanks to easily accessible vehicles.
Do you believe that cars as they are now will simply become collectors’ items?
This is what Ferdinand Porsche predicted, and of course cars are already dealt in as collector’s items. New forms of mobility aren’t going to kill that. Take the Smartphone as an example. Therein we have a watch and an alarm clock. In fact we have watches everywhere – in cars and microwave ovens. Still, many people wear wristwatches, and the mechanical classic watch has turned into a huge collectors’ market with new and old manufacturers involved. The upcoming Google Car may cause Ferrari to change, but Ferrari is never going to die.
Are you still interested in car design?
I see now the same avant-garde spirit emerging that we had 100 years ago, but now it is emerging with new digital technology and electric engines. Technology will give us slow cars, but intelligent cars, and in the end we may turn up driving faster – and safer – then we ever did before. But it is not only about moving. In the future we will be able to do everything in the car; to sleep, to work, to love, to eat, to drink, to play. Indeed, I am absolutely as passionate about the future of car, as I love its heritage.
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