Not Robert Cumberford

viacelli design Logo

A failed car designer tries to make sense of a flat design world.

The car search begins…

Navigating the European car scene.

To those who might not have heard the news yet, a few weeks ago my wife, 8-month old daughter, and I packed up our things, sold our house, and moved to The Netherlands. That’s a dramatic life change, coming on the heels of our first child last April, but one that we both have been desperately seeking for quite some time. My wife Mary was the one who managed to make it happen, with a lucky web forum post and a skillset that perfectly matched a Dutch company’s needs, but I was not only happy to follow, I was thrilled at the opportunity.

For me, living in Europe isn’t a novelty. I spent a year of High School as an exchange student in Italy and did all of my University studies around Europe (Switzerland, France, Italy), holding a diploma from a school in Paris (whose name shall remain unspoken due to a pathetic and continuous downward spiral since). I didn’t leave the continent willingly either. I was unable to find a job as a car designer and lost my visa, pure and simple. Hadn’t managed to get back (to live) since.

But despite my previous multiple years of residency in Europe, I have never really lived here. As a student, I never had the money or time to enjoy the things that I coveted so much. The food, wine, and cars remained largely objects of desire, and only when I’ve visited have I really had a chance to sample them first hand. For better or worse, that’s all different this time around.

And the first order of business? Buy a car (well, technically it’s “wait for the visa to come through and get a bank account”, but I’m not going to go into that here). My Peugeot short-term lease car goes back in just 2 short weeks (unless I choose to extend it), and it’s becoming apparent that our current apartment just isn’t as public-transport friendly as we’d hoped. We really need a car to get around here, especially in the winter months with a little baby. Bikes are nice and all, but you can’t take a baby on a bike to the airport to pick up your mother-in-law and her three oversized American suitcases.

So what to get? The options here are endless and fascinating. There are entire segments of vehicle in Europe that don’t exist in the US, as well as dozens of brands (or, at least one dozen). As a true gearhead, and a former car designer, my simple goal is to buy a car that is not sold in the US, fulfills all the needs of our little family in our little Dutch town, and is either fun to drive or quirky enough to not be (something French, for example).

But the options are staggering. Under €20,000 is my target price. That’s not bad, but quite limiting actually. First of all, 20K Euro is roughly equal to 27K USD, but add on top of that the painfully high taxes the Dutch government slams on car buyers, and all of the sudden things are tighter than they seem. That said, there are still tons of options, new and used, to look at. A 4-year old Alfa? A brand new Fiat? A year-old Citroen? A Skoda or Dacia or Opel?

So I’m putting the first round out to the readers. Drop me a comment and let me know what you think I should buy. Keep in mind the requirements of a young family with a 9-month old, city living, and only the occasional road trip to southern France or the Nurburgring. Tell me what you’d like to see me test drive, what you’ve read about and never dared consider, or why I’m being a dope for not just buying a German car outright.

Help me make sense of the European family car landscape, and I’ll do my best to document the process.

Peugeot Partner Tepee – First Impressions

Peugeot Partner Tepee in the Snow

Peugeot Partner Tepee rests in Switzerland before the long ride north.

As I stepped out the customs line in Zurich, I immediately heard it over the loudspeaker, “Mr. Andrew Meehan, please come to the information desk”. Regardless of how this car would turn out, it seemed that the drop off would be one of the most seamless and efficient things I’d every experienced. What I would be picking up, however, would need to prove itself. The Peugeot Partner Tepee isn’t just a car with a silly name. It’s a silly car with a silly name.

Based on the “popular with the plumbing crowd” Peugeot Partner panel van, the Tepee is a consumer version marketed as a low-cost, high-versatility minivan for families on a budget. What you’re likely to notice first, however, is just how hideously ugly and awkward this car is – and how, in white, you will likely be mistaken for a local tradesman everywhere you go in Europe. But its utilitarian background has the benefit of ensuring this “car” will be incredibly practical. Taller than it is wide, the Partner Tepee has huge windows and a tailgate that’s closer in size to a barn door than a traditional hatch. The huge cargo area immediately showed its worth as we crammed our little van to the gills with our oversized American suitcases (enough for a permanent move to Europe), with 5 fitting easily in the trunk area under the cargo cover. What I also realized is that the big stroller we’d brought along might not so easily fit back there, and I might need to utilize one of the Partner’s biggest assets – the easy-fold seat. As I had seen on the introduction video online, the rear seat quickly folded up and out of the way (a la Honda Fit) and the stroller easily was on board (unfortunately, the fold-down button broke just as easily when I put the seat back up later). The floor being higher than average, loading was easy and back-injury free.

