Short, Stubby, Sexy

The little green car nosed its way into the concrete lobby of the Graduate School of Design in late January. At Harvard for a two-month visit to celebrate design excellence, "O21C" (named for its original, brilliant-orange paint job) worked its magic on countless admirers, filling them with desire. Woe to the lust inflamed—they'd get no satisfaction: the little green heartthrob was not for sale.

prototype/model of a very cute, colorful Jetson-esque and retro automobile

Photograph by Jim Harrison

The car, the only one of its kind in the world, was commissioned by J Mays, designer of Volkswagen's New Beetle and the 2002 Ford Thunderbird. At a ceremony on February 20, the Design School honored Mays with its 2002 Excellence in Design Award, established in 1997 to "broaden the school's involvement with disciplines of the greater design community not formally represented" in its three main departments: architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning and design.

Exhibit co-curator and assistant professor of architecture Joseph MacDonald says that there has been an "accelerated blurring between design disciplines recently as a result of emerging technologies, and the school wants to acknowledge and foster alliances in that climate of connectivity." Mays himself reached out to tap Australian Marc Swenson, a designer of furniture, glassware, and restaurant interiors, to create O21C, for example. Built in 1999, the car, which Mays (now the head of global design for Ford Motor Company) has characterized as "more George Jetson than Georg Jensen," went on to appear at the 2000 Milan Furniture Fair (where it acquired its present green color). "That Ford would be present at a furniture show, how strange is that?" asks MacDonald.

Architects can learn from designers like Mays to "reflect and participate in contemporary culture in a meaningful way," MacDonald says. "We're less interested in the product than in the working method." Mays's design process, says MacDonald, begins with a design vocabulary that captures the essence of an era as expressed in the common language of pop culture: text, images, film, and music. The words for the New Beetle, for example, are "simple, reliable, honest." His own work in three words? "Lust, longing, and desire," says Mays. That George Jetson could be sexy, who knew?


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