On December 4, I attended the opening of a retrospective of the work of an artist I have admired for the past few years, David Barr. The show, which is at the Dennos Museum Center in Traverse City, is deftly titled "Back Forty," as it represents 40 years of the artist's work. Throughout this period there are elements of consistency in his work, which is indicative of the fact that Barr has an aesthetic that is strongly held yet flexible enough to grow and thereby avoid calcification.
(At this point, some of you may be wondering whether I have lost sight of the magazine I am writing this for. Hang on.)
I had the opportunity to get to know Barr in the early `90s, when I did write a piece about his work for a non-automotive journal. But during the past few years, I lost contact with him. So it came as (a) an opportunity to reestablish a relationship and (b) an occasion to take stock of time. The latter was caused by a recognition that the man has been doing good work for so long. This fact—and it is a fact—resulted in my thinking about time, what we accomplish in the unknown amount that each of us is allotted.
The Barr retrospective caused me to do a retake, to mentally turn back pages to assess how things have developed since the late `50s/early `60s in the auto industry. In October, 1999, the Walter P. Chrysler Museum opened on the DaimlerChrysler Auburn Hills campus, so my recall wasn't totally unaided. My conclusion from wandering around the exhibits there, seeing a tremendous slice of automotive history of the 20th century, is that the industry hasn't come very far and that in some ways, it is stuck in a rut.
Let me hasten to say that I do not ascribe to the "they don't make `em like they used to" school. We wouldn't drive `em if they did. In terms of build quality, paint, safety features, and ride and handling—just to name a few characteristics—today's vehicles are the proverbial "quantum leap" ahead of where cars produced 40, 30, 20, 10 years ago were. But where they have, in a sense, broken down is in the area of imagination, of style, of design, of the nearly ineffable factors that make us want to buy a particular car.
There are several factors that have contributed to this. One is the emergence of the team. In many ways, teams are a good thing. But when it comes to design, the individual needs to come to the fore. Ideally, this individual is truly a designer, not some executive whose world view is on a different planet than that of the intended purchaser of the vehicle. I'm not suggesting a return to the days when decisions were arbitrarily made, but I do think that people with the talent and vision and capability—individuals—should be empowered and not neutered by teams. Don't many cars of today look like they are the consequence of committees, the members of which were more interested in consensus than creativity?
Another factor is the increasing importance of the customer clinic. To be sure, it can be important to find out what features customer value. But there are at least two possible faults that can result. First is the consequence of calculating the sum of the clinic responses. This can lead to designs that are seemingly satisfactory to the many, to the "average." But individuals buy cars, not groups. (And in the case when an individual buys cars for a group—say someone who is acquiring a fleet of cars for salespeople—the selector tends to pick something that probably doesn't turn too many people on: that person picks an appliance.) Second, the clinic can inhibit extraordinary products—as in out-of-the-ordinary—that can lead to hits because who wants to risk having her career besmirched by offering up something risky to a clinic? Safety is found in the middle. Breakthroughs occur on the margin.
Finally, an idea often voiced by my colleague Jeff Sabatini. The auto industry—at least the nominally U.S. industry—seems to be trying to cash in on the success of others, whether it is GM and its alignment with Warner Brothers cartoons or Ford and its Harley-Davidson F-150. The auto companies should work to create their own icons, not borrow them. Once, they did that by developing cars like the Corvette and the Mustang. But what have come rolling out of their design studios—and factories—during the past several years that have the same resonance of those cars?
Few of us are like David Barr. But if someone were to put together a retrospective of our work, would we be proud of what we have accomplished, or would we be satisfied with having just gotten by? The choice is one we all face, each and every day, whether we recognize it or not.