The high load floor means the driving position is somewhat like sitting on a bar stool with a steering wheel in your lap, but it wasn’t uncomfortable on the hour-long drive. The adjustments seem quite limited, but I haven’t had much chance to further inspect the layout to see if maybe there’s something else hidden deep within the slightly confusing French ergonomics. Once out of the airport (and fueled up with diesel for the long trip to come), the 90bhp diesel engine surprised me with admirable low-end grunt, and although it quickly became a bit rough and noisy at highway speeds, it had no problems keeping up with Swiss highway traffic. So far, I’m pretty indifferent to my Partner Tepee. It’s tall, ugly, and strange, but has enough personality and ”Frenchness” to possibly convert me. There will lots more driving to come, and many more bags to carry in the month I have the car.

Check back soon for more updates from the Tepee.

A Walk in the Snow

A major storm this past weekend dumped upwards of 20 inches of snow on Philadelphia for the second time this winter, causing major disruptions and cancellations for everyone. Despite this, the timing and absolutely gorgeous weather that followed the storm urged my wife and I to take a little walk around the neighborhood to take in the sunshine.

It was such a perfect day that I wanted to record a video of our little adventure as a memory (my wife is 7 months pregnant), but we don’t own a video camera or even a decent point and shoot with video capabilities. Instead, I decided to use my Canon EOS Rebel XSi DSLR to take the video. Only problem? It doesn’t do video. So I decided to do the whole thing as a stop-motion film, taking more than 1200 still photos and arranging them into the little video you see here. I just dropped them into iMovieHD (yes, the OLD version) and then added the titles in Photoshop Extended (yes, Photoshop does video quite well, thank you). The result is the little 4-minute video you see here.

To get the full effect of using an DSLR to shoot video (which many, or most even, are now capable of), jump on over to YouTube and check it out in full 720p HD.

How Ford’s getting it right with the Fiesta launch.

Ok, I’ve been critical in this blog and on Twitter for a while now about what I perceive as Ford’s missed opportunity with the Fiesta Movement. I’ve said that they dragged their feet too long with the US-spec car and lost their momentum. I’ve said they put too much chrome on the US-spec car (I stand behind that), and I’ve said that what seemed like a brilliant and bold new-media marketing campaign might wither and die before the car had a chance to make it to market. A few things that have happened this week are starting to change my mind.

The first thing, and possibly most exciting, is that I received a call from the agency running Ford’s Fiesta Movement Part Deux telling me that my wife and I are in the running for it. I had breathlessly submitted an application about a month ago and promptly forgotten about it as everyone said that Ford was looking for younger “Agents”, so two thirty-something professionals who are about to have a baby wouldn’t really have a chance. I disagreed, and apparently so did the folks running the show, who think it could be cool. I hope so. I can only tell them that it would be an incredible opportunity to show the world that a tiny (by American standards) hatchback can make a great urban family car. I’ve been yelling it from the rooftops for years, so this would be my chance to walk the walk. The fact that both my wife and I are in design and marketing and that’s the crux of this “Movement” just adds to the excitement. Philly’s ad campaign for the Fiesta, designed by me for those people I think would love the car? Yes sir, that would be sweeter than pie.

The second thing is much less personally relevant, but something that I consider quite interesting. Amateur rally driver and DC shoes co-founder Ken “don’t call me Corky” Block and his flat-billed Monster Energy hat will be the first American ever to drive in the World Rally Championship next year, in, you guessed it, a Ford. Although he won’t won’t be driving a Fiesta in WRC (the Euro-spec Focus fills that role), he will be driving one in the X-games and, one can assume, in his next mega-viral, super-linktastic gymkhana video on YouTube (if you haven’t seen the first one, stop here, go to this link, and enjoy). Even though this development is a small one in the scheme of launching a new car, it shows me that someone at Ford might just “get” the position of the Fiesta after all. A cool hatchback that’s fun to drive and appeals to a niche segment of young urban drivers.

These two pieces of news give me hope for Ford’s small car. It might not be doomed by its own marketing, as has happened so many times before with small American cars (in a wonderfully self-fulfilling way for the manufacturers). If I get my hands on one for the next stage in the Fiesta Movement, well, I’ll be doing everything I can to make sure people know and understand, why I want this car so much and what I’ve been clamoring about for so long.

All I need now is that call back telling me we’re in. Don’t let me down Ford. I’ve been yelling for years about how the US needs good, fun, hatchbacks, please give me the forum and the megaphone to speak to a larger audience.

What I think we’ll see from Fiat/Chrysler tomorrow.

Ok, so this is really just a repeat of my Jalopnik comments from last week, but I wanted a chance to reiterate in public what I see as the clear vision for where FIAT and Sergio Marchionne are planning on taking Chrysler in Wednesday’s announcement. I may be completely wrong, but that’s what blogs nobody reads are for.

