How did Patrick Le Quément embrace the Car Design profession, moving from Bauhaus functionalism to “drawing is thinking” personal belief? This is the story Patrick tells us in his own words. Once upon a time…
Patrick le Quément is a world famous Car Designer. As SVP Renault Corporate Design, his team’s products have included brillant and bold designs such as Twingo, Mégane and Mégane II Scénic; the Espace models of 1994 and 1998; Kangoo; Laguna models of 1994; Avantime and the Vel Satis of 2002.
Patrick’s motto is Design = Quality; his structural changes of Renault design were to develop an independent and innovative formal language, turning Renault Design in an effective brand name.
Here he comes back to his first steps in design, showing how he moved from Bauhaus functionalism to “drawing is thinking” personal belief. This approach seems familiar to digital design approach where “prototyping and designing” happen quite simultaneously, in short innovation cycles.
How did I become an automotive designer ?
At the time I was studying, there was no subject called automotive design on the official curiculum, neither in France where I was born, nor in England where I had been educated since the age of 12. The Royal College of Art would only open its doors in 1969, whilst in France, it would be another ten years before one of the leading educational establishments, the Université de Technologie de Compiègne would venture down the same road, even if the course turned out to be more technical than design as such.
All you had were colleges of art and design who shared the view that the motorcar was a kind of a sullied object, worthy of exclusion from their programmes of study.
Like many colleagues of my generation, it was alone – quite early on, and over quite a long period of time, all alone – that I learned to draw many different types of vehicles from photographs I had, cars of course, but also planes, trucks, trains and boats. Whereas at school, primary then secondary, we did still live, live models, landscapes, faces, etc. All figurative.
At Saint Augustineʼs Abbey School in Ramsgate, the art teacher who gave me the most encouragement at this early stage was a Mr Van Dorne…He was very much one for the finer things in life and with his goatee beard and moustache, he could have been Van Eyckʼs double. But he admired even more the work of Augustus John of the Royal Academy.
In his view, to go on to art college, after finishing secondary school, would have been a waste of time in my case, and he advised me to embark straightaway on a career as an illustrator. But for me, at the age of 18, it was really what I wanted to do, a few more years at college to continue to improve my skill, but I also wanted to create, I wanted to be a car designer, ever since I discovered that Pininfarina designed Ferraris when I was ten.
So the second stage of my training saw me move to the Birmingham College of Art and Design, which already at that time had the reputation of being one of Britainʼs best design colleges.
There I was fortunate to have, as one of my teachers, a former member of the Bauhaus, Naum Slutzky. He was born in Kiev in 1894, received his training in Vienna where he was a student of goldsmithing.
He briefly worked for the Wiener Werkstätte before embarking on engineering studies but, in 1910, he accepted Walter Gropiusʼs invitation to become assistant, then master goldsmith, in the Metal Workshops of the Weimar Bauhaus.
After fleeing Germany because of the Nazis in 1933, he worked briefly as a designer in Birmingham, and from 1934 began a long teaching career at the Central College of Arts and Crafts, the Royal College of Art and at the College of arts and Crafts in Birmingham.
When I joined his product design class – akin to joining a new religion in many respects, Slutzky was in his final year of teaching, nearing the age of seventy. He was a very small, thin man, his white hair bushy and rebellious and he wore round, metalrimmed glasses. Very striking in a light grey suit, he had more than a passing likeness to Trotsky. His German accent you could cut with a knife. Impassioned, touchy and quick-tempered.
The first thing Slutzky asked us to do was to forget everything that we had learned from the Van Dornes of this world, or in any of the other types of art school that espoused a more or less traditional approach. The order went out to make a clean sweep of the historical legacy and tradition holding sway in the areas of painting, drawing, sculpture and architecture. We had to begin again from zero, by getting back to fundamentals far more basic than any fundamental of the past: the most basic, essential fundamentals possible.
Our mental palette was to comprise analysis, reasoning, justification, argument, demonstration and theorising. Plus discourse.
