March 26, 2013
The minivan turns 30 this year. If it were a person, it might be shopping for a minivan of its own to haul the kids to soccer practice and take family vacations to Myrtle Beach. But it also might stare at itself in the mirror, check for a receding hairline, and ask some serious question like “How did I get here?” and “What am I doing with my life?” To celebrate this important milestone in the life of the minivan, let’s look back on its origins.
When Chrysler introduced the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager in 1983, the company was on the brink of collapse. It was a situation that sounds like it could have come from yesterday’s headlines: the company was nearly bankrupt and surviving off a $1.5 billion loan from Uncle Sam. At the time, Lee Iacocca and Hal Sperlich were heading up Chrysler. Both men had worked on the 1963 Mustang and both had been ignominiously fired from Ford. Sperlich’s dismissal resulted, in part, from his constant exhortations to Henry Ford II to move forward with something Sperlich was calling the “mini-max” – a smaller version of Ford’s popular Econoline, named for minimum exterior, maximum interior. Market research had determined that for such a veheicle to be a success, it needed three critical elements: the floor had to be kept low enough for women to comfortably drive it, it must be small enough to fit in a garage, and the engine had to be far enough from the driver to provide “crush space” in the event of an accident. Ford dismissed the idea but by the time Sperlich ended up at Chrysler he would, with Iacocca’s help, get the struggling auto manufacturer to put nearly half of that $1.5 billion toward the development of a truly game-changing vehicle.
In the early 1970s, a team of 100 Chrysler engineers had been collaborating on a project that was being referred to in-house as the “garageable van.” The name pretty much describes what they were going for: a spacious family vehicle that could fit in a standard garage. Money was obviously a huge problem for Chrysler, and due to the massive development costs tied to creating an entirely new model, the project was never approved. The failing company was afraid to be the first to market with an untested vehicle. The thought was, if there was a market for these miniature vans, someone else –GM and Ford, namely– would be producing them. But Chrysler needed to take a risk. And in 1980 Iacocca forced the company to allocate the necessary funds and, under the guidance of Sperlich, the design team moved forward.
Sperlich’s background was in product planning. This meant that it was his job to find the right balance of power, speed, space, and cost that’s essential to a successful vehicle. He envisioned a van that could be built on a car chassis. Something more than a station wagon but less than a full size van. Luckily, Chrysler had just the thing. The minivan was built on a modified version of the recently introduced K-Car chassis that was the basis for most of Chrysler’s cars at the time. The front-wheel-drive K-Platform let Chrysler keep the overall size down and maintain an expansive, open interior – qualities that previous research proved to be essential. The final height of the first minivan would be just 64 inches – 15 inches lower than the smallest van on the market at the time. The overall form of the new vehicle was called a “one-box” design, as opposite to the three-box design –hood, cabin, trunk– of standard cars. The other distinguishing features of the new minivan were its car-like features – notably including power windows, comfortable interiors, a nice dashboard, and front-wheel drive. These also explain the appeal of the vehicle. Not only did it fit in a garage like a car, but it actually drove like a car, while also providing plenty of room for the kids and luggage and giving mom a nice, high view of the road.
But what explains the minivan’s most iconic feature – the single, sliding door? That, it seems, was a bit of value engineering that just stuck. From early in the design process, it was determined that the new vehicle would be targeted toward families. The sliding door made it easy to for people to quickly enter or exit the vehicle and, with its lack of hinges, the sliding door was seen as a safer option for children. Initially, the door was only installed on one side to save on manufacturing costs during the cash-strapped company’s tentative foray into an entirely new market. When the van debuted, no one complained. So why mess with success?
Although Chrysler may have been the first to market with the minivan, but they didn’t invent the idea of the miniature van. Small vans and large cars were in production in Europe and Asia since the 1950s, such as the idiosyncratic Stout Scarab, the iconic Volkswagen bus, and the DKW Schnellaster (above image), a 1949 FWD vehicle that has been called “The Mother of all modern minivans.”
But in 1983 when Chrysler introduced the Voyager and the Caravan –named for its origins, “car and van” – they almost literally created the mold for the minivan. Not only that, but they created an entirely new market. The vehicle wasn’t sexy and it wasn’t even that great of a car, but it was an immediate success. Road and Track called it “a straightforward, honest vehicle. Honest in the sense that is is designed to be utilitarian. Yet it is clean and pleasant to look at. It doesn’t pretend to be what it’s not.” Car and Driver were even more effusive, reporting that the new models from Chrysler were “a sparkling example of the kind of thinking that will power Detroit out of its rut and may very well serve to accelerate Chrysler’s drive back to the big time.” Indeed, Chrysler couldn’t make them fast enough, and drivers waited weeks for the minivan. It was a practical car that the baby boomers needed. The success of the minivan helped bring the company back from the edge of bankruptcy. As the minivan turns 30, its story seems more relevant now than ever. Hopefully, history will repeat itself and Detroit will once again start producing some exciting, game-changing automobiles.
