A Fiesta For Sunday

It ought to have been a PfS (as it is now referred to by fans, cognoscenti and insiders) but something happened while I was taking photographs of the cars. That means we will be instead applying aesthetic theory to a car to see what happens.

2005 Ford Fiesta

If you had asked me my opinion of this car, a white Fiesta,  in 2003, I would not have been able to say much other than to suggest it was nothing special or wasn’t bad.

Fifteen years later I seem to be in a better position to discuss its merits. Merit number one relates to the fact the car is demanding my attention in ways other cars don’t. When I look at it in a variety of ways (in detail and overall gaze) I am noticing that I am registering a lot of impressions (thoughts) and eye-feelings.

“Eye feeling” is a coinage of my own and refers to a sense that is located in the visual system where light lands on the eye. I can’t put words on the precise feeling – it not that I see a car. It is that this and that bit of the car stimulate sensations of things that are not precisely the same as the geometry parked out there on the street.

If you want to consider an analogy: you know your taste buds tell you “manzanilla”  or “Belsazar vermouth“.  What you can’t easily say is what precisely characterises those tastes. Eye-feeling is like that e.g. I know I see a line but what is that line doing? That I can’t say.

The Fiesta has a number of characteristics which I detect, based on the eye-feelings the car creates. One, there is a gentle friendliness suggested by some of the radii on the side glass, lamps and grille. Two, the straight lines and same radii suggest an industrial design style which is fairly neutral (though ID products suggest they can be held or touched). Third, the acceleration of the curves of the roof and  DLO are in dynamic tension with the important straight line dividing the body side.

If you look at the car as whole (the oriental way of looking) there is a fascinating instability created by the curved roof and straight crease line that itself is slanted downward by a small amount.

Here I am going to bring in a reference to Mads Nygaard Folkmann’s** framework for conceiving aesthetics as formulation and construction of meaning. The question is where does the apparently quite functional Fiesta Mk 5 fit in on the framework:

The framework has two axes. On one axis (left to right) we see a parameter relating to the degree of aesthetic content as in how much the object deviates from the bare minimum of functionality towards conscious styling or “form-giving”. My examples of this are are a partially open metal cylinder used as a cup (no surplus) and Spode tea cup on the other.

On the vertical axis we find purely conceptual design (think of Verner Panton’s interiors) versus lifestyle design that is not really about very much. Folkmann provides those two examples.

So let’s place the Ford Fiesta on this framework:

I arrive at this result in the following way. The Fiesta may have quite simple lines and surfaces but it is, miles from being a literal box on wheels (e.g. a Defender). There are subtle accents all over the car such as the accelerating DLO curve, the shape of the lamps, the slant of the body-side feature line etc.

The tricky part is the vertical. The Fiesta lies on the upper half of axis because the car expresses clearly a simple set of rules which are seemingly those of classic industrial design plus an element of dynamism required by any car plus an element of friendliness (big lamps, medium-sized radii).

Objects in the top right square are the ones which are the most satisfying. They pay attention to aesthetics (the wow effect) and they have an idea the aesthetics are in service to. Now, this is the subtle part. The Mk 5 Fiesta’s big idea (Chris Bird’s big idea, really) is to try to create a shape occupying the zone between dead calm and incipient activity.

That is why the car has that unstable feeling (arc versus line and straight versus curved and industrial versus friendly) which yields the visual interest. The car also has profound resonances or affinities with earlier EuroFords.

The photos I took are really not capturing the effect of the car as seen in shifting 3D, by the way.

It is by understanding why Mark 5 Fiesta succeeds that we can understand why Mark 6 (2008) is less satisfying, “kinetic design” notwithstanding.

While the Mark 6 is by most accounts a pretty decent car (and I don’t hate it, by the way), it fails to provide much for the aesthetic imagination to latch on to. It is apparently supposed to look like it is moving when it is standing still (kinetic design) and perhaps the problem is partially that the dynamism is made all too plain: strong slants and accents. I thus wish to place the Fiesta Mk 6 here on the Folkmann framework:

How does that strike you? I get to this result because the lower right square is where lifestyle design lives (according to Folkmann’s own interpretation of the framework). There’s a lot of aesthetics treatment on the 2008 car and not much of a big idea. The basic idea of a car is that it moves – kinetic design thus states the obvious. Its predecessor worked at a more abstract or high-concept level.

I am aware of a kind of contradiction here because the example of Panton’s furniture is one where the appearance is serving one clear idea it is a high concept with strong aesthetic content. The 2008 Fiesta has one big idea too – the expression of dynamics – and yet it’s not that interesting at all.

