It may seem like a paradox. The very epitome of light design comes from a part of the world that spend half the year in darkness and the other half in intensive light. Scandinavian design – or more correctly Nordic design since Finland is actually not part of Scandinavia – is best characterised as simple, light and airy. It has been created by the same people who in the eyes of the world invented melancholy and lead emotional lives worthy an Ingmar Bergman drama.
One dedicate advocate of Scandinavian design is Mexican José Diaz de la Vega, creative director within Strategic Design at Volvo Cars and the visionary behind Volvo interiors for many years; a man who have seen the world and experienced a multitude of cultures throughout his career. This has given him a truly holistic view, not only in design but also in cultural and social matters. He does not agree with the prejudice:
"A Swede may not be as fiery as a Mexican, but nothing can be more wrong than the misconception of Sweden as the home of melancholy", says Diaz de la Vega. "If you understand the Scandinavian soul and spirit, it is easy to understand why elegant simplicity and functionality characterise both simple everyday things and objects d'art here".
He is also a strong believer in the importance of respecting the heritage of the company, the values that have developed over many years in the past. This is the very foundation on which the future is created.
"If there is a lack of respect for the past, there is also a lack of respect for what lies ahead. True heritage is too valuable to set aside. There are so many things to learn from it in order to cultivate and improve on what you are doing today and tomorrow", says Diaz de la Vega. "Without heritage, there is no future".
Dark skies, light design
Daylight may be scarce in Sweden but light materials are not. It is also in the materials that you will find some of the answers. Pine, oak and elm are all light-coloured wood. Although pine is soft and easy to work, the others are not. There are other light woods like birch, willow and juniper that are well suited for bending. Together they provide ample opportunities for beautiful objects, be it a table spoon or a chest of drawers.
Granite – the stone symbol of Sweden – is heavy but light in colour. So are polished steel and untanned leather. Inspiration has never been difficult to find for José Diaz de la Vega:
"The greater the distance, the larger the appreciation, maybe. The materials, shapes and objects that you meet every day and that are natural parts of your life may not be sufficiently appreciated. But for an outside observer they can appear totally outstanding. For me, with my background, I think I look at Swedish objects and Scandinavian design with a different perspective than my Swedish colleagues and can often see possibilities that are not as evident to them. That is what makes design so fascinating and illustrates the necessity of having an international team working on it".
Surrounded by inspiration
Inspiration in exterior and interior automotive design does not necessarily come from the automotive world. Great design is conceived within many different areas, the best designs are created by Nature itself, and with open senses there is plenty to inspire and trigger creativity, according to José Diaz de la Vegas.
His favourite sources of inspiration come from outside the automotive world. His absolute favourite is the riding saddle, especially if it is a well-used one with plenty of patina.
"Even if a saddle is man-made it is so close to a natural shape that it could almost be a living object. Every line, every curve is organic. And its use is organic too, just like the material. It is alive. I would like to keep one on my desk, but for practical reasons I have to go somewhere else to get a glance of inspiration. It may be my Mexican heritage," he says laughingly. "So on my desk I have to be content with a beautiful scale model of a riding saddle, and beside it lies the most technically advanced mobile telephone that is currently on the market. Contrasts, but with the same purpose".
In a way, the elegant and functional design of a riding saddle can also symbolise Scandinavian and Volvo design. Very few – if any – ornamentations, no unnecessary features; what is there is there because it is needed and has a function. The work radiates craftsmanship, with great respect for the materials and the ultimate user.
"Design is the integration of form, function and clothing," says José Diaz de la Vega. "The saddle sums it up, just like the interior of a Volvo car does. An object of functionality, yet elegant and simple in the best meaning of the word."
The creation of concept cars is vital to keep the design process alive for an automotive company and its designers. Inspiration and creativity were allowed to flow freely when José Diaz de la Vega led his team of designers in creating the VCC – Versatility Concept Car – the Volvo Cars vision of a future premium estate. The VCC was shown at the 2003 Geneva Motor Show.
Exterior styling drew on classic Volvo features such as the broad shoulders, soft nose and V-bonnet, a glass tailgate like that on the Volvo 1800ES and 480, but it also included a semi-transparent X-braced roof, vastly increasing the sense of space for the occupants.
The interior was even "wilder": four individual seats upholstered with genuine Swedish saddle leather and Nubuck decor. A floating ultra-thin aluminium centre console ran through the entire length of the interior, incorporating many of the driver controls plus storage possibilities for the rear seat passengers. In front of the console there was open space rather than a bulky piece of console panel.
The dashboard was simplicity at its best; totally uncluttered with clean lines and just a cluster for the gauges in front of the driver. And although being upholstered in dark leather, the whole car breathed air and light. Every detail was design with elegant simplicity and functionalism in mind. Environmental solutions for many functions played a major role. The VCC was a perfect example of Scandinavian design and thinking, in a Volvo interpretation.
"Yes, the VCC was wild in many ways. And it was the ultimate test bed for our new centre stack. We simply wanted to get a reaction from the industry, the media and the public," Diaz de la Vega recalls. "The reaction also turned out to be exactly what we wanted and we felt absolutely sure that the subsequent production version of the centre stack in the new S40 would be a hit, even a design revolution."
And so the inside story continued…