Paul Ingassia, Engines of Change: A History of the American Dream in Fifteen Cars (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012); Michael L. Berger, The Automobile in American History and Culture: A Reference Guide (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing, 2001); ”The Caravan/Voyager Development Story,” Allpar; United States International Trade Commission, Minivans from Japan (1992); Paul Niedermeyer, “The Mother of All Modern Minivans,” The Truth About Cars(March 29, 2010); Charles K. Hyde, Riding the Roller Coaster: A History of the Chrysler Corporation (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2003)
March 7, 2013
I recently went skydiving for the first time. It was possibly the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever done in my life. A couple days later, once I had time to process everything, my thoughts turned to that backpack that kept me alive. When was it designed? Who was the inventor that made it possible for me to survive a fall of 10,000 feet? Some quick research told that that I owed my life to a Russian actor named Gleb Kotelnikov, who is credited with inventing the first backpack parachute in 1911. Surprisingly little is written about Kotelnikov –at least in English– but assuming Google translate can be trusted, he was compelled to create the parachute after witnessing the death of pilot Leo Matsievich during an air show in St. Petersburg. From that horrible moment, Kotelnikov, a former theater actor, dedicated the rest of his life to preventing the unnecessary deaths of airplane pilots. By the early 20th century, basic parachutes were already widely used to perform jumps from hot-air balloons, and of course the idea of the parachute famously goes back all the way to Leonardo da Vinci, but these early parachutes were elaborate and cumbersome, and the high speed at which planes traveled required a more efficient design.
Kotenikov wasn’t alone in his realization that planes required a new type of parachute, but many early designs were actually attached to the plane itself and could get tangled with the crashing vehicle or separated from the pilot. Kotelnikov’s innovation came with the realization that for a parachute to save lives, it had to meet two primary qualifications: it had to always be with the pilot –ideally, it would be attached to him in some way– and it had to open automatically – presumably to protect the pilot if he lost consciousness. He developed several prototypes that met these qualifications, including a parachute helmet, a parachute belt, and a parachute attached to several points of the body via an elaborate harness. Eventually he came up a working model for a stable parachute in a hard knapsack that would be attached to the pilot by a harness. He dubbed the invention the RK-1 (Russian Kotelnikov 1). The RK-1 was attached to the plane by static line that would pull the chute open once the pilot reached the proper distance from the aircraft, but it could also be opened manually by pulling a cord. The race for the parachute patent was competitive and Kotelnikov conducted several tests in secret, including one particularly noteworthy experiment at a race track. He attached his RK-1 to a racing car, drove it up to full speed, and pulled the cord. The pack opened successfully, the resistance stalled the engine, and the car was dragged to a full stop. So not only can Gleb Kotelnikov be credited as the designer the backpack parachute, but also, incidentally, as the inventor of the drag chute (although in 1911 nothing really moved fast enough to actually require a drag chute). Kotelnikov took his field-tested design to the Central Engineering Department of the War Ministry, which promptly –and repeatedly– refused to put his design into production. Kotelnikov’s design had proven that it could save lives, but the Russian military were concerned that if their pilots were given the means to safely evacuate their planes, they would do so at the slightest sign of any danger, and unnecessarily sacrifice the expensive vehicle instead of trying to pilot it to safety.
The story gets a little hazy from there. From what I can discern with the help of automatic translators, an aviation company helped Kotelnikov market his invention in Europe. The RK-1 was met with wide acclaim but the company backed out of their deal with Kotelnikov – conveniently around the same time that one of the two prototype parachutes was stolen from the Russian inventor. In the years leading up to World War I he returned to Russia and found that the government was more receptive to his invention, but by then parachutes inspired by –and sometimes copied from– his original design were appearing throughout Europe.
After World War I proved the importance of aviation and the value of the parachute, the U.S. Army assembled a team to perfect the design of this new life-saving device. The key members of this task force were test pilot James Floyd Smith and film stuntman Leslie Irvin, who patented his own static-line parachute in 1918 and would go on to start the Irvin Airchute Company the following year. Smith also had a couple patents under his belt, including “The Smith Aerial Life Pack,” which The Parachute Manual calls the first “modern free type” (re: manually operated) parachute. Whether or not these American designs were at all inspired by Kotelnikov’s, or one of the many other experimental parachutes that were in use during the war, is hard to say. But Smith’s innovation seems to be simplicity: his Life Pack consisted of a single piece of waterproof fabric wrapped over a silk parachute and held together by rubber bands that would be released when the jumper pulled a ripcord. It has the distinction of being the first patented soft-pack parachute (Kotelnikov’s soft-pack design, the RK-2, didn’t go into production until the 1920s.).