In fact, we would discuss, we would explore concepts verbally as much as if not more than we would draw. And we would draw employing techniques almost like we were in an engineering department.
All the while acknowledging, more or less consciously, that a technology may be converted into style, that itʼs the only style allowable and not really a style at all at the end of the day, as the forms we were creating were always subservient to the end function, as a matter of principle – form follows function – and by our need to hold true to the authenticity of the materials lined up for the manufacturing process.
The relationship between art and technique, constituted a central and obsessive topic of discussion as far as Slutzky was concerned, the challenge being to harmonise the relationship, which is the key to injecting quality into any end design. Not only we had to refrain from drawing «as before», but we also had to give up drawing «before», that the act of drawing must now only be engaged in «after» thinking had taken place, at the end of the process.
We endeavoured to combine technical knowledge with a creative stance, coupled with graphic and oral expression. This was because every project was due to conclude with a presentation before the teaching staff and fellow students. It was all about quality of delivery, linkage between the visual and verbal, clarity of expression and proof that we were doing our research.
Then, after my alloted time at the Birmingham College of Art and Design, I left with a diploma in design under my arm and started to look for work. In the automobile sector, because my childhood dream was again uppermost in my mind.
But I discovered -because I had the unexpected good fortune to be taken on by Simca, the French automobile manufacturer, bought a few months before by Chrysler – that I no longer knew how to «draw» cars. Such was the sad and frustrating reality : by learning to draw the Slutzky way, Iʼd forgotten how to draw like the Van Dornes of this world, but also like GM and Ford, my benchmarks within the automotive world. I had become clumsy and awkward, devoid of hands even.
I then experienced a third stage in my training, at Simca, thanks to the incredible good fortune of falling into the lap of a top-flight professional, a true virtuoso, who made me feel right at home and took me on as his apprentice. His name was Pinko, John Pinko – a world champion when it came to «rendering» the American way. He was also one of Fordʼs former star designers who had worked in Joe Orosʼs team, which designed the original Mustang.
So I stuck close to him. He was my master, my trainer, coach, mentor, role model, my out and out reference point. With him, I learned and re-learned something everyday. The full gamut of techniques came into play: pencil, ball-point, felt tip, charcoal, gouaches and markers… Amongst other things, I learned how to use a special type of paper brought in, in bulk, from the States, imported directly from Detroit – Vellum, on which, as miraculous as it was, one could use markers or prismacolor pencils on both sides of the sheet, to make the
most of itʼs transparent quality. This, by the way, was the technique I taught to the first RCA students of Vehicle Design, a few years later.
Under Pinkoʼs watchful eyes, I got comfortable with the use of French curves and so-called «pure metal» renderings, devoid of any dominant colour, with focused lighting and the reflection of the sky and the earth in the carʼs body, blue for the sky, and sepia for the ground, and, midway between the two, a blue grey tint for the horizon.
I drew and drew… Replete with designs for an imaginary range based on the improbable Simca 1000, which was «the» Simca model of the time: coupé, convertible, estate…
All of which represented an excuse to produce drawings.
In my product design (ante-automobile) classes at Birmingham, one taught us how to conceptualise, then, only later, at the end of the exercise, how to wrap these concepts in primary, geometric volumes. The drawing, which thus came at the end, was, not exactly a chore – let’s not exaggerate – but certainly a difficult, applied exercise to be done right at the end of the project. It was almost as mechanical and painful as producing a design based purely on technique.
In the world of automobile design, drawing is a joy in its own right, pure pleasure that is almost tangible from the outset. The twin actions of drawing and thinking coincide, become as one. Iʼm not saying that we donʼt think before tackling a project, but very quickly, and almost immediately, in reality, drawing takes over as the means by which we conceptualise. To draw, is to think. One draws and thinks simultaneously and vice-versa.
The drawing and the hand, this «pentapodal god» as Nabokov says, holds as much sway as the mind. With John Pinko, my passion for the motorcar took wing. I harboured no more doubts: auto design would be my life henceforth.