03 Dec 2014

Grant Gibson on the mini cathedral car

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It might look whimsical but Dominic Wilcox's stained glass driverless sleeper car makes a serious point about the future of high-tech and handmade design

Usually this column is devoted to the practicality of products: Do they function? Are they priced correctly? Where do they sit in the market? Are they strictly necessary? Or are they just adding to the clutter of our lives? It is in some respects a reaction to the 'how to get the look' school of design writing or the simple, unquestioning regurgitation of press releases that litters much of the product design media.

However, for this month (and very possibly for this month only) we're taking a slightly different tack. Because when James the editor asked me if I'd seen anything interesting during the London Design Festival my answer was, yes, but not much of it was really suitable for onoffice. There were El Ultimo Grito's handmade inflatables, for instance, hanging from the ceiling of Earls Court 2 to create the auditorium for 100% Design's pretty convincing programme of talks and seminars. Not only could you see them from the moment you entered the hall, but they kept the noise of the exhibition out and the bon mots of the speakers in, while still making you feel that you were connected to the show. An excellent piece of work.

I also very much enjoyed Rosie Deegan's For a Man of Substance collection at an excellent exhibition entitled Elements of Craft at Mint's South Kensington showroom, which set about questioning gender stereotypes by creating a series of beautiful and deliberately non-functional tools – my particular favourite was an ornately decorated saw made from hand-pierced brass. However, the standout piece from the entire Festival in my view was at the Dezeen and MINI Frontiers installation at designjunction.

It might be tempting to dismiss Dominic Wilcox's Stained Glass Driverless Sleeper Car (or MINI Cathedral for short) as whimsy. And certainly, as with any Wilcox design, it has an arid dry sense of humour – the number plate on the front reads 'ZZZ' for instance – but actually it has some serious points to make about the future relationship between the hi-tech and the handmade.

If, as the designer surmises, we are being transported in driverless pods by the year 2059 then it makes sense that there will no longer be any collisions. And if accidents are consigned to the past then manufacturers no longer need to concern themselves with the slew of safety features – think airbags and crumple zones – that make up the contemporary car. This in turn will free designers to use a variety of materials and techniques that currently aren't available to them.

The idea for stained glass came to Wilcox when he returned to his native north east and visited Durham Cathedral, where he found himself staring at the windows. "I really liked just looking at them," he tells me. "And I thought: 'Why don't we see stained glass in contemporary design?'"

It's a fascinating notion and one that suggests craft will retain a vital role even as the world becomes evermore digital. In other words, the choice between technology and handmaking needn't be binary. In fact it may be that scientific and engineering advances could open new and hitherto unthought of doors to the handmade – the example of glass artist Matt Durran who is currently working with the Royal Free Hospital to create glass moulds on which human tissue can be grown to create new noses being just the tip of an expanding iceberg.

As Wilcox says: "There's a sci-fi vision of the future where everything is super-slick, polished and clean but I actually think that people are going to become more and more interested in and attracted to the handmade. The technology is there and it's going to be all-consuming but I think it's human nature to want to be in contact with people and handmade objects." Which brokers no argument from me. Far from being a whimsical one-liner, it seems to me that Wilcox's car is a valuable insight into our potential future, one where we'll require skills both new and old.

Next month I'll return to discussing products you can actually buy, I promise. In the meantime, it's definitely worth checking out Wilcox's new book Variation on Normal which is available in hardback from Square Peg for £10 and provides a whistle-stop tour of a genuinely original mind.

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