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ECV: Experimental Composite Vehicle.
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115 years of brand history, and 60 years of the Flaminia Presidenziale limousine.
15 July 2021
The Fiat 500 F at the MoMA “Automania” exhibition
The icon of Italian automotive style and design goes on show in New York.
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The Fiat Multipla and functional design

The importance of usability and efficiency in design.

Efficiency is one of the cornerstones on which the designer's work is based. Together with Roberto Giolito, head of the Heritage department, we explore the importance of placing the user at the centre of the creative design process. And not just in the automotive sector. From the Downtown and Multipla cars to the Zippo lighter and Telecaster guitar, we outline the intrinsic role of functionality, alongside that of aesthetics.

When it comes to design, there is a risk of underestimating the importance of efficiency, in favour of focusing more on aesthetics. What is your opinion on this?

Design is intended to bring the product into contact with its user and effectively meet the requirements for functionality, economy and usability. In other words, if the concept of efficiency is not put at the centre of this process, it cannot be called design in the strictest sense. Contrary to general belief, design has nothing to do with art and creativity unless these two concepts are understood as being just two of its component ingredients. Design is intrinsically linked to mass production and consumer society. More than other disciplines, it arises from the public's needs, their more or less explicit demands, to which it endeavours to respond. The car is one of the industrial products that best clarifies what is meant by design. The first objective that it must meet is to be functional for its intended user.

The importance of design is also evidenced by the fact that within the HUB, which is the multifunctional space that houses Heritage, there is a section called Style Marks. Exhibited within this section are cars produced over a period of more than 60 years. What do they all have in common?

They are some of the milestones in the history of automotive design, cars which, due to their characteristics and personality, effectively encapsulated the identity of their respective brands. These are cars that have become indelibly imprinted on the collective imagination, cars that over time have become true benchmarks in the field of automotive design. Returning to the subject of efficiency, the common thread connecting all the models on display here is the ability of the original project to reconcile technical needs with the design of the car body. This happens thanks to the interaction between product, formal values and user behaviour. The contribution and aesthetic awareness of the great Turin-based coachbuilders was decisive in maintaining this precarious balance. They are models from different eras but, united by an aesthetic and technological relevance, they demonstrate that the word “style” actually alludes to a more sophisticated expression of design that looks ahead towards innovation, while at the same time bearing witness to its own time.

In your direct experience, are there any models that you find particularly interesting, due to the way in which they resolve issues relating to the concept of efficiency?

If I think of what we could call the “efficient approach”, two models come to mind, models which were created with particular attention paid to the needs of habitability and use. Thanks to the innovative solutions identified during their design, the FIAT Downtown and the Multipla can certainly be useful in giving substance to the concept of efficiency.

Starting from the end of the 1960s, the two main guidelines that informed FIAT's research and experimentation activity, and which oriented the work of its Research Centre, were the introduction of new materials—particularly plastics—for vehicle production, and the development of a series of tests, prototypes and protocols for improving safety. These two guidelines were soon followed by the introduction of a third, aimed at identifying solutions for more efficient mobility and coping with the problems of increasingly congested roads. The FIAT Downtown (presented at the 1993 Geneva Motor Show - Ed.) was designed for this very purpose. First, in designing this electric concept car, we worked with the aim of reducing dimensions without compromising on interior comfort. To ensure the best possible habitability for its size (the Downtown is 2.5 m long and less than 1.5 m wide), the solution we identified was to place the driver in a central position. This gave the two rear-seat occupants room to stretch their legs and a view unimpeded by head restraints. Another winning solution in this regard was to incorporate a portion of the floor (which in this case was totally flat) so that the driver could enter and exit the vehicle without stooping unnecessarily. In addition, the large windshield afforded all three occupants excellent visibility. In practice, the FIAT Downtown was a saloon with the dimensions of a city car, an ideal solution for tackling the ever-increasing problem of city traffic. It can be said that by combining practicality and efficiency, the Downtown prototype foreshadowed a new type of urban mobility that was brought to completion a few years later, for example by the Smart car.

Easy entry and exit, simplicity for passenger interaction, external visibility from every seat and the reduction of on-board obstructions. The Multipla also complied with these design criteria.

The meetings I held with interior designers and architects strengthened my conviction that there was a need to design more habitable passenger compartments, with particular attention paid to the principle of usability, as well as to so-called transition areas, where users enter and exit from the vehicle.

I am not suggesting that a project like the 1998 FIAT Multipla can be considered a perfect combination of technological innovation and architecture, but devising this medium-sized FIAT minivan made it possible to identify technical solutions that enable three passengers sitting in the same row to move around and interact, after entering the vehicle as easily as possible. The Multipla is the only car in its segment to offer six seats and a large boot within a length of just 4 metres, which is less than a Punto, by way of comparison. I think that of all the projects I have worked on, this one—in which I was involved with the concept and the final styling—came closest to transferring the teachings of the architectural field to the automotive sector. I had the privilege of absorbing and reworking these teachings, starting from the ideas of Gio Ponti as expressed in his Diamante car.

It culminated in the Multipla being exhibited in the MoMA, where it was presented in 1999 as “an example of new trends of mass motorisation”.

That was a real honour. But without a hint of false modesty, I can say that it’s equally satisfying to know that for many people, riding on board the Multipla is a pleasant sharing experience. In this sense, it has a winning design, because it was conceived around the end user.

To round off, let’s cast the net wider: outside of the automotive sector, which objects best represent the concept of design for you?

I really like the Fender Telecaster, because it’s an electric guitar created, in 1951, out of the need for a soundboard of a certain thickness and a neck that can easily be joined to the body without having to glue it in any way, using only four screws. In addition, the tuners are all mounted on one side of the headstock so that the player can tune it more easily. In short, from a design point of view, the solutions that Leo Fender and his team came up with have made the Telecaster synonymous with beautiful design: the gold standard, if you will. The same applies to the Zippo lighter. It is just a normal lighter, a small container of benzene. But the fact that the wick is easily replaceable and the lid opening and ignition are achieved in one iconic action, makes it an object as recognisable and loved today as it was when it was created in 1932. Then there is the Leica M, a camera shaped like a roll of film. Nowadays, with digital photography, this look is no longer appreciated, but its design was based on the shape of the small cylinder holding the 35 mm photographic film. If we think about it, we can understand the perfection of its design, despite its simplicity. And what's more, you could carry it in your pocket, which for a designer is something that absolutely shouldn’t be underestimated. Today we take photographs using a smartphone, but in its time it was truly revolutionary. They are iconic objects, difficult to improve upon. Nobody would want them to be any different, because they’re perfect as they are.

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