Chris Bird’s car has three related ideas and they are expressed using form accents verging on the subliminal. The 2008 car is supposed to be expressing one clear idea like Panton’s work yet it is not a “concept car” like the 2002 Fiesta is. It’s not at all rich to look at (just like BMWs these days and many others). So maybe the having a high concept isn’t enough – it is that the idea must be a strong one or a distinct one.

Another counterintuitive phenemenon is that the calm forms of Bird’s Fiesta, the Mercedes W-124 and Alfa Romeo 164 are very powerful while contemporary design is full of accents and articulations and is not strong at all.

This stuff isn’t easy.

I have a fair degree of confidence in the framework (or my ability to use it) when applied to contemporary design. But what might happen when this framework is applied to something like this:

1935 Ford Model 48: wikipedia.org

** Folkmann, M.N. (2013) The Aesthetics of Imagination In Design. MIT: Cambridge, MA.

Author: richard herriott

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

8 thoughts on “A Fiesta For Sunday”

  1. Well, that was a bit deeper than a PfS for me to digest over my Sunday breakfast!

    You have selected the Mk 5 Fiesta which is a model that has always intrigued me, particularly in 3 door form. I think you might have gone some way to explaining why. Thank you.

    Now, for the next part of my therapy session can I ask whether you are in a position to explain my fascination with the Vauxhall/Opel Astra ‘G’ in 5 door form, or a pre-facelift Renault 21 along the same lines please? Both have a lasting appeal to me that is similar to the Fiesta.

    1. Well it would be interesting to see if there is a pattern to my fascination…..

    2. Adrian: I will have to deal with that next. Generally speaking I am concerned that the Folkmann matrix is not dealing with something important. And I am also curious about how one decides the parameters for placing a car on the axes. You have to have a clear account of the features justifying the placement. It can´t be numerica/quantitative.

  2. Having Googled you (sorry..) I have some idea about where you are coming from.
    A little about me.. lifelong car nut, four years ID(T) Coventry Lanchester Polytechnic with my year out at Ford in Dunton and the thirty years since working for a major European car company as an interior designer. (A game of two halves, a couple of years were spent with Rover during the New Mini, first monocoque Range Rover, Rover 75 and Bernd Peter Pischetsrieder hatchet job period.)
    I would argue that at the time of the birth of the mk5 Fiesta there was a mood of empowerment within the industry that allowed fashion to be put aside and design to take the stage. J Mays and Patrick Le Quement were in the vanguard of this movement, Ford group and Renault products from this period still give hope in the stagnant pool we find ourselves in today. Probably misplaced, I’m sure.
    An interesting parallel between the two companies is found in their concept cars. The Ford Visos and anything Lincoln from David, Per and Gerry, the Jaguar R Coupe RD6 concepts on the one side; Koleos, Vel Satis and Ondelios on the other all led to absolutely nothing despite immense promise at the time.
    Some refererenced the past while avoiding pastiche, the others foretold a brave new world for car design. Design and designers were on a high. The pride before the fall.
    The industry will probably never allow designers the stage again in such a manner.
    A remarkable exception is Gerry. He has the depth of knowledge, the loyalty and the savvy to continue to shape Land Rover Products with the respect and the love such a heritage commands. The product always comes first.
    Authenticism trumps fashion. Successful design is a rare commodity in today’s climate. Nothing is meant to last. Hyperbole masks hollow discourse.
    I am curious. Where would the Mercedes-Maybach Ultimate Luxury concept fit on Folkmann’s framework in your opinion?

    1. There’s lots to discuss there – for the moment it’s the bit about the Visos that captures my attention. I’ve written about that one and out of all the cars you cite it’s the only one I’d want to question. As I am out hunting/kill dandelions I can’t write more until later.

    2. Having rid the garden of dandelions and resettled the nettles (good for butterflies) I can now consider the Maybach Ultimate (!) Luxury…
      Dear me, it has chrome strips skirting it all around.
      On the function-æsthetic axis it veers left towards having highly refined details and surfaces. It has proportions – and they are of debatable appeal. They are driven by function which is off-road capability. I can see a tension in the Folkmann schema where something can be highly functional (rightward) and very aesthetically refined (leftward). Problem. Puzzle.
      Turning to the vertical axis it is a high-concept design, like the Panton example. It isn’t anonymous as in the generic interior or, say, a 90s Carina E.
      As an case for the Folkmann scheme it is tricky.
      This brings us to a parallel with a question long asked of Kant’s æsthetics, can the theory account for ugliness. Can Folkmann’s matrix deal with ugly designs. This needs more thought.

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