Henry Ford declared that he was driven to create and mass-produce cars in order to avoid the boredom of life on a Midwestern farm. His vision not only changed the way we travel but the nature of the car industry itself. Now the brand he created is ready to expand its audience and market potential.
Ever since establishing the mass production line at its plant in Detroit, Ford has recognized that to stay ahead of the competition it needs to remain innovative. It is now working on ambitious plans to create a $20 million design studio in the cultural epicentre of London - Ford is coming to Soho.
Traditionally, design studios are 'secret places', sited next to the car plant and hidden from the eyes of competitors. However, J. Mays, Vice President of Design at Ford, has elected to create the new studio in the centre of London in order to ensure that creativity does not get lost through isolation. There is also another reason: the prestige of the Ford brand has the possibility to generate revenue streams for the company that could far exceed the future market for the direct sales of cars. Jack Nasser has stated that the aspiration of Ford is to go beyond cars, to become a consumer company for automotive products and associated services. The spin-off opportunities for a car brand have yet to be fully exploited and, in order to explore its potential, car companies want to learn about real consumers. One way to do this is to locate their ideas centre in a place with a high concentration of people - like Soho. Today, the cost of creating a new product is so high that companies such as Ford have to be in ever closer contact with consumers in order to minimize risk: producing a flop could cost billions.
Located in a new Richard Rogers building in Berwick Street, the multi-disciplinary consultancy Imagination has been commissioned to fit-out the studio to cope with the free flow of different people coming in to work on projects for short periods. The top floor, however, will be a public space providing views over the city and an atmosphere similar to that of hangouts like the Institute of Contemporary Arts - the sort of place where people go every couple of months to see something new. It is proposed that the space will host exhibitions, films screenings, lectures and seminars, and 'maybe occasionally something with a car in it'.
There are established precedents for what one might call branded buildings: think of the Oxo building, or the Shell Centre on the Southbank and its sister on the other side of the Thames where the pecten symbol was on everything from doors to cutlery. It seems that the future of the motor industry in the UK will have more to do with lifestyle branding than blue overalls in Dagenham.
First published in Issue 58