The military team led by Smith and Irvin eventually came up with the Airplane Parachute Type-A. Modeled closely after the Smith Life Pack, the primary components of the Type-A were a 28-foot diameter silk canopy, a soft backpack and harness, a ripcord, and a two-foot diameter pilot chute (a small parachute used to help deploy the main chute). Naturally, Irvin was the first man to test this new design and upon doing so on April 28, 1919, he became the first American to jump from an airplane and open a manually open a parachute in midair. The Type-A was approve and produced for the military by Irvin’s recently formed company.
The team led by Smith and Irvin was in charge of parachute design through the next World War and into the 1950s. Irvin’s company dominated the market. Not only did they produce the parachutes for the U.S. military, but they eventually also pioneered the development of the civilian and recreational parachute industry. After the Type-A, designs evolved quickly and are too numerous to mention in this post. Although its history is inextricably tied to the history of aviation, it took a complete outsider, an actor moved by tragedy, to create the first successful parachute nearly a century ago. Countless innovations, both large and small, have since refined the design of the parachute so much that it is now safe enough for even a shaky-kneed amateur to defy gravity at 10,000 feet.
Dan Poynter, The Parachute Manual: A Technical Treatise on Aerodynamic Decelerators (Santa Barbara, CA: Para Publishing, 1991); “Parachute Russian, Kotelnikov,” http://www.yazib.org/yb030604.html; “Leslie Irvin, Parchutist,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leslie_Irvin_(parachutist); “James Flloyd Smith,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Floyd_Smith; Google Patents, http://google.com/patents
March 5, 2013
From the moment the first hot-air balloon took flight in 1783, the earliest pioneers of human flight believed that the true future of aviation depended on the lighter-than-air inflatables and the creation of massive airships. Benjamin Franklin believed hot-air balloons “to be “a discovery of great importance, and one which may possibly give a new turn to human affairs.” He even suggested that they may herald an end to war. By the late 19th century balloons had been used for sport, travel, commerce, adventure, and, despite Franklin’s dreams, even war. But these designs rarely deviated from the now-iconic balloon-and-basket that’s now familiar to anyone who has ever seen The Wizard of Oz or Around the World in 80 Days. However, there were a few mad visionaries who thought bigger than the basket, designing incredibly elaborate, sometimes ingenious, balloon machines that could carry hundreds of passengers across the globe or a single individual across a city.
The early success with balloon flight inspired designers to push the limit of possibility and inventiveness. One of the largest ships imagined by early balloonists was proposed by a physicist named Robertson in 1804, the Minerva (top image), “an aerial vessel destined for discoveries, and proposed to all the Academies of Europe.” Robertson’s great ship was supported by a 150-foot diameter silk balloon coated in india-rubber and designed to carry up to 150,000 pounds. For its maiden voyage, Robertson planned for the Minevra to carry 60 people, mostly academics, halfway around the world for a period of up to six months. These scholars and scientists would observe, collect data, and conduct experiments. The trip would be particularly useful for cartographers, who would create new maps of previously impenetrable and unexplored landscapes. The great ship that carried these prestigious passengers was equipped with “all the things necessary for the convenience, the observations, and even the pleasures of the voyagers.” This included a large barrel for storing water and wine, a gym, an observatory equipped with all manner of instruments, a kitchen (“the only place where a fire shall be permitted”), a theater, and a boat. Robertson, it would seem, had planned for everything – even the failure of his invention.
“Over what a vast space might not one travel in six months with a balloon fully furnished with the necessaries of life, and all the appliances necessary for safety? Besides, if, through the natural imperfection attaching to all the works of man, or either through accident or age, the balloon, borne above the sea, became incapable of sustaining the travellers [sic], it is provided with a boat, which can withstand the waters and guarantee the return of the voyagers.”
It all sounds very civilized, doesn’t it? A cruise ship in the sky.
Of course, Robertson wasn’t alone in his dreams of mastering the skies for economic and cultural gain. This cartoonish vehicle, referred to as “The Great Aerial Navigator or Atmospheric Machine” was created by the presumably short-lived London-based Aerial Conveyance Company to move troops and government officials to the farthest reaches of the British Empire. A single engine controls the many paddles, wheels, arms, wings, and the amenities are otherwise similar to those offered by the Minerva.
