We are used to seeing objects in context—books on a shelf, pots in a kitchen, computers on a desk—and the impact of context can be especially powerful when things are dangled before us to entice us to buy them. That’s why bookstores look a bit like libraries (or they did before they started looking like malls), the cookware department of Bloomingdale’s feels like a kitchen, and the sofas and chairs in a furniture store are arranged to look like a living room. You sell things when you give them an emotionally suitable environment.
But what do you do when what you’re trying to sell is a car? You can’t build a freeway interchange, and most showrooms are just glass-fronted boxes that can’t fit more than a handful of cars anyway. No one who has designed a car dealership has tried to hint at the real context of cars since Frank Lloyd Wright put a curving ramp into a Jaguar showroom on Park Avenue in the early 1950s.
The one place besides TV commercials where designers strive to create an emotional environment for cars is at automobile shows. In January I walked around Cobo Hall, the enormous exposition center in downtown Detroit that for a couple of weeks every winter is filled up by the North American International Auto Show. I try to go every year because it is pleasing to enjoy the momentary illusion that the center of Detroit can be mistaken for a lively city, but also because in this country it’s where most of the year’s latest car designs are debuted. The show is huge, and Cobo swallows up SUVs the way the new Times Square Toys “R” Us swallows up Barbies. So just as Mattel gets its dolls noticed by giving them a two-story house—a stage set, if you will—the carmakers do the same here. In a dealership’s showroom there is so little space that the cars overwhelm what modest architecture there is. In a gigantic convention hall there is so much undefined space that the only way to get your cars noticed is to construct architecture around them.
Exhibit design at Detroit is now often sexier than the cars themselves. In 1999, two years after J Mays became head of design at Ford, he oversaw the creation of a gargantuan two-story exhibition structure inside Cobo Hall that put all the Ford brands—which by then included Jaguar, Aston Martin, and Volvo—into a unified display. The most important thing Mays, working with the design firm Imagination, did was to give the whole structure a sleek modern look that was a world away from the glitzy turntables that once constituted exhibition design at car shows. But there were also distinctions between the various Ford brands, and it was fun to see how the designers tried to find a kind of architectural equivalent of brand identity: darker tones for the Jaguar area, a hint of Scandanavian modern for Volvo. You felt that if Ralph Lauren was creating a car showroom, it would turn out like this.
Now the game of finding an architectural expression for each automotive brand has gone—excuse the pun—into high gear. Audi and BMW tried to outdo each other with two-story exhibition structures that had a neo-Bauhaus sleekness: minimalism tarted up to sell cars. (These and quite a number of the other exhibits included big LED displays that zapped constantly changing images of cars and logos and ad copy, giving one the feeling of walking through Times Square.) Volkswagen’s display was just as sophisticated, but with a slightly different tone, since a major element was a structure of thin, horizontal wooden slats, as if by Peter Zumthor.
If Volkswagen was Zumthor, the architecture surrounding the new Rolls-Royce—a cube structure of floating planes of white and dark glass—had an air of Herzog and de Meuron. The car sat in front of the structure, which contained a conference room and office, and seemed there mainly to project an image of classic stolid modernity (something it did better than the car itself).
None of these exhibits is particularly significant as a work of design, but they do tell you everything about the way in which design can instantly convey an image. Audi and BMW want you to think of their cars as representing a kind of up-to-the-minute design-driven refinement, and when you look at these exhibitions, you do. Volkswagen is modern too, but a little more casual, a little funkier. The Ferrari exhibition is all red, with swoops and curves that seem at once to suggest both 1950s Italian design and Southern California, an altogether natural combination. Chrysler’s exhibitions are bombastic—a huge circular metal ramp for Dodge, along with a structure based on the Dodge Ram logo that houses merchandise; a bunch of fake mountains for Jeep, set in front of a changing cyclorama of American landscapes; and a two-story Modernist pavilion for Chrysler.
Ford retired Mays’s structure this year and came up with a variation, also designed by Imagination, that places most of its cars under an enormous translucent canopy that you walk through, like a tunnel. It was only after I had seen it twice that I realized the canopy echoed the profile of Ford’s oval logo, the notion being, I suppose, that the logo is like a protective blanket covering all the company’s cars. (It’s tough being an exhibit designer when you’re told that the message has to be corporate solidarity as well as individual brand identity.)
It was not surprising to see that General Motors’s exhibit, like its cars, was confused and uncertain, and felt not so much consciously retro as unintentionally behind the times. The one German company that didn’t go overboard this year was Chrysler’s parent, Mercedes-Benz, which displayed cars on low turntables, each of which was marked by a huge round cylinder of metal mesh hanging from the ceiling above it like a slice of a vast litter basket. No American company would have the nerve to do something as understated, and it pointed out yet again how deftly the architecture at the auto show matched the message of the cars.