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Road Show Offers Loud Look Into a Designer’s Vision

<i> Leon Whiteson writes regularly for View on design and architecture. </i>

Heralded by caravans of Space Age vehicles and accompanied by an entourage of eager young assistants sporting T-shirts blazoned with his signature, Signor Luigi Colani led “Automorrow 89,” his famous international design circus, into town last week.

A fast-talking midway barker sporting a luxuriant handlebar mustache and a colorful striped blazer, Ringmaster Colani strode among the vividly colored avant-garde cars scattered over the green lawns of Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design. Followed by a flock of adoring students, Colani ran through a polished patter that laid out the principles of his philosophy of “bio-design.”

“Except for crystalline structures, nature has no straight lines,” Colani declared, “Every natural form, from the shape of a shark’s body to the trajectory of an asteroid, follows a curvilinear pattern.”

Curves are everywhere in bio-design. Colani’s bullet train’s nose is shaped like a giant tip of a guided missile. A large scale model of a supersonic airliner resembles a female form in flight. Many of Colani’s cars resemble eggs that enclose their occupants like recumbent embryos waiting to be hatched.

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Variously described by European and American design publications as a “visionary sculptor/engineer,” “the architect of the automobile,” and “the Leonardo Da Vinci of the 20th Century,” Colani has created challenging and extraordinary styles for everything from male toiletries--including bars of scented soap bearing his effigy--to high-tech racing yachts. Among his best known designs are those for Sony stereo headphones and Canon’s easy-grip T-90 camera.

But the big act in Colani’s “Automorrow 89,” and the reason for the designer’s current international tour through the United States, Europe, Japan and the Soviet Union, is a radical collection of experimental cars.

“Automorrow 89" began its worldwide odyssey last month on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, the world’s leading auto test grounds. There Colani subjected his slow human-powered mini-cars and his fast engine-powered racers to exhaustive speed and endurance tests. The vehicles, which are all designed with a concern for fuel economy and ecological sensitivity, are designated as “Utah” models in honor of the legendary flats.

Utah 2, intended as a prototype for short distance urban transportation, is a two-seater, three-wheeled, human-powered fiberglass egg less than three feet high weighing a mere 116 pounds. Its two pedaling drivers lie cushioned and supine, watching watch the road through pounding knees. When the legs tire, an auxiliary 30cc moped engine helps keep the fiberglass egg rolling.

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Utah 3, a one-person version of the above, weighs 35 pounds. Its composite alloy, bobbin-shaped shell fits its lone driver like a second skin. Both Utah 2 and Utah 3 are light enough to be lifted and carried by their riders.

“Tomorrow’s vehicles have to be lean and mean,” Colani said. “They must generate maximum use within a minimum size. There is no future for the overweight, overpowered monsters now being churned out by the world’s auto industry. We are running out of room in our cities and out of breathable air. We are losing touch with natural rhythms.”

Consequently, Colani’s views of current auto design are caustic. “Most car styling is pure design prostitution,” he said. “It is made to please a legion of publicists who have conned a gullible public into lusting after false smiles. We cannot continue for long in this massive obscenity that is destroying our cities and our souls.

“If people yearn for the va-va-vroom of overpowered engines, let them slip a noisy race car audio tape in the decks of their human-powered autos. They can set their blood on fire without burning up the world.”

Colani’s version of a vroom vehicle is his Utah 8, a low-riding two-seater powered by a 1,000cc turbocharged BMW power-plant capable of reaching 150 m.p.h. Utah 8’s curvaceous white plastic body fits tight to a carbon-fiber chassis with a weight of only 1,300 pounds. The car’s fuel economy of 35 miles to the gallon is extraordinary for a high-performance racer.

In response to concerns about the safety of people riding at high speed in such flimsy containers, he shrugged: “I favor a low-speed, lightweight transportation strategy. High speeds are for long-distance travel by train and plane, not for cities. Even with overpowered cars, high speeds are seldom possible in the universal urban congestion we have created in the past 20 years.”

If his cars aren’t meant to travel fast, why are they so radically aerodynamic in shape? “People love the idea and the romance of speed,” Colani said. “We produce automobiles that look as if they’re flying even while parked in the driveway. It is the primal image of the jet fighter, that hawk of the sky, that haunts our dreams.”

Colani, 61, learned to dream creatively as the son of an Italian businessman living in Berlin. The four Colani children were never given toys; instead their parents urged them to create their own from wooden blocks, paper, cardboard and colored crayons. After a course in painting at Berlin’s Academy of Art, Colani studied aerodynamics and racing car design at the University of Paris.

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Now based in Berne, Switzerland, Colani travels the world, stirring up corporations and organizations as conservative as Japan’s Mitsubishi and Detroit’s American Iron and Steel Institute with his provocative yet artful showmanship. A spokesman for the AISI explained why they are one of the sponsors of his current global tour: “With the industrial use of steel in steady decline, we are very much in need of innovative concepts such as those offered by Signor Colani.”

“I love steel,” Colani confirmed. “For me fiberglass and plastics are just a temporary substitute for the new generation of lightweight metal alloys the industry is beginning to develop.”

Carving expressive curves in the air, Colani exclaimed: “Steel is the sexiest of all man-made materials; its potential shapes are sensuous beyond imagining. I embrace steel’s future like a lover, and together we will produce a host of beautiful and sensible children.”


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