The “Aeronautic Chariot” was designed in the 1780s, shortly after the first successful balloon flight in history, by Richard Crosbie, “Ireland’s First Aeronaut.” It was one of the first designs for air travel and, as a result, a relatively straightforward combination of old and new, joining traditional ship design with its masts, sails, paddles, and rigging, with a 40-foot-diameter hydrogen-filled balloon. The large paddles attached to the hull of the ship were designed to be spun so quickly that the resulting gusts would fill the sails with enough air to move the ship forward. The main hull of the Chariot was actually built for an exhibition, although it never successfully took flight.
Breaking from the nautical tradition completely, French balloonist Petin designed an 160-yard-long airship held aloft by four balloons, “each of which should have the diameter of the Corn Exchange of Paris.” Unlike some of the other designs, there was no primary cabin or ship’s hull for passengers, but rather an enormous platform – a sort of aerial promenade. One of the biggest challenges facing early aeronauts was devising a way to actually steer the balloon, and Petin’s proposed design for a steering mechanism was almost elegant in its simplicity. He created an airscrew that looks and works like a cross between air airplane propeller and a Venetian blind that could be opened and closed to catch the wind and steer the ship (an exhaustive and exhausting scientific explanation of the how the ship was flown can be read here). Petin petitioned the French government for financing but they would have none of it. Their reluctance may be explained by what some reported as a fear that ballooning would adversely affect the custom-house and possibly destabilize the country.
From massive creations designed to convey hundreds of people, we now turn to an early personal hot air balloon. The “saddle balloon” was designed by German engineer George Rodek around 1895. The above illustration, which is uncredited, looks something like a flying police officer surveying the city below him with an incandescent searchlight; the all-seeing eye of the Berlin’s flying finest. Or it could be some sort of pulp, fin-de-siecle superhero: The Aeronaut. This particular aeronaut, surrounded by his meteorological equipment, sandbags, and enormous grappling hook, may well have been the daring Rodek himself, who actually built this device and astounded onlookers by ascending in his ingenious, though surely uncomfortable vehicle.
When the Wright Brothers took to the air with their 1903 flyer, plans for balloon travel were largely –though not completely– abandoned. There was still a cultural and strategic use for balloons, and dreams of airships never quite died, but with the dawn of the 20th century, scientists, designers, and engineers seem to have switched their attentions to mastering the aeroplane. Today, with a few notable exceptions, the hot-air balloon that once seemed poised to change the world is mostly just used for sightseeing and wedding proposals, but the inventiveness of these early designs will always inspire wonder at what could-have-been.
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August 16, 2012
As if it weren’t already mind-bending enough to envision yourself hurtling through the skies in a metal canister at 500 miles per hour, now Airbus wants you to imagine your gravity-defying journey in an aircraft with transparent skin. Tapping into some of the most cutting-edge design thinking today, the aviation leader has developed a concept plane that is not intended for flight—at least not in this iteration—but is an innovation tool that “stretches the imagination of engineers, and…highlights some of the challenges and decisions that lie ahead for air travel.”
The concept plane, which they hope resembles the real Airbus models of 2050, takes biomimicry as a guiding principle for the design of forms and materials. The most noticeable aspect of this approach is in the fuselage, which, instead of being wrapped in opaque metal, is composed of a web-like network of structural material that looks a bit like a skeleton. In fact, that’s exactly what it should remind you of, because it’s inspired by the bone structure of birds.
In a presentation on the company’s future design plans, chief engineer Charles Champion explained, “Bone is both light and strong because its porous interior carries tension only where necessary, leaving space elsewhere.” The space between the so-called “bionic bones”of the plane become panoramic windows that wrap all the way around. “[Y]ou will be able see the pyramids or the Eiffel Tower through the transparent floor of the aircraft.”
While the structural design is inspired by creatures that have existed for millennia, many of the materials are produced using technology that as barely been known for a decade. 3D-printing is one of the techniques that may enable Airbus to create the precise, spare forms they require, first drafting them on a computer and then manufacturing them through rapid layering that builds up the design exactly as it’s intended, with no waste. For the cabin’s electrical system, Airbus intends to integrate a brain-like “network of intelligence” into the walls of the plane, which is responsive to interior climate conditions and passenger needs without requiring huge amounts of cable, wire and switches.
