How Articulate

Expression distinguishes designed objects from engineered ones. 

2004 Fiat Croma
2004 Fiat Croma

Expression relates to meaning: it draws attention to an aspect which is more than geometry or function. In this little photo essay I’d like to show how this idea emerges from looking at chamfers on tail-lamps

You’ll notice the Croma’s lamps are flush with the surface they are located on. This expresses very little and misleadingly suggests the lamps might be just on the surface or not separate elements with a function different to the adjoining surface.

2007 Ford Galaxy tail lamps
2007 Ford Galaxy tail lamps.

Notice here, please, the light-reflecting edge or chamfer running around the lamp. It gives the metal an impression of depth and articulates the lamp’s separateness.

2000-2010 Alfa Romeo 147 tail lamp
2000-2010 Alfa Romeo 147 tail lamp

The 147 is the best example I can find of a chamfer running around a lamp. In addition to expressing the lamp’s separateness we can read it as adding cost, the folding and alignment taking more effort than the Croma’s blank smoothness

2016 Ford S-Max tail lamp
2016 Ford S-Max tail lamp

We return to a contrast with the Galaxy and the 147: the bland S-Max lamp. One argument for this is to suggest efficiency and aerodynamism. I prefer to argue it suggests nothing except cheapness. It’s engineered but insufficiently designed. Meaning is missing.

Chevrolet Matiz
Chevrolet Matiz.

The Matiz lamp redeems its absent chamfer by standing proud of the surrounding metal.

1995 Fiat Brava tail lamp.
1995 Fiat Brava tail lamp.

The 1995 Brava looks signally costly: the lamps have to be fitted from the inside. Like the Matiz, they are not flush. That’s expressive design adding several levels of meaning where engineering would prefer this:

2001-2007 Fiat Stilo.
2001-2007 Fiat Stilo.

One of the aims with the Stilo involved making manufacture easier. But it didn’t make it nicer to behold.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

30 thoughts on “How Articulate”

  1. I have to partially disagree. I like that flush, simple look. While it might be cheaper to produce, a nice flush transition for me still speaks of care and exactness. While you provided good examples for chamfers or protruding lamps, sometimes this also tends to look like a later-on addition or simply too busy. I’ll have to look for examples supporting this statement.

    1. And I have to partially agree with Simon. Whereas a bit of chamfering can look very well, often it’s just there to strengthen flimsy panels – physically, visually or both. Flush is more difficult to achieve, so more welcome when well done.

    1. Chis. I was going to make a similar comment. But then I thought Laurent might chastise me. So now he can chastise you instead. Ooooh, er … Carry on Monsieur.

    1. The kind of strange people who comment on car design blogs hold the mark 4 Golf and its kin in high regard. Outside of those circles, people can often find VWs of that era “a bit boring”, the problem being that whilst immaculate of detail, there is little garnish for the eye to linger on.

    2. I know Chris. I even find myself pulled. Although I hold the Mark 4 Golf in such high regard for the exemplary standard of its resolution, I have no desire at all to own one (although now I come to think of it, in the DVLA’s mind I actually do own one – my Mum’s). My aesthete’s hat nods appreciatively at the Golf, but my Cube, whose aesthetic flaws I can count on several hands, pleases me much more.

    3. A friend of mine, who’s not into cars and don’t even have a licence, likes the “Bauhaus era” at VW and Audi in the turn of the century. While the A6 and the TT were the peak of such designs, to my eyes the Bora is quite close to them. Anyway, I have mixed feelings about these cars.

    4. Calling a car and its design ‘boring’ is about as lazy as it gets, no? Only beaten by ‘fugly’ (whatever that means) in my opinion.

    5. It is only lazy, in that the viewer is not interested in the subject enough to fully articulate their thoughts. I perhaps might be the same, were I to be asked about the design of the latest Samsung microwave. (Although I wouldn’t, as I value both articulacy and design.) The same person however might have interesting insights on the planting of shubbery or how best to wire a home network. We all have our interests, however confounding to others they may be.

    6. Back in the distant days when many of us met at the site of the World’s Best Car Magazine (sic) I was frustrated that certain people couldn’t go beyond ‘boring’ and ‘fugly’ and/or expressed a liking for an ‘interesting’ design just because it was noisy. If you can’t analyse your reasons, it’s not really worth expressing them to others.

      Laurent. Although I too admire the Bora, it doesn’t have the outstanding rear side panel of its Golf sibling, one of the Great Car Panels Of All Time. Yet I think I’d probably prefer a Bora to a Golf.

    7. But look at that rear wing panel – isn’t it just exquisite?

      Only I just realised that on the picture I posted the Bora’s (near) perfect lines have been spoilt by the addition of chrome strips on the bumpers. Was it to make it look more ‘exciting’?

    8. Chrome strips on a silver car, very effective! Took me a while to discover them.
      I guess it’s to make it more upmarket, or it’s a way to have a mild facelift on a car you can’t really improve.

