Feat of clay

Here’s the most amazing design model I’ve seen in a long time.

I spotted it at the Harley Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, a temple for motorcycle lovers everywhere. I’m not one of those, but I still love this object. As you can see, it features a combination of “real” elements such as the wheels, engine, handlebars and rearview mirrors, blended with clay elements that indicate the shape of the bodywork, which will eventually be manufactured in aluminium. Obviously metal is difficult to work and rework (that’s especially true of aluminium), so unfired ceramic is used instead. This is a long tradition in vehicle design – in Detroit it was long the custom to make whole clay cars. As the Harley Museum label put it, the clay model is “something the designers can stand back and look at, walk around, and touch.” 

What fascinates me particularly about this model is that it’s a handmade craft object that is on its way to something that looks computer-designed. Below is the finished V-Rod motorcycle, which was released in 2001 (the clay model is dated 1996).

As you can see, it has a “streamlined” look that manages to evoke both the teardrop shapes of Harley’s golden age in the middle of the 20th century, and the fluid, burnished curves of our own digital age. Something like a rolling Frank Gehry building. It’s a beautiful object in its own right, but personally I prefer the model, with its internal contradictions between the handmade and the mass produced.

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