All of these strategies—the lightweight structure, waste-free manufacturing, and wireless electrical systems—can contribute to reductions in emissions and fuel use. The cumulative effect of using fewer resources for each plane could result in a massive overall improvement in aviation’s environmental impact. In that vein, the Airbus concept plane is one of the few instances (at least for now), where the term “organically grown” refers not to food, but to seating. The seats of the plane will potentially be composed of plant-based biomaterials which go a few leaps past memory foam toward smart materials that form to and remember the body’s optimal position.
Of course all of the aspects of physical comfort and wellness that currently elude passengers will find their way into this in-flight experience, too, in the form of interactive zones, where travelers can socialize, play games, exercise and enjoy various holistic treatments like massage and aromatherapy. It’s almost enough to make you forget you’re trapped inside a pressurized container six vertical miles above your home planet.
June 15, 2012
More than $15 billion worth of coffee is exported each year. That makes it the second most traded commodity in the world, behind only oil. The majority of this coffee grows between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, but most of the world’s coffee is consumed in countries located well beyond beyond that stretch of the globe often referred to as The Bean Belt. Wherever beans may be sent after cultivation, they’re almost surely shipped in the nigh-ubiquitous, intermodal, internationally-standardized shipping container. These corrugated steel boxes have been used to ship coffee around the world since the 1950s. More recently, they’re also being used to sell coffee.
Starbucks has recently gotten a lot of attention with a new prototype retail store in Tukwilla, Washington known as “The Reclamation Drive-Thru,” a 450-sq-ft drive-thru and walk-up store built from four refurbished shipping containers. Inspired by the view from their Seattle headquarters, which looks out onto a yard of unused shipping containers, Starbucks salvaged old containers from the scrap heap to create their much buzzed-about new temporary structure. It is one of the first projects designed by the retailer specifically to explore new options in sustainability and it represents their dedication to making every element of their business more sustainable. Starbucks aims to make achieve LEED certification for all their new stores.
Until recently, the coffee colossus was known for the uniformity of their coffeehouses and the mediocrity of their coffee. That’s starting to change. Well, the coffee may still be mediocre, but with a recent design initiative Starbucks has produced some high-design cafes that herald a drastic overhaul of all their future stores. While some noted architects have designed stunning cafe’s around the world, the Tukwilla drive-thru is garnering the most attention. The shipping container store is functional, relatively quick to assemble, and creates a portable landmark and a lot of buzz. Good design is good business, right? Indeed, it would seem so. The project was recently recognized by Architectural Record as a winner of the quite literally-named Good Design is Good Business Award, given to companies that embrace architecture as a means to enhance the bottom line.
The Starbucks project is only a prototype and, while the company’s Global Store Design Senior Manager isn’t sure about the future of such stores, he hopes that it will influence the shape of things to come:
“We are now talking about ways to extend the thinking and learning from this project into other areas, perhaps in prefabrication projects or in exterior furniture and accessories. I’m not sure where this all will land, but the launch pad has now been successfully cleared and the resulting conversation has been positive.”
While Starbucks is the largest store to embrace intermodal transport as a temporary retail space, it surely isn’t the first.
Architect Adam Kalkin has also made a name for himself using shipping containers as the main building material of his architecture. Kalkin’s containers, however, are also mechanized. With the push of a button, his aptly-named Push Button House blossoms from a standard shipping container to a four-room living arrangement. The design was retrofitted by Italian coffeemaker Illy to serve as a portable push-button cafe during the 2007 Venice Biennale.
Lesser known cargo cafes include Cafe Froebe in Linz, Austria, la boîte cafe in Austin, Texas, and Ritual Roasters in San Francisco, who created their temporary boxcar location as part of an event last year, Proxy, that celebrates modular cafe culture by seeking “to mobilize a flexible environment of food, art, culture, and retail within renovated shipping containers.”
Shipping container architecture is not new. While on some level, it’s probably been around as long as the shipping container, their use by architects as building-sized, habitable bricks first entered the design zeitgeist around 10 years ago. Containers have since been used as everything from pop-up boutiques to nomadic museums. While it may present a new set of opportunities and challenges, as a piece of architecture, it’s frankly not that interesting. There’s only so much you can do with a modular box. But it’s not about design, not really. As a building material, the shipping container is a means to an end, a way of exploring new ideas and to begin to think differently about space and consumption. That’s why we’re seeing so much of it lately. As people –and businesses– have become more interested in sustainability, the idea of an relatively cheap “green” building has become more appealing. Perhaps to a lesser extent, their use in cafe design can also be attributed to the recent popularity of “pop up” stores and gourmet food trucks. No where is it better used though, than the coffee shop. Less than a building but more than a food truck, the shipping container cafe brings the humble coffee bean full circle, from a farm in The Bean Belt to a four dollar in Tukwilla, Washington.