Less is more.
Iconic fashion designer Paul Smith and MINI chief designer Oliver Heilmer collaborated on the one-off MINI Strip. A conversation about confident design, the beauty of scratch marks and why cork is the new chrome.
Paul Smith did not only design the MINI Strip, but also gave the layout of the interview a special touch. The handwritten notes in orange are by the designer himself.
Paul, can you describe the MINI Strip in just three words?
PAUL SMITH: Less is more.
And you, Oliver? Which three words come to mind?
OLIVER HEILMER: Raw, refreshing, original.
Would they describe Paul Smith, too?
OLIVER: My wife put it aptly after getting to know him: “What a down-to-earth gentleman”, she said. I would only add that he’s an exceptionally curious gentleman, as well.
How does that curiosity express itself?
OLIVER: Paul asked a lot of rather unusual questions.
PAUL: That’s because I know nothing about cars. I’m a fashion designer. But I am inquisitive, like a child. And my naivety gives me a certain freedom. So I asked quite frankly: I can see every screw on my bicycles, why not on a car? Many of my young employees love sport climbing – why aren’t door handles made of practical climbing ropes? Oliver must have initially thought: this guy is mad.
OLIVER: It’s true that my team couldn’t help smiling at some of his ideas, but Paul also gave us a fresh perspective on our work. We also started questioning things, and we even implemented some of Paul’s crazy ideas – such as the door handles and the bare screws.
Your MINI is characterized – quite literally – by its minimalism. Instead of paint, all it has is an anti-corro- sive coating, and the dashboard has almost no instru- ments. The MINI Strip may not be entirely naked, but it seems only half-dressed. Would you agree that it takes a lot of confidence to come up with a model like that?
PAUL: The product designer Dieter Rams once said “less, but better.” That also applies to most of my work. At the beginning of my career I designed a white shirt. To make such a simple piece of clothing seemed unambitious, especially for a young designer. But the collar was soft instead stiff, which was usual at the time, and the seams were barely visible. The cut was voluminous and it was made of a special cotton fabric. In that respect, the shirt was innovative and new. And true, it does takes courage to design simplicity.
OLIVER: Even more so in a noisy and complex world. Automotive design today often wants to be complicated, wants to give everything a playful shape, a special design. I often ask myself: is this necessary, why don’t we leave things as they are? I think that keeping things simple is a mark of self-confidence.
After you presented the MINI Strip at the IAA Motor Show in Munich, the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper wrote: “Less car is virtually impossible – how beautiful.” Were you pleased by that comment?
OLIVER: As a young designer, you want to change the world. But I’ve been in the business for more than twenty years and have become more relaxed over time. What is really necessary? That’s the question that guides my work today. And yes, the MINI Strip project takes this idea to the next level. At the very beginning, I asked Paul what he wanted this car to be able to do, and he said: I want it to roll.
PAUL: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Today we are constantly bombarded with information. We can’t avoid constantly comparing ourselves, and what we do, with others. This creates a lot of pressure because as a designer you want to – or have to – conform to constantly changing ideals. But this can also create a terrible uniformity where much is streamlined.
Not so with the MINI Strip. You’ve even left the production marks on the car body.
OLIVER: When the Oxford MINI plant delivered the body to Munich, the technicians said: Let’s get rid of the scratches and marks, then. And I said: No, please don’t! We don’t want to hide that. It’s now one of the details that I like best. We kind of broke the unwritten law that even small cars have to be shiny, polished luxury products.
PAUL: What does luxury mean, anyway? Is it a cashmere sweater? Or expensive jewellery? For me, luxury is walking through a field of poppies. And for me, the most important thing about this MINI is its functionality. Moreover, we also like imperfections in fashion: take jeans that are bleached, roughened, patched or have holes. And what feels unfamiliar at first can, over time, become even more comfortable and likeable.
About Paul Smith
Born in Notthingham, England, in 1946, Smith worked as a buyer and boutique manager before opening his own business in 1970. He created his first men’s collection in 1976. Today, his business has expanded to include more than 130 shops. In the late 1990s, Smith’s famous coloured stripes led to a cooperation with MINI. It’s time for a revival!
About Oliver Heilmer
After working on the BMW Group’s design team for nearly 20 years, the Munich native took over the leadership of MINI Design in 2017. The 47-year-old is convinced that cars will play an important role in shaping our future. Heilmer also thinks that radical ideas are needed, not just beauty. The MINI Strip was born of this kind of thinking.