It’s already been leaked which cars are coming over from Italy and what cars are being killed, and based on that breakdown, here’s how I see things shaking out. Honestly, if it plays out at all like this, I’m kind of excited by it.

Chrysler: Bigger/American traditional. 300C, Minivans, probably a new larger sedan (maybe Alfa 166 based) to replace the appalling Sebring. 500 will be badged a Fiat or an Abarth, so even though it will sit next to them on the showroom floor, it won’t really figure into the overall image.

Possible cross-branding or cross-pollinating with Lancia for additional volume savings.

Dodge: Sporty retro Americana. What Pontiac should’ve been instead of killed. Muscle cars, V8s, agressive styling. Nothing Italian in sight. The hardcore American product that the “heartland” can get behind.

Ram: Trucks, man. By separating out the trucks à la GMC, Chrysler gains a truck division with some instant credibility and maybe some sales in Europe.

Jeep: Real Jeeps. Not the soft-roader crap they’ve been pushing recently. Very much like an affordable Land Rover alternative. I see them bringing Jeep back to Europe so they don’t have to muddle Alfa Romeo’s brand with SUVs.

Alfa Romeo: Affordable small sporty cars. VW/Audi killer. 3 hatchbacks and a small sedan doesn’t say luxury. I think they don’t want to overlap with Dodge here, so they’re staying small.

That’s how I see it, and it makes a lot of sense. I think that we’re likely to see Chrysler/500/Jeep dealers, Dodge/Ram dealers and probably separate Alfa Romeo dealerships. And I’ll be waiting when the doors open to get my piece of the Marchionne pie.

Is the design world waiting for Apple’s next move?

Image courtesy Gizmodo

Image courtesy Gizmodo

I’ve been watching Apple’s design for a long time. Besides being the products that I personally choose to interact with the world on (desktop/laptop/phone), they have obviously been trend-setters in industrial and consumer electronics design since possibly the launch of the original transparent iMac in 1998. And although I love their products for many reasons, I have been concerned that they have not made a major leap in design language in the past 5 years or so (read my original article “Has Apple design lost the plot” from 2006). Interestingly, it seems to me that nobody else has stepped up to the plate in that regard either, and I find that leads me to an even bigger question: is Apple the only major consumer electronics manufacturer willing to take a risk on design?

I don’t actually have an answer to that, and you could argue that even Apple isn’t taking risks anymore, but I find the question fascinating. There are some attractive mobile devices and consumer electronics out there right now, but nothing that I would consider groundbreaking has happened in a long time. I haven’t personally been inspired by the design of anything in years.

I think design has become universally better in the past decade, with a real design “dog” very rare these days compared to those of years past. Mobile devices and laptops are leading the way, but most of the designs are still derivative. Sure, a Dell or HP laptop that looks more like a MacBook Air is a step in the right direction, but why the hesitation to move forward, to take a chance, and explore new materials? I think public perception and appreciation of design is at an all-time high, especially in the US (which has lagged behind the rest of the developed world for the better part of the last half-century), and a bold design could be a real differentiator for someone looking to make their mark in the industry. So are the designers being timid? Is it management? Maybe it’s just because nobody wants to take a risk in a down economy? Or maybe, just maybe, everybody’s waiting for someone else to show them the next big thing. A sort of “you go first. No, you go” conversation between companies. Maybe everyone else is so scared that Apple will suddenly change the design game on them (as they have many times before), that they don’t want to step to the front of the line for fear of walking a plank of their own making (Motorola).

Well, I’m here to say that I’m waiting, and watching, for signs of life from the design community. To my surprise, I see a glimmer of hope from the auto industry, who out of desperation seem to be taking more risks than they have in the past 25 years (Buick Lacrosse, Nissan Cube, or even the Kia Soul showing signs of life), but I haven’t seen anything, from anyone, that says to me “we trust our designers and we’re going for it”. And I find that sad.

A sign of the times? Maybe. But if everyone else is watching Apple, maybe they’re just missing the point. Apple got where it is by breaking out and setting the trends. By being the leader. If they’ve become a bit complacent, maybe it’s time for someone else to take up the mantle of design leader. They’re begging to be taken down by a bold competitor, but it seems that everyone is too scared to make the first move.

Have a design that you think breaks the trend? Think I’m way off base? Think I’m just a Jonny Ive fanboy who should shut up and buy a sweet Dell? Let me know in the comments!

Is Ford about to drop the ball on Fiesta Movement?

I’ve been following Ford’s Fiesta Movement from the beginning. In fact, not only did I consider putting my name in the hat to participate, I was already directly or indirectly following several of the final 100 chosen via blogs or Twitter. For me, Fiesta Movement was not about raising awareness of the car, but rather a test of whether a fun-to-drive European hatchback could really become cool in the US — something automakers have been telling us for years was impossible and that a vocal minority have been saying was not only possible, but already a reality.

