Yesterday, Luigi Colani, a German industrial designer with an Italian name, died at the age of 91. While Colani was a successful designer of all sorts of things, from cameras to toilets, his transportation-related designs—cars and motorcycles and aircraft and trains and boats and almost every other sort of vehicle—were arguably less successful.
The reason is that Colani designed according to his only set of rules and beliefs, and those rarely intersected with actual reality. And that’s precisely why it was so good to have him around.
Colani, for whatever else you might say about him, was not boring. At all. Colani’s transportation designs all sprung from his unifying design theory, which he termed “biodynamic,” a synthesis of rounded biomorphic forms meshed with a sort of aesthetic streamlining, a sleek techno-utopianism, and, I suppose, more than a little middle-aged horniness:
“Soft shapes follow us through life. Nature does not make angles. Hips and bellies and breasts — all the best designers have to do with erotic shapes and fluidity of form.”
At its best, his biodynamic work created some really striking, gut-level exciting forms, like this radical take on a Le Mans car, or his nearly lurid motorcycle concepts:
Of course, these approaches didn’t always work. Often, Colani’s attempts to design vehicles just ended up, um, weird. Like his attempt to design an entry-level Volkswagen in 1977:
That...that doesn’t really work. It’s not boring, though, that’s for damn sure.
Colani’s big rig truck designs are pretty controversial as well. Sometimes I think they’re overdone absurdities, and other times I feel like I sort of wish our highways had some of these strangely sleek brutes.
Plus, that circular windshield and radial wiper setup is just astounding.
I don’t think there’s any question that Colani’s results were very often just too much, too strange, too alien to ever be viable production vehicles. But that’s okay—actually, it’s better than okay. I’m going to say that larger-than-life, nearly cartoonish designers like Colani are absolutely essential to the greater world of auto design.
There always needs to be someone out there who’s pushing the limits of what’s expected, what’s considered reasonable. There needs to be some talented kook out there with their own strange agenda reminding every other designer in the world about what could be possible, and to act as a warning and reminder that too much timidity is just dying, slowly and ignorably.
Colani did this better than anyone. And now that he’s gone, I’m just not sure who has that right combination of madness, determination, and talent to fill that role.
But I do know we’ll need somebody, because Luigi Colani is gone.