Interview: Aston Martin's Marek Reichman on engineering art
Aston Martin's Marek Reichman is a fascinating character in the hard-nosed world of the automotive industry, a rockstar designer who's been elevated to the position of Chief Creative Officer as well as an Executive Vice President of Aston Martin/Lagonda.
In my personal view, recent Astons like the DB11, the DBS Superleggera and even the slightly sacrilegious new Vantage, are among the best-looking cars on the road, striking a rare balance between the sporty and the classy, the showy and the understated, the beauty and the beast. Reichman isn't kidding when he says he doesn't let ugly out the door.
We've spoken to him in the past about his design approach to specific vehicles, but we managed to catch him in town for the (coronavirus-cancelled) Melbourne Formula One race last week, and I decided to take the opportunity to chat about where he came from as what he calls an "applied artist." What follows is an edited transcript.
Loz: You're an interesting guy. You don't speak like anyone else I've met from the car industry. You can speak the language of engineering, obviously, you spend half your day engaged in engineering and maths, but even in the way you talk, you're not from that world. You're from a different world.
I would say that I'm an applied artist. I apply my art to industry. It's very different to just being an artist or a sculptor where you're working to please yourself, or maybe one client something's been commissioned for. Applied artists apply their art to things that many people need to be impressed by.
I grew up in a very industrial town, Sheffield. I was fascinated by the process of making. My father was a blacksmith. I wanted to learn how things were made from an early age. I was the annoying kid that took things apart and tried to figure out does it have an internal shutline? Is it molded? Is it pressed? Is it formed? What's the little thing on the piece of plastic? Oh, it's the injection molding spur that gets snapped off. We don't do that anymore, but that's the process of making.
Loz: So that's sort of the left brain, the systematic, the logical.
I believe that only when we understand things in a truly systematic way, can you create and design. You understand the process inside out, and then you understand how you can fundamentally change something. You know how.
And it's so helpful when you have your communication with the engineers within any business, whether you're making phones or cars, you're working with an engineering team.
Loz: And some creatives almost need translators.
Yeah. You have to understand why the engineers want to do a certain thing, in order to push the boundary of what you want to do. You find a different way and collaborate, that's where the unusual and beautiful solutions come from. But if you don't understand, you're never going to get there.
That knowledge is so important as a creative, to fundamentally understand what it means to bend a piece of metal, form a piece of carbon, machine a solid billet of something. You start exploring cutting tool angles, and then it's like oh, can we use that like this? Can we slide it along there?
It helps your design, it helps you communicate within design, and I guess it means you can be faster and you can do more. Time is always our enemy; there's never enough time. But I seem to get more done the older I get, maybe I'm realizing that at some point it might all stop, so I just want to do as much as I can.
Loz: So tell me about the other side, the purely artistic side. What are your early memories of that? Or has it always been an integrated thing?
It's always been an integrated thing, but I've always been interested in certain forms of fine art. Sketching – I had a poster from an unusually early age, probably 11, of Goya's sketches. Goya was a Spanish artist, who used an incredibly thick pencil to sketch, and the sketches were so communicative of the emotion of what he was then going to paint. I loved to see that.
I love lead on rough paper sketching as my own form of art, but also very early on, I became influenced by sculptors. People like Henry Moore, Constantin Brancusi, the movement you get in a Brancusi piece. So, combining those two for me was perfection. Henry Moore sculptures are so sensual in their surface, but Brancusi is so dramatic, and doesn't have many clean, pure surfaces like a Henry Moore.
I went to the Royal College of Art in London as a Master's student, it's a two-year course, and some of the greatest artists in the world have been there. So I was then influenced by that world of art as well.
Loz: This is just after school?
The RCA was a Master's, but my first degrees were Industrial Design, then a Vehicle Design Master's. But just before Industrial Design, I decided to go and do an art foundation course. I wanted a year to explore. It was amazing. No summer break, three terms, each term split into two, and six disciplines over one year. Sculpture fine art, painting fine art, graphic design, industrial design, art history … at the end of it, you repeat one. I did sculpture twice and loved it.
I was torn. I love art, and the creation of art, but something inside me said I want to apply that to an industry. I want to be making. My father was a blacksmith and I saw him physically making things. At the time, in the late 70s and 80s, he was one of the only people in Yorkshire that could hand-forge tungsten steels. You have to have an exact color before you can forge it, so it doesn't become brittle, and he knew exactly the sound, the color.
Big Ben broke down, and my father made some of the parts they used to fix it. They'd make big chains for shipping … there was no machine for that, you'd have to hand-bend them. They were made to length and size, the wheels on the ship had a certain weight and size. So each chain was individually made for those ships. He would've made thousands of links.
Loz: If the car industry was to disappear, where else would you like to apply what you do?
I would love to be a film director. I think what we do when we create a car is we have a script, a storyline, which we then have to present as an object, or a form. We do that visually through photography, explanation, whatever.
I've been fortunate enough to watch Antoine Fuqua, who's creating the Infamous movie. I've been on set with him a few times because we have Vantage in the movie. Just watching how he works, understanding the process. It's all about angles, it's the same thing. Proportions, angles, cameras, what you're seeing, what the reaction is, how you create the excitement.
Source: Aston Martin