Sustainability is particularly important to you, which is why you used organic materials like cork. How did you come up with that unusual idea?
PAUL: In my youth, cork could be found everywhere: as parquet floor or on a pinboard, for example. Then suddenly the material was out. Hopefully, it will now make a comeback. Cork is the bark of cork oaks, it’s a resource that grows back. It’s also completely recyclable and has technological advantages: it can be glued by heating, which means we can avoid environmentally harmful industrial adhesives. We were especially surprised how well cork enhanced the acoustics in the car – that was fantastic.
OLIVER: Cork certainly has a great future in automotive design. We’re also thinking about how to optimise cars in the light of climate change. Cork has also been shown to respond well to different temperatures, which makes it an ideal insulator. It doesn’t get too cold in winter or too hot in summer. Plus, cork has an interesting, very unique smell.
Have you created an icon for the era of sustainability?
PAUL: Of course I would like people to say “Wow, what a car!” But it should also be a humble and honest car. A car that is really stripped back. And that alone is environmentally friendly and sustainable.
OLIVER: For me, the MINI Strip showcases in a straightforward way the direction in which we want to go in terms of sustainability in the future. And as Paul says, we didn’t fake anything. We worked with startups we’d never heard of, but they were the only ones who could provide the materials we wanted, like recycled plastic. That was a risk and we were a bit nervous, but using other materials was out of the question because we wanted to stick to the concept of sustainability. Recycled products are rarely used in automobile production because of the technical challenges involved.
Oliver, you once said you wanted to polarise opinion with your designs. Is the MINI Strip a provocation?
OLIVER: It depends how you define the term. The architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was considered controversial because his modernist buildings also followed the “less is more” principle. It wasn’t his aim to provoke anyone, it was a side effect.
Your fashion stands for eccentricity and kindness, Paul Smith. Is that what this car stands for, too?
PAUL: You have to be willing to take risks in life. Otherwise, it would be too boring on this planet. And let’s be honest, we like people who make everyday life a bit more colourful. We like people who stand out – as long as they don’t achieve it with bad behaviour, but with good humour. You can certainly also find that kind of spirit in a product like the MINI Strip.
Many designers have very clear ideas about what works best. Did you ever have heated debates during your collaboration?
PAUL: I only ever asked very nicely, “Can we do that?” And Oliver said, “Okay, fine”.
OLIVER: Paul is too much of a gentleman for that. We also had to discuss a lot of things over the phone because of the lockdowns and travel restrictions.
PAUL: We sent a lot of parcels with samples back and forth between London and Munich and held post-it notes into the camera during Zoom calls.
What have you come to appreciate about Oliver through working with him, Paul?
PAUL: Despite the distance, we connected quickly. Oliver is a real family man, he once sent me a note that his 12-year-old daughter had designed. To thank her, I sent a letter back. So we quickly found a personal connection to each other. We have great respect for each other and are both laid-back guys with both feet firmly on the ground.
OLIVER: This question reminds me of what my wife also said about us – she really has an excellent sense for people and relationships. You and Paul are very similar, but not in an obvious way, she observed.
Where would you like to take the MINI Strip first? OLIVER: To a critical audience. We considered the Salone de Mobile, the Milan furniture fair, right, Paul?
PAUL: Or to a design school. We would like to show the car to people who will hopefully find it inspiring for their own ideas. It’s not always about creating something revolutionary. But both of us think that we came up with a car that we find very convincing. Oliver, when will you be trying your hand at a Paul Smith suit?
PAUL: Oh my goodness, I won’t allow that to happen. What if he takes revenge and comes up with mad ideas such as a three-sleeve jacket or some other weird stuff.
OLIVER: Don’t worry, Paul, that won’t be happening. But I might be interested in an internship.
A Maximum of Simplicity.
Its strength is in its restraint. An overview of the MINI Strip’s design:
The MINI Strip doesn’t sport a colourful coat of paint. It’s protected only by a thin, transparent film. The galvanised body sheets and the scratches that occurred during production demonstrate material honesty – and the robust nature of the car.
The streamlined hubcaps, the radiator grille shell and the large panoramic sunroof are all made of recyled acrylic glass. This saves weight and preserves resources, which in turn reduces the MINI Strip’s ecological footprint.
Paul Smith has a special relationship to blue, and Yves Klein blue, a luminous ultramarine, is his favourite. This explains the various intense shades of blue trim inside the MINI Strip.