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McLaren’s Robert Melville Talks Design

More on the strapping petrol head and arbiter of design who gives bad-ass machines sexy curves.

If you were at the recent Goodwood Festival of Speed, you would have heard that supercar maker McLaren raced to record sales in 2016, turning in a four year stretch of profitability by selling 3,286 units of their impeccably engineered, impossibly fast, and aesthetically beautiful road cars.

At the same announcement that revealed these enviable figures — let’s not forget it only spun out of its Formula 1 namesake into a standalone manufacturer in 2010 — attendees also witnessed the unveiling of the 570S Spider, the eye-catching first convertible in its Sports Series range of cars, with a retractable hardtop, iconic dihedral doors and oh-so-fluid sculpted surfaces.

As McLaren’s Design Director and the man responsible for the dynamite 720S and Sports Series, which won the ‘Best of the Best’ category in the coveted Red Dot design awards in 2016, Robert Melville sat with us for this chat on automotive design.


What were you thinking when the McLaren 570s Spider was unveiled just moments ago?

I feel incredibly proud. I think it’s a striking car — a combination of great proportions, fluid surfacing, bold graphics, and the way it exposes the technical areas to really contrast against the fluid sexy curves gives a really nice juxtaposition and contrast. I love that. You see it in nature — bone structure versus fluidity. (Wraps one hand over a clenched fist.) That’s something we like to show off. In the Formula 1 cars we have, you can see the wishbone, technical areas and elements, but then this really fluid teardrop shape. We have the exact process applied to our road cars — these very elegant car designs with functional jewellery that’s exposed. We have a thing at McLaren where we say it has to be beautiful and functional. It can’t just be functional or just beautiful, it has to be both together.

The brand does a lot of bespoke work. I heard one request was for the same shade of pink as a hairdryer. What do you think when you hear such things?

(Laughs) You know as designers, we’re open minded, we enjoy life. I enjoy everything myself from the colour of the grass to the colour of the sky. It doesn’t really matter as long as the person loves it and they can express what their passion is and what they like — I think that’s great. It kind of goes back to the days of coach-building in the past. We should be able to offer that now.

How did you get into design, specifically automotive design?

As a kid I was always sketching stuff. I love drawing and was always making things, like with Lego or plasticine. It would be from fantasy creatures to cars to planes and boats. My dad is an engineer and my mother an artist, so I had this really nice blend of art and science. I was always sketching anything that went fast. I’d always be thinking of my own brand. It was just a passion, something I didn’t really think about, just naturally did it. I went to art college, then university, and nearly joined the army.

Why the army?

My other passion was fitness. I used to play a lot of rugby and sports. The army was another way of going and doing my passion — getting paid for doing physical training and adventure. But I’m glad I stayed with art and design.

I guessing you’re a huge motorsport enthusiast.

You have to be to work at McLaren. I’m the youngest of three boys, and my dad and brothers are all obsessed with cars and would read car magazines. My dad had the odd nice car and all he spoke about was cars, cars, cars. So I’m a petrol head. At McLaren, I think it helps. Mike [Flewitt], our CEO, he races cars most weekends. Jens [Ludmann] the COO, he races cars most weekends too. We all love what we do and we love the products we do. We believe in the relevance of the products we create. It’s in my blood.

Did you grow up knowing who Bruce McLaren is?

No, not so much. I did grow up knowing McLaren (the team) because of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost because I watched Formula 1. And then the F1 road car came out and I had the poster on my wall as a kid. I was really aware of McLaren the brand, and now obviously working for them and working with Amanda McLaren, Bruce’s daughter, I know about the history. It becomes part of your DNA, you get absorbed into the brand. It’s like family and a very special company to work for.

You’re at Goodwood now. I’m sure customers come up to talk design — maybe you should have done this or that, instead of this and that.

It’s great actually to meet the customers and hear first-hand what they think is done well, or what we can look at to improve next time. You can have a really good conversation and explain why we did what we did. Often they go away thinking, “Gosh that makes sense now. I never thought of it this way” and vice versa. We get some great insight on what we can do on the next car to make a better product.

Norman Forster designed the gleaming and serene McLaren Technology Centre in Woking. What’s it like as a designer yourself, working in the facility?

It does feel awe-inspiring walking past the cars and the lake. In winter time, the lake steams because it’s part of the air conditioning system of the whole building and they use it to power the wind tunnel as well. Walking in the building, and down the long white corridor — the story is that it was designed to clear your mind, to try and forget what was happening outside of work, to refocus on the job — inspires me.

You enjoy design in general. Do you dream up other products? Furniture perhaps?

I don’t have so much spare time now, but I’ll still sketch on the weekends. Sometimes it can be a digital painting on the iPad Pro. Sometimes I’d draw a boat or plane, like I did as a kid. Or chairs…I spend quite a lot of time designing watches and chairs just for fun. I love it.

Will McLaren ever release a watch?

Well, we do work with watch makers. At the moment our watch partner is Richard Mille. I think there’s some scope there to do something exciting.

Read more about McLaren and the Goodwood Festival of Speed in our September 2017 issue.

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