Coming to a Driveway (or Runway?) Near You
Solar-Fueled Vehicle Is Part of Cutting-Edge Design Taking Wing At Milan Exposition

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 9, 2006

Rarely has the shape of the future looked so outrageously exciting.

Images emerging from the world's fair of design underway in Milan squelch the status quo with experimental technologies and progressive materials. Spectacular forms escape at last from the boxy confines of modernism. Brash optimism infuses new ideas and proves the brilliance of human creativity, at least when commercial constraints are removed.

Contemplate these examples of exotica-in-progress:

· A solar-powered concept car shimmers with Swarovski crystals, which might enhance the power of the sun. There's no engine, and no wheels, on this car-as-object -- although this handcrafted, stainless steel cocoon could await a Next Gen driver.

· A plastic chair comes with a wardrobe of Issey Miyake upholstery that the owner can wear on the town. There's no point asking why. Don the down-filled cushion vest and go.

· After 80 years of industrial kitchens, domestic chefs can dream of rolling out cookie dough in a wall-to-wall sculpture. A cool, wired Corian model has been designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid, who is said to be installing one like it at home.

· And for his latest chair, Japanese designer Tokujin Yoshioka kneaded synthetic foam like dough and baked it.

Design's frontier is officially unveiled at the Salone Internazionale del Mobile, which opened Wednesday and runs through tomorrow. There, images rocket through cyberspace faster than the estimated 200,000 visitors make the rounds of showrooms. Modern living is defined by the colors and shapes that are unveiled and ultimately shipped to design stores such as Contemporaria in Georgetown and carried by the catalogue chain Design Within Reach. The most glamorous furniture, lighting and bath fixtures turn up in hotels, restaurants and casinos, as well as college libraries, museum cafes and airport lounges.

But there's more to this than furniture. Radicals at the fringe are pushing design into the realm of art. Milan is the one place to see their best -- often strange -- work simultaneously, in one massive cutting-edge design show.

A Sparkling Concept

It's not hard, even at this distance, to spot the leading activists. The solar concept car, known as Swarovski Crystal Aerospace, stands alone. For one thing, it's not a chair. For another, it comes with a transformative cultural agenda.

"What I'm hoping it will do is to raise people's awareness that you don't have to forgo beauty by being more alternative," the designer, Ross Lovegrove, explains by phone from his London studio. "It's a provocation."

The vehicle was made for the fifth annual Swarovski Crystal Palace, a group installation sponsored by the crystal company.

Each year, top designers such as Ron Arad of London and National Design Award winner Yves Behar of San Francisco have been invited to play with the idea of New Age chandeliers. (A few still are. Japanese designer Naoto Fukasawa has created a dangling fixture that glows like the after-image left by a sparkler waved in circles.) But Lovegrove, known for blending technology and curves, agreed to participate if he could design a car.

Digital renderings suggest a starship. The cerulean roof is weighted with 1,200 crystal-enhanced photovoltaic cells. Ovoid feet take the place of tires under an elegant wingspan.

The aerodynamics were inspired by the trans-Australia race known as the World Solar Challenge, for which machines are made to test the limits of endurance for investments of a few million dollars. Lovegrove complains that the same automaker can spend a billion dollars launching a standard-issue consumer car, with relatively few innovations.

"These two parallel worlds need to engage each other," he says.

He worked with Swarovski's optical lab, Sharp Solar Systems and Anthony Lo, director of advanced design for GM Europe. The 14-foot-long body was fabricated by the elite Coggiola firm in Turin. For now, it's only "an incredible built object," he says. But, "If GM, Toyota or somebody wanted to engage, we're 50 percent there."

Elsewhere, it took a jam session involving two design titans to produce Arad's Ripple chair with Miyake's A-POC cushion. The collaboration almost created the first wearable chair.

Arad was visiting the Miyake Design Studio in Tokyo when he became interested in A-POC, a line of garments Miyake and Dai Fujiwara make from a single piece of cloth (hence the acronym). After a meeting of minds, Arad sent sketches of a chair he had designed for Moroso, one of Italy's most innovative furniture companies. Miyake and Fujiwara went to work on a wardrobe of A-POC clothing to be worn by the chair or its owner.

The shape of the chair -- an infinity symbol -- ensured two armholes. Five garments -- cardigans, jackets and vest -- have been created. Conceptually, they are little more than a sweater tossed over a chair. But high fashion carries a premium. Moroso's Ripple chair will cost about $400. The silky A-POC vest called Gemini will cost $1,360 at the Tribeca Issey Miyake store in Manhattan.

Chairs hold a special place in the world of design. Few objects fit as close to the human body. Few can claim a longer history of supporting weary souls. But designers often use the chair as a typology when pursuing a goal far beyond seating.

Yoshioka, a designer in the vanguard of Japan's youthful industrial artists, gained acclaim for a honeycombed paper chair, Honey-Pop, in 2002. Now he is presenting Pane, a chair baked like a loaf of bread.

The designer credits an article in National Geographic for inspiration. After reading about miracle fibers, he switched from conventional hard materials to soft ones. Over three years, he experimented with a polyester elastomer used for medical cushions, ultimately punching a half-moon of the material into an armchair by hand. Baking at 219 degrees makes the fibers strong enough to support the weight of a body. But, Yoshioka says, the chair still "feels like sitting on air."

The Corian Experiment

Architect Hadid's kitchen is as radical as the dunelike furniturescapes she began creating in 2000. Both resemble the architectural drawings that made her famous long before her first commissions resulted in built works. The molded white landscape of a room she designed for Madrid's $94 million Hotel Puerta America is a close cousin.

For the Corian kitchen, she drafted countertops and appliances as wind-shaped islands of fire and water. Surfaces are intended to be embedded with sound and light, although the project is still experimental. Conventional cabinetry -- an innovation dating to the 1920s -- is reconceived as sculpted compartments in the walls. A spokeswoman for the DuPont company, which makes Corian, was unable to say how much the construction weighed.

For the 2004 Milan fair, Arad embedded a wall of Corian with fiber optics, transforming the pristine, marblelike surface into a low-resolution movie screen at night. The designer was hoping to improve on the gloomy look of a switched-off expanse of liquid crystal displays.

Flash and sizzle need not be monumental, though. Charming, whimsical designs can alter perceptions and propel a humdrum object onto the pedestal of everyday art. Working with Behar, a group of students at the California College of Art produced a winning collection of pet accessories, which will be made by Gaia&Gino. The Wild feeding bowl has the chiseled elan of a Rodin. A molded chew toy fits smartly over a table leg, protecting the furniture and delighting the dog.

Such small, welcome innovations can ease the stress points of modern life with only modest risk for a manufacturer. Unfortunately, when it comes to cars, the distance between innovation and marketplace is measured in generations.

The trans-Australia race that inspired Lovegrove started in 1987. The initial winner was a one-seater called Sunraycer, which was built in a burst of R&D by General Motors, Hughes Aircraft and the legendary Paul MacCready. Designers were euphoric when the vehicle finished 2 1/2 days before its nearest rival. Further research led to the development of the EV1 electric-powered car. That technology was recently abandoned in favor of hybrids.

Sunraycer was parked at the Smithsonian's American History Museum, where the exciting ambitions that created it can be honored and preserved.

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