FIGHT CLUB OF DE­SIGN

Automobile - - Design - By NEL­SON IRE­SON pho­tog­ra­phy by ROBIN TRA JANO and TED7

FOUNDED BY A Bri­tish-raised Texan who fell in love with the gritty streets and cut­ting-edge de­sign of Detroit, the Mid­dle­cott Sketch­bat­tle Ex­per­i­ment is billed as the Fight Club of De­sign.

But in­stead of a slum­lord’s palace filled with lost men mak­ing soap, the Sketch­bat­tle is a once-un­der­ground nexus of the fu­ture of au­to­mo­tive de­sign. And it’s a party.

Walk through the door of any of the Sketch­bat­tle’s itin­er­ant lo­ca­tions in Detroit, Las Ve­gas, or Los An­ge­les, and you’re greeted by thump­ing mu­sic, a cash bar, and Sa­tori Cir­cus, a Detroit-based per­for­mance artist who blurs the line be­tween em­cee and prankster clown. Chances are good you’ll also en­counter some vin­tage sheet­metal to serve as in­spi­ra­tion and at­mos­phere for the de­sign-off to come.

The next thing you’ll no­tice is the box­ing-style ring, ropes and all. Be­hind it, there’s a Jum­botron with con­tes­tant names and coun­tries or cities of ori­gin, and keep­ing with the theme, there are weights. Each de­signer is called to the ring to start the bat­tle, some en­gag­ing with the premise enough to jog out like a prize­fighter.

If it all seems a bit over the top, just wait for the main event: a 50-foot ta­ble lined with de­sign­ers, pro­fes­sion­als and stu­dents alike, vy­ing for an over­size $2,500 check and the glory—and po­ten­tial job of­fers—that come with win­ning the con­test. Over four hours they bat­tle it out, elim­i­na­tion bracket style, to see who has the chops to meet the cri­te­ria for each round and wow the judges.

Sketch­bat­tle is the cre­ation of Brook Mid­dle­cott Ban­ham, who spent the early part of his ca­reer de­sign­ing shoes. But his passion lies with pen­ning cars. He came to Detroit in 2010 to get his mas­ter’s de­gree in trans­porta­tion

de­sign from the Col­lege for Cre­ative Stud­ies. Sens­ing Detroit’s vi­brancy as a de­sign cen­ter, he and his wife, Ju­dith, de­cided to stay and even­tu­ally founded their own firm, Mid­dle­cott De­sign, in 2012. The Ex­per­i­ment, which was orig­i­nally started as a way for the Ban­hams to pro­mote their com­pany, has be­come a full-blown thing of its own in its roughly five years of ex­is­tence.

Start­ing and end­ing with the clang of a ring­side bell, con­tes­tants are given 25 min­utes to cre­ate a sketch. A de­sign prompt for each round de­fines the goal. It can vary wildly, from sound sys­tems to pickup trucks to wheels—just about any­thing you can imag­ine in the field of au­to­mo­tive de­sign. The bat­tlers get the prompts in ad­vance to bet­ter al­low them to cre­ate new and in­no­va­tive de­signs in the al­lot­ted 25-minute win­dow.

The time limit adds a great deal of pres­sure, and it also presents dif­fi­culty for the judges, who are them­selves highly ac­com­plished and rec­og­nized au­to­mo­tive de­sign­ers. At the 2017 Los An­ge­les Auto Show edi­tion of the Mid­dle­cott Sketch­bat­tle Ex­per­i­ment, the judges were Erik Klim­isch, de­sign man­ager for Kia Mo­tors and for­mer de­sign in­struc­tor at Detroit’s Col­lege for Cre­ative Stud­ies, his alma mater; Randy Ro­driguez, cre­ative man­ager of de­sign and styling at Tesla (where he led the team that de­signed the new Tesla semi truck) and for­merly project lead de­signer for Nis­san/In­finiti and free­lance de­signer for ICON Air­craft; and Camilo Pardo, de­sign mag­nate and the man be­hind the sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Ford GT.

“I think the big­gest chal­lenge is quickly iden­ti­fy­ing the re­quire­ments and put­ting your idea down on pa­per in less than 25 min­utes,” Klim­isch said. Ro­driguez adds that the key to suc­cess is “sat­is­fy­ing the cri­te­ria in a clever way while do­ing some awe­some art­work that stands out from the rest.”

Stand­ing out from the rest can be dif­fi­cult, but that’s noth­ing new to the con­tes­tants, whether they’re em­ployed pros or as­pir­ing stu­dents. And part of that in­creased level of dif­fi­culty comes from our per­pet­u­ally con­nected cul­ture. Klim­isch ex­plained, “I’m very im­pressed with the young de­sign­ers who are com­ing out of the de­sign schools. They seem to get bet­ter ev­ery year. When I was in de­sign school, we didn’t have the in­ter­net, so you ba­si­cally had to de­velop your skills by draw­ing in­spi­ra­tion from the other stu­dents and in­struc­tors. To­day you have all th­ese great de­sign web­sites and blogs to ac­cess for ref­er­ence, and you can even see ex­pert sketch tu­to­rial videos on YouTube.”

