Committed: Industrial design and the batmobile
The current Batmobile as a simple product design is representative of many aspects of our society. The way any product created for mass production and use is designed tells us a great deal about the manufacturing techniques, natural resources, fashions, aesthetics, politics, values, hopes, and fears of a society. Good fictional product design in films can do so to an even greater level, since it doesn’t actually need to be functional in the real world. If fictional products don’t emulate these values they risk becoming incongruous and ruining the context of a film.
Because my parents are cooler than me (true story; if you’re too cool, your kids rebel by becoming super-boring and are consigned to a life of safety and contentment. You’d best try being boring now before they figure you out.)… Anyway, because my parents are cooler than me, my mum just explained that Bauhaus wasn’t simply a movement about art and furniture, but at it’s core was a group of crazy, free-love hippies (I’m pretty sure those were her words, but I could be paraphrasing here). They meditated and cleansed themselves, so that they could produce art and furniture from this free and unfettered mindset. She told me that this experiment in communal living was happening in the early 1900’s, and it wasn’t really until the 20’s and 30’s that the furniture design we know became popular. But it wasn’t long after that the Nazi’s decided that free-love, meditation advocating furniture designers weren’t quite how they wanted the uber-race to be represented. At this time a lot of them escaped to America where they set about transforming American design to the fantastic legacy we have today.
This is all a very roundabout way to talk about industrial product design and the newest Batmobile. Overtly, it might seem disconnected from Bauhaus, and particularly to my mum’s odd potted history of them. But in actuality, as a form of product design, it is fantastically representative of many aspects of our society. Most car design is forced to consider many moving parts:, The practicalities of the design must be considered, the functionality, the usability, the desirability to consumers, marketability, how it will wear, and even how it will degrade once it is junked are just a few of the considerations which affect the design of a product in the real world.
Objects design for science fiction films has long been an area of fascination to me because none of the above considerations must be met. However it is essential that those considerations appear to have been met so that the products will evoke a believable futuristic society. In fact, the designer has to not only appear to have considered all of the usual market forces, but the designer also has to guess at what those future market forces will be, and then appear to design for them. The objects we use every day are so invisible to us, they simply do the job required, whether it is a mug to hold a hot drink or transportation device. I’ve always noticed when science fiction movies and TV shows use current products, since the contemporary objects cannot help but speak to our current times. For example, I was acutely aware of the Philippe Starck stools they used in Star Trek Voyager (by then, they would be antiques, why would they use a plastic antique on a spaceship?) or the Allessi tea cups used in… well nearly every science fiction show or film in the last 20 years. If you watch the documentary Dangerous Days, which is in the Blade Runner DVD box set) there is an anecdote about a production assistant questioning why Ridley Scott would need dozens of cups to choose from for the interrogation scene, he’s told not to ask why, but to go and get a lot more cups. There’s a reason why Blade Runner really looks like it is set in the future, even now, and a large part of that has to be the fact that nearly everything was created especially for the film, from magazines to parking meters. The mundane objects in these fictitious futures provide the unspoken visual signposts which tell us what the priorities of the future society depicted are.
Conversely, superhero films aren’t usually intended to be set in a futuristic society. Now more than ever, they represent an odd hybrid of science fiction and regular culture, as an extraordinary element is given more credence by being couched in our recognizable, ordinary world. Something extraordinary like a superhero cannot really exist, but by creating a believable, familiar environment, we’re encouraged to believe that it is possible. The recent Batmobile is a perfect example of the very specific skills required to design a futuristic, fantasy vehicle which could exist in our current society. It is the kind of product design which can very cleverly make us believe in something we might otherwise dismiss out of hand. This was never so obvious as in the recent Batman film The Dark Knight Rises, where the unpainted Batmobiles or Tumblers patrolled Gotham en masse. While they looked large, imposing and violent, they also looked plausible, which is quite a feat.
The Tumblers are brutally functional in their appearance. I say appearance because legitimately, it isn’t really necessary to be the shape and structure they are, this was a design design. It implies a kind of sparse, exoskeleton, with potential to baffle detection devices with the baffling of the external tiling. By removing and curves of any kind, a sort of brutalist fantasy is enacted, reinforcing the contemporary, military styling of the armoring. In many ways, it has a look of the late cubist painters, with tricks of perspective hidden in the layering.
Worlds away from all of this practiced, utilitarian, non-design are the sweeping lines of previous Batman film cars. It is possible that the current Batmobile is all straight lines specifically to set it as far apart as possible from Tim Burton’s all-curves all-the-time Batmobile. With Burton’s version, there are some obvious nods to classic cars of the ’40’s (and possibly to the era that spawned Batman) and Tim Burton’s now-familiar design aesthetic (i.e. his gothically psychedelic approach to horror.) But this look is predominantly something that was fashionable in the late ’80’s, when the ’40’s were a huge influence in all aspects of design and culture.
Twenty odd years later we’re influenced by the clean surfaces and sharp corners of product designs of the late ’70’s, when square, clean lines, and the unadorned were huge in product design. Naturally Dieter Rams’ work for Braun is the most obvious examples of how quickly this became predominant, but it wasn’t just a designer creating this change, it was all of society; our needs, our technological capabilities, and our ideas about what and how our products should do for us. But there is an additional influence, which has something to do with the birth of computer-aided design, when we’ve become mistrustful of the overly polished design aesthetic. We embrace a “function-over-form” design ethos as we design things to look undesigned. It sounds like an amusing sort of design oxymoron, but this is what the current fad is – people trust non-designed designs more, so we have to try to design things which look less designed. Sort of like a 13 year old at a party, trying desperately hard to appear to be bored and disinterested, all the while failing to do so by trying so hard to be seen to do so (if that makes any sense, and I can understand if it doesn’t.) It’s tricky as hell, but I think the current Batmobile is doing a fantastic job representing our current non-designed design aesthetics for future anthropologists to decipher.