I have been at the front of that vocal minority for years. Upon returning home to the US after years lived in Europe in the ’90s, I couldn’t believe that the US car market had such a horrible void at its bottom end. The small, cheap and clever cars that Europe adores were simply missing over here, and the argument seemed to be that automakers couldn’t make enough profit from them and that, quite frankly, nobody wanted them anyway. I did, and still do, and I know others do too. I’ve walked the walk too, owning both a VW Golf and a MINI Cooper in the past decade. And now I’m looking to buy a new car.

The Fiesta instantly jumped to the top of my list based on the positive reviews that it’s received in Europe and in recent tests on US websites. I want a 5-door hatch that is small, fun to drive, and, yes, looks cool (I’m still a designer, you know). And I’m looking to spend around $15K on it. And here is where Ford’s problems start. They have been very vague about everything to do with the US Fiesta. When will it arrive? How much will it cost? Will they put some horrible higher-powered but inefficient and unfun engine in it or maintain the Euro spec? Will they tweak the styling for “American taste” (meaning, the complete lack of taste, if the current Focus is any indicator). We just don’t know. And there is real-world competition for it, on the ground, in the US, right now.

The Honda Fit has been a huge success since it arrived a few years ago if my neighborhood in Philadelphia is any indication. It’s small, clever and a pretty decent drive. It’s almost the exact same size as the Fiesta but vastly more useful. Its got those flippy seats and a flappy-paddle gearbox and the new model even looks pretty good. A Euro-spec Fiesta bests it in driving pleasure, I hear. The Fiesta also looks better — if they keep it the way it is. And maybe it will be cheaper? Yeah, we don’t know that either. Ford’s been extremely tight-lipped on the subject. Which leads me to one conclusion: it doesn’t matter how much goodwill and interest has been generated by Fiesta Movement if buyers can’t put numbers and dates and specs on their shopping list.

I probably won’t be buying one. In a buyer’s market, a new Honda Fit, Kia Soul, Nissan Cube or even a VW Rabbit or Mazda 3 is potentially competitive. In the current used market, the sky’s the limit. If the Fiesta’s arrival is imminent, I might wait, but a recent Ford press release says “More than nine months before the 2011 Ford Fiesta goes on sale in North America”. Nine months? How will they keep up the excitement for that long? Who’s going to wait nine months in the small-car space for a mysterious car that you can’t compare, spec or price? I won’t, and I blame Ford. Hopefully this won’t doom the Fiesta upon its arrival, but with Mazda readying the 2 and Fiat importing the 500, I think Ford is wasting its opportunity to get on buyers’ shopping lists.

But if you want to do a second round of Fiesta Movement, give me a call. If the car’s as good as you say it is, having it sit in my driveway next to a Fit should be the perfect way to show off everything that’s good about it.

SketchBook Pro goes mobile

I’ve been playing with it for months on my iPhone, but now it’s gone public – Autodesk’s Sketchbook Mobile is coming to the app store. A fantastic addition to the digital designer’s workflow, this is the drawing app you’ve been waiting for if you’re a professional designer or digital artist.

Check out Carl Alviani’s article about it on Core77, and I’ll be putting up my impressions soon.

Autodesk releases me

Autodesk sent out a press release yesterday about all the love it’s getting in the Mac community, and guess what? They quoted me. As “a creator of iconic technical illustrations”

Nice. Thanks Autodesk.

Abruzzo nel cuore.

With everything that’s been happening in Abruzzo recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about Teramo. I have lots of friends I made when I lived there that I still keep in touch with through Facebook, and I spoke to my cousins after the earthquake to make sure everyone was ok (they are, even the ones who live in L’Aquila). All of the Italian community in Philly has been asking what they can do to help, and I haven’t had an answer.

I still don’t, but I saw today that Abruzzese Formula 1 driver Jarno Trulli has started a charity, supported by the F1 community, to help out the quake victims, called Abruzzo Nel Cuore (Abruzzo in our hearts). It’s written on the side of Ferrari’s cars for the race in China today and there’s a website where you can donate directly to his charity. Pretty cool way to help out. And it made me think.

Abruzzo is in my heart, all the time. My year there shaped who I am today, molded my personality, and taught me about art, so I thought I’d do a little sketch of Teramo to show that we’re all thinking about them and we’re here to help however we can. I encourage other artists who have been inspired by the region to do the same thing and hopefully we can keep Abruzzo in our hearts, and in the public awareness, until the people of L’Aquila and the other towns affected by the quake have gotten back on their feet.