But as Ro­driguez points out, it’s not just about tal­ent. It’s hard to make a name in au­to­mo­tive de­sign, even at the Sketch­bat­tle. “[Mak­ing a name is] very dif­fi­cult as there is much com­pe­ti­tion, and it’s not only about be­ing tal­ented, as most de­sign­ers are. Tim­ing is es­sen­tial as is be­ing at the right place at the right time.”

For at least one de­signer at ev­ery Sketch­bat­tle, the right place and time are a given. But that’s just the jumpin­goff point. You still have to im­press the judges. What does it take? Ac­cord­ing to Ro­driguez, it re­quires “pro­por­tion, bal­ance, har­mony, and that spe­cial some­thing that moves me emo­tion­ally.” Klim­isch takes a some­what more con­crete ap­proach, say­ing, “I look for a hook. Ev­ery great de­sign sketch has one. The rest is sup­port. It takes a dis­ci­plined de­signer to not put ev­ery­thing but the kitchen sink into a sketch.”

De­spite the 25-minute time limit, great de­sign is ev­i­dent in abun­dance. Sure, there are the odd sketches that look out of place or am­a­teur­ish, but by and large you’ll find stun­ning de­signs ex­e­cuted with master­ful at­ten­tion to de­tail—cars you wish ex­isted and would love to drive. Even with the Fight Club-meets-night­club at­mos­phere, there’s an air of rev­er­ence for the cre­ativ­ity and skill on dis­play, a sense you’re get­ting an in­side glimpse into the fu­ture of trans­porta­tion de­sign. There’s a good chance that at least one of the con­tes­tants in any given Sketch­bat­tle will some­day pen a car you’ll buy, and that’s be­fore you count the pros who’ve al­ready penned sev­eral—pos­si­bly even your own.

As the an­tic­i­pa­tion built to see who would be crowned cham­pion at the end of the night, we couldn’t help but feel like we were watch­ing the dy­ing em­bers of a on­ce­great fire. We had to ask: Is there a fu­ture for car de­sign in a world of au­ton­o­mous, pay-per-use jelly­beans? Klim­isch thinks there is. “There is al­ways a fu­ture for car de­sign­ers” he said. “Grad­u­at­ing de­sign stu­dents have so much to of­fer and can re­ally en­er­gize a stu­dio with their fresh ideas be­cause they haven’t de­vel­oped knowl­edge of all the de­sign re­stric­tions that ex­pe­ri­enced de­sign­ers are bom­barded with on a daily ba­sis like en­gi­neer­ing, pack­age, pedes­trian, and cost re­quire­ments.” Ro­driguez agrees, and he even sees the fu­ture as an op­por­tu­nity rather than a road­block. “It’s an ex­cit­ing time in au­to­mo­tive de­sign,” he said, “as new emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies are com­ing into play.”

See­ing the tal­ent on dis­play, es­pe­cially from the young and up­com­ing stu­dent de­sign­ers, Klim­isch and Ro­driguez’s op­ti­mism seems jus­ti­fied. Maybe there’s even a chance that au­ton­omy could free de­sign­ers from some of the con­straints placed on to­day’s cars. Imag­ine what a car could look like if there was no pos­si­bil­ity it would crash. It could be any­thing.

Per­haps that’s wish­ful think­ing. Maybe we’re rid­ing a di­nosaur to a cave man’s ban­quet. But from ring­side at the Mid­dle­cott Sketch­bat­tle, it feels more like we’re rid­ing a phoenix to war. AM

Sa­tori Cir­cus brings his own sideshow to the event, in­ject­ing a touch of friendly mad­ness into the fren­zied sketch­ing.

A ring an­nouncer, cards for each round’s theme, and a real ring­side bell be­ing rung by Sketch­bat­tle founder Brook Mid­dle­cott Ban­ham give legs to the Fight Club theme.

IT YOUTALKABOUT DING! DING! DING! Fans and party at­ten­dees gather around the long ta­ble to watch the magic hap­pen.

The con­tes­tants’ hand­i­work is put on dis­play, above, af­ter each round for judg­ing, and for view­ing by the at­ten­dees. Be­low, Xan­der Wang col­lects his win­nings.

RO­DRIGUEZ SEES THE FU­TURE AS AN OP­POR­TU­NITY RATHER THAN A ROAD­BLOCK. “IT’S AN EX­CIT­ING TIME IN AU­TO­MO­TIVE DE­SIGN ... AS NEW EMERG­ING TECH­NOLO­GIES ARE COM­ING INTO PLAY.”

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