    9. The Bora works because the entire car looks like it’s forged from a single piece of billet steel. They have worked meticulously with that line of thought to get that feeling when the car is looked on as a whole, there’s nothing that takes away from that thought. Everything on this car, every line meeting another line, tells of this. There’s a coherence to the VW “Bauhaus” design language that they haven’t met since that generation of cars, they’ve simply seem to have lost that type of coherence and dedication.

  2. The challenge for me is to say why the Bora causes me no trouble whereas the Croma 2 is mediocre. The Bora’s lamps are very closely alligned to the sculpture. The sculpture/geometry is clear and severe. There’s no noise. The lamps don’t need any additional expression. On the Croma 2 one notices a vague theme with little flourishes here and there: is it minimal or expressive? The message isn’t clear. The lamp outline is not supported by the surroundings and vice versa.
    The Bora is more interesting to look at than the Golf because of the discipline.

    1. The Croma aims for VW-like discipline but Fiat lacks the strength of will to see it to fruition. It smacks of fakery. A shame considering the Italian history of expressive functionalism.

    2. I think the notion of the Croma’s design theme being ill-defined is valid. Part of it, I suspect, may be the influence of the lenses themselves – the oversized, slightly cartoonish, boiled-sweet theme seems to clash with the rationality being attempted around it, whereas on the Bora, the lenses clearly reflect (ha) a sense of coherency and attention to the broader theme. I suppose this ties in to a more general thought I have long felt about the Croma – unusually for an Italian car, it is one that you would never guess came from Italy. If I didn’t know and had to guess, it could be something from PSA or Renault in their ‘chasing Wolfsburg’ phase – various elements are there, but the whole lacks effective resolution and coherency. The Mk2 Croma’s design was scrapped and sent back to the drawing board at least once. If one was unkind, one could say as much is evident.

  3. Whilst this may be anathema to many here, I prefer the styling of the current Golf mark 7 to the mark 4. The older car has some beautiful details (I agree with Sean that the rear quarter panel is one of the finest pieces of metal committed to press), but take a step further back and there is very little to attract the eye. By contrast, the mark 7 embellishes the same theme with jewel-like details; the lamps particularly impress. This is not to say the newer car is flawless: the bumpers are fussily styled and that swage crease has no place on a Golf. But it offers a far greater visual receipt than the smooth and anodyne mark 4.

    1. I always liked the frontal treatment of the Mark 6. The Mark 7 carries that through but, generally, I think I prefer the Mark 6 all round. As for Mark 4, I’ve no problem with the back, but the front lights haven’t aged so well – they have the blobiness inherited from the Mark 3. The Bora’s front is better.

    2. I agree about the mark VII Chris. What gets me though is the little fly window in the drivers/passengers door that takes away from a nice clean profile. They got rid of this after the mark II and it’s really a pity to see it back.

    3. I have to say I don’t like the current Golf. It seems too long and flat for a Golf, partially due to too straight lines and acute angles. The details are nice, though, I agree (or are they a bit too glitzy?).
      The IV is still the reference for me. The headlights are its weak point, as Sean mentioned. Not enough that they are too soft and rounded (apparently as a nod to the first two generations), also the indicators are placed in an idiotic way – barely visible when a light is on.

  4. Sorry Richard but I think I also prefer the clean look. The car that sprang to mind was the 2nd gen A8 (and the contemperaneous A6 and A4). Beautiful cars with totally flush tail lamps. Any modern Lexus (but especially the NX) with their tail lights that seem to be physically pushed away from bodywork (almost as if in disgust) would be enough to put me off “styled light clusters”. We had a 147 for 6 years at home and I always kind of felt those lights were like an add on or an after thought and never really fitted the car.

  5. Ingvar: yes, that’s it. The shape has been honed intensely. I believe one simple surface defines the bodyside, a CAD modeller’s obsession. Everything else hangs off it and since the underlying surfaces has few and orderly control points the curvature matching between primary and secondary surfaces is easy. In clay modelling terms the bodyside is one sweep from front to back, possibly.

  6. Very interesting theme – I must confess, i never really noticed those chamfers. But i think it is a dying detail, because nowadays there are more cheaper ways to create a distinctive design detail on the car´s end. Sculpted headlamps or a special LED-light signature (which is just beginning its career).

    And yes, the six rearlights of the Brava are enough reasons never to buy a Bravo instead. And yes, a car with a clean design does not need an expressive look of its rearlamps. Look at the nearly invisible lamps of the Alfa GTV – perfect for this wonderful car!

    Coming back to costs – i remember when the Beetle and the Mini are celebrating their rebirth as retro-cars, both companies are proud of an expensive detail concerning the headlamps. They did get their own cutout from the body, just to please their idols. The latest versions are forgetting their heritage, just because it is the cheaper way to built a car.

    And i am sure the new design of the Mini Clubman is a result of: Well, anything is better than the present way to combine a rearlamp and a tailgate….
    I never understood the sense of that unique solution :

    1. Hi Markus: what a chamfer can do is reflect light during the day. Depending on the angle of the chamfer, the incident angle of the light and the paint, the effect is to create a lighter strip around the lamp and accentuate its form. That can make you notice the lamps and alter how the car’s width/height are perceived. Graphics inside the lamps help a bit but mostly at night when you don’t see the rest of the car’s surface forms so well.

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