McLaren designer Frank Stephenson on what looks right: Motoramic Q&A
Frank Stephenson, 54, has had an enviable career designing cars, touring the world’s design studios working for Ford, BMW, Mini, Ferrari, Fiat, Maserati and lately McLaren. Credited with seminal modern designs like the Mini, the Fiat 500 and the BMW X5 crossover, he is most recently the man behind McLaren’s aerodynamic wonder, the P1 hypercar. Born in Morocco and raised for several of his high-schools years in the United States, Stephenson's globetrotting has given him a sharp eye for what looks right — and what goes wrong with so many designs today.
Jamie Kitman: What were the unique challenges that you faced with the P1? It seems like it gets ever harder to design a super car that doesn't look like every other one.
Frank Stephenson: It was a challenge. But in fact, you know, the Holy Grail is to try to find the design language that you need, especially with a company like McLaren. You’re not designing for a kit car company. This is a major player. Everybody in the design business I think strives to design a car or a product that is stunning to look at. So they go the usual way, which is to get inspired by sculptures, art and architecture, all that. And they try to take the influences of sensuality and turn something into beautiful.
What they don’t do and I haven't seen before is actually go the opposite way, which is really not to really try to design the car, just design it to be absolutely functional, and that in itself is a look and not necessarily beautiful in the conventional sense but beautiful because it performs like it does.
I love biomimicry and bringing in influences of nature….There’s hardly anything out there from nature that’s ugly.
So you take that as your inspiration, just sort of clothing the skeleton with minimal adornment. Less is actually no different than more, you can overload. And the right way is to know when to stop, almost not to look like you’re trying too hard. Trying too hard, anybody can do that.
JK: Like Lamborghini?
FS: Trying too hard.
JK: Why leave Ferrari to come to McLaren?
FS: Working at Ferrari, knowing that whatever I designed had to look like a Ferrari, it was kind of cool. Every kid’s dream would be to design a Ferrari. And when you’re in that position, you think it just doesn't get any better.
When they invited me to McLaren for the position, [as] design director, my first hesitancy was are we just going to do one car and wait another ten, fifteen years? No, we’re not. There’s a whole strategy behind it. We’re going to do three cars, a supercar, a sports car, and a hyper car, [plus] variants of all those. And you get to start the design language, a clean sheet of paper.