Quite a few brands have cottoned on to ‘personalisation’ after MINI: Fiat, Opel and Citroen/DS, for example. Now it’s Audi’s turn.
It’s not a bad idea, giving customers some more possibilities in how their joy and pride is finished. What is the paint, wheel and upholstery choice but a chance for the producer to find customers with money to match their preferences? Mini make a fine penny with their mirror trim and Union Flag lids. Opel offer the delightful Adam with a range of roof colours as do DS. And the DS also goes in for body strips and mirror trim. What these models have in common is that that they are not particularly expensive and come from mainstream manufacturers. Audi is the odd man out.
Undoubtedly, the customer clinics showed that potential buyers liked this idea and were willing to pony up. That said, thickly padded vinyl roofs were also popular with buyers but are now viewed as emblematic of a distinct lack of good taste. Why is that? What is it that is so objectionable about a decorative addition like this Audi C-pillar panel that makes it different from, say, paint?
The critique rests on the concept of appropriateness which is one I have been wrestling with lately. The philosopher Roger Scruton relies upon it for part of his argument for classical architecture. He doesn’t expand on the idea, which is where his argument is rather weak. Is the argument using appropriateness a circular argument? Can we use it here?
One interpretation is that it is about what fits in. In order for this to work one must first identify a collection of related things or themes and determine they are a coherent set. That is potentially subjective. Then one must define why item X is not part of that set. A simple example is a brand new toilet brush standing on a dining table set for dinner. There is no objective reason why a new and clean toilet brush constitutes a problem for the guests. Our feelings are offended though. It is the association of toilet brushes with human waste that marks it out from the tableware and humans keep food and sanitation separate. In this case the toilet brush’s presence offends our sense of hygiene and comes close to a form of disgust. The Audi C-pillar is not disgusting though.
Another approach to appropriateness is rightness. How much is sufficient to do the task determines if a material or design is suitable. Again, we must decide what that right level is and ask if the design’s detail is in keeping with the notion of the function. The gold toilet seat or diamond-encrusted watch strike at our sense of correctness. The Audi’s C-pillar is not an item that affects the performance of the car and nor is it a different material from those usually found in automobiles. If it is not right it is also not wrong.
The sense of appropriateness at play here depends on knowing what Audi design is about, or understanding its principles. That makes this more abstract than the toilet brush or gold toilet seat. It is still not a very strong argument. Audi are allowed to define what they stand for. For fifty years Audi have been about design and engineering being executed in close relation to each other. The aesthetic satisfaction lay in understanding that a pleasing appearance came in tandem with effective engineering solutions.
The C-pillar now redefines Audi’s values in a rather profound way, taking from “mainstream” makers a strategy to winkle money from customers that previously they had eschewed. Now apparently ‘Audiness’ does include superficial decoration (which is not articulation). The design is not appropriate in relation to what Audi stood for. Audi have done very well with their concept of very considered design. This feature comes across as a rather needless and careless addition to Audi’s long-established design rules.
I have to say that the panel isn’t even terribly well executed. They didn’t get good value for their breach of company design etiquette. It’s a plastic panel that stands where a metal panel would have done and this bi-colour effect could have been achieved with paint. In a sense it’s like a gold watch with parts painted to look like silver. The irritating black parts on c-pillars these days are at least doing something that one could not achieve with paint.
So long as Audi expects us to buy into their old notion of calculated good taste, this car is undermining their position. If Audi wants us to see them as mere purveyors of ornament then that’s fine but they should not pretend otherwise.