Wallpaper* brings together two masters of aluminium to talk hot metal and automotive awesomeness
We’re in Santa Barbara, California. Alex Rasmussen, president of the Neal Feay Company, and John Paul Gregory, head of exterior design at Bentley Motors, are meeting to talk precision metalwork and car design. The venue is the Neal Feay HQ at sunny, ocean-facing Goleta. Gregory arrives, via the Pacific Coast Highway, in a gunmetal grey Bentley Continental GT.
The topics for discussion? Aluminium, panel-beating and rear haunches. Super-forming and silhouettes. Statement, sculpture and surfaces. But mainly aluminium. Rasmussen has been working with the silvery alloy since 1987, when he joined the family business founded by his grandfather back in 1945. He transformed the company into the world’s leading creative anodised aluminium studio and, today, Neal Feay collaborates with the likes of Marc Newson, Yves Béhar, Logan Hicks and Jean Nouvel on architectural projects, furniture and art installations.
Bentley Motors’ history with aluminium goes back even further. In 1919, working from a humble London mews garage and determined to ‘build a fast car, a good car, the best in its class’, founder Walter Owen Bentley combined the unique qualities of the alloy with his aviation engineering know-how to build the first Bentley 3 Litre, which had innovative aluminium pistons. Almost one hundred years of manufacturing excellence and motorsport eminence would follow, with Bentley Motors celebrating its centenary next year.
‘From an automotive perspective, aluminium has myriad advantages,’ says Gregory of the brand’s material of choice. ‘In terms of performance, it is strong, flexible, and lightweight. From a design point of view its potential is extraordinary.’ At Bentley Motors’ design studio in Crewe, England, the exterior design process begins with sketches and, later, a hand-sculpted, clay model. ‘The rear section of the Continental GT, for example, was shaped over and over again, day after day after day, until the section was just perfect,’ says Gregory.
To realise the design in aluminium, Bentley Motors uses a hot-metal forming fabrication process called ‘super-forming’. ‘This allows our designers the freedom to create quite extreme and complex sculpture. We make sure that the car’s exterior is absolutely singing in every area – the right amount of lead, the right amount of tension to the curve – and I think that the customer can feel the evidence of the clay sculptors’ hand craftsmanship, that love and that extra refinement. It’s not something that you may register or recognise at first glance; it’s a secondary read. But you just know. The back part of your brain is telling you that it’s a special execution, which makes it a special product.’
Rasmussen reflects on a similar quest for a human touch at Neal Feay. ‘The idea of adding some sense of handcraft to the process is actually quite new to us,’ he says. ‘We have computers and machines make things to an incredible level of precision, but more and more we’re introducing a sense of physicality and humanity to what we do – slightly altering the form by hand or using very, very sophisticated computer techniques to add details that feel a lot like they were carved by hand. It’s a whole new adventure. We’re not trying to make 500 things that are exactly the same; we’re trying to make one thing that’s a little different than the last. To add richness that is subtle, that isn’t in any way over the top or opulent. This is where true luxury lies. And that’s exciting.’
Artful execution, individuality, subtlety; such attributes, says Gregory, are also key to the exterior design of a Bentley. ‘Look at the front end of the Continental, the way that its fantastic crystal-inspired headlights sit seamlessly integrated into the surface like they’re floating; there’s no shut line intersecting them. That is a true luxury statement.’ §