A generation ago, we lost the Future. For over a century, a better, more functional, more equitable, and technologically cooler place was tantalizingly just out of reach, but certain to become today, soon. Snapshots of the Future arrived as drawings and models created by designers and artists in tune with the new, and beyond the new to the currently impossible. Anything we could dream was possible, and it was just a matter of time before it became everyday.

The Colani motorcycle design study of 1973

The recent Age of Irony took a scant view of the Future’s unbridled optimism; forward-looking, visionary projects, from architecture and urban planning to product and technology design, had shown a fundamental flaw in the Future, a deep contradiction within its gleaming heart; the Future was not for everyone. Or, if it was planned for everyone, these envisioned socialist utopias smelled totalitarian, and had proved, when actually built, to be failures on a grand scale.

The MRD-1 before the record attempt; the rider (21 year old Urs Wenger, an Egli employee) carried his own streamlining, harking back to 1920s efforts to cheat the wind…

The tall housing projects with surrounding parkland, so geometrically beautiful in Le Corbusier’s ‘Plan Voison for Paris’, had been built on a smaller scale in New York and Paris, and by the 1970s had become dangerous slums. Critic Jane Jacobs rightly assailed such out-of-touch and un-human urban planning, and her influential analysis of what makes cities healthy was groin-kick to Future planning. Whether homespun like Frank Lloyd Wright, socialist like Corbusier, or outright fascist like Antonio Sant’Elia, rigorous urban planning looked bitterly dystopian by the 1980s – we had seen the Future; it wore jackboots, and  didn’t age well.

A portrait of Luigi Colani in his heyday

Luigi Colani is an old-school future-dreamer, the type of hyperconfident character whom skeptics disregarded during the ironic 1980s. His career as an industrial designer began in 1953, at the special projects division of McDonnell-Douglas aircraft, after studying aerodynamics at the Collége de Sorbonne. During the late 1950s and early 60s, he worked with several Italian auto makers (Fiat, Alfa Romeo, etc), creating special bodies and winning design awards.

The RFB ‘Fanliner’ of 1977; powered by a Wankel engine (an ideal aircraft engine, now used extensively in RQ-7 Shadow ‘Drone’ aircraft by the US military…which are powered by Norton engines! UAV Engines was spun off from Norton, with David Garside leaving motorcycles to continue developing the Wankel motor he designed for BSA, then Norton. His engine won the British F1 championship, the Isle of Man TT, and now patrols the skies in the Middle East…)

By the 1970s he was famous for his increasingly outrageous organic shapes, which he calls ‘biodynamic’, in imitation of Nature’s graceful forms, and designed products ranging from tea sets and cutlery to heavy articulated trucks and aircraft. “Soft shapes follow us through life. Nature does not make angles. Hips and bellies and breasts — all the best designers have to do with erotic shapes and fluidity of form.”

Erotic, feminine forms applied to wheeled vehicles…a design study for a motorcycle

Feeling underappreciated in Europe, he relocated to Japan in 1982, and flourished, producing both ‘improbable’ designs for vehicles, and very up-to-date products, including the first ‘ear buds’ for Sony (1989…long before the iPod), and the first ergonomic body for a camera (the Canon T90 of ’86), along with uniforms for SwissAir and the German police. Among his many transportation projects, Colani has long dabbled with motorcycle design, from sculptural shape-studies to creative bodywork over incredible machines, most notably the Münch Mammut and Egli-Kawasaki – an incredible turbocharged fire-breather with 320hp, which set the 10km flying-start speed record in 1986.

The Colani-Münch of 1972

Colani doesn’t consider himself a designer; “I am a three-dimensional philosopher of the future.” With the necessary combination of third-person egotism and unbridled imagination, Colani developed from an industrial design innovator to a full-blown psychedelic guru of flowing organic shapes for every application. While he sounds ripe for ironist derision, Colani’s work is enjoying a resurgence after a long period of embarrassed silence from industrial designers.

A rare shot of Yamaha/Colani prototype, the ‘Alula’ of 1980

After decades of developing, envisioning, and championing flowing organic shapes, the Future has finally caught up with Colani, and he is enjoying another day in the sun. The practical development of computer 3D modeling, and more recently the rise of rapid prototyping systems, has given ‘Colani’s children’ – Zaha Hadid, Ross Lovegrove, and the new generation of organic-shape disciples – the kind of real-world relevance unthinkable in the 1960s and 70s, when Colani’s work seemed utterly fanciful, even self-indulgent. Now superwealthy backers and attention-hungry governments actually build structures which seemed impossible a mere 20 years ago. Colani’s future has arrived.

An articulated truck study…
The Colani-Egli MRD-1 produced 320hp from its turbocharged, nitrous-breathing engine, and broke the World Land Speed Record for 10km from a standing start, at 170.26mph (272.41kmh); his top speed was 330kmh (198mph). The record was previously held by the Honda ELF, with full Works support of rider Ron Haslam (265.4kmh).
Colani’s organic shapes for Canon T90 cameras won awards for ergonomic utility
The Colani-Egli MRD-1 of 1986, a turbocharged Kawasaki Z-1 1428cc engine in an Egli chassis, with Colani-designed bodywork
The MRD-1’s backside; muscular!

 

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