THE RISE OF DUMB DESIGN

USELESSNESS THESE DAYS IS HIGHLY DESIRABLE. IT’S HARD TO PINPOINT EXACTLY WHEN IT HAPPENED, BUT SOMETIME IN THE LAST DECADE DUMB DESIGN BECAME SOMETHING A CERTAIN SORT OF PERSON ASPIRES TO OWN.

John Carey

Yes, I’m talking – again – about the trend exemplified by the success of the functionally compromised and hideous-to-behold BMW X6.

Not that BMW is the only company guilty of tossing the hallowed dictum that form should follow function out the window. Mercedes-Benz could have shown itself to be a company above such crassness; instead, they have decided to give us the GLE Coupe. Which is sure to be as depressingly popular as the X6.

The embrace of uselessness is a troubling enough trend, but there are signs in the Australian market of something even worse.

One of the great disappointments of 2014 was Volkswagen Australia’s decision to give up on the Up.

Unlike the X6 or GLE Coupe, the tiny Up is a masterpiece of functional design. The Volkswagen is one of the very best very small cars of recent memory. Amazingly spacious for its compact dimensions, the Up can accommodate four people (as many as the original X6!), its 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine has character as well as surprising ability, and the car as a whole is refined, well made, comfortable and a pleasure to drive.

There were reasons it didn’t sell. The lack of an automatic option was always going to be a major handicap in a market where so many drivers cannot cope with more than two pedals.

The Volkswagen’s prices – $14,000 for the better-looking three-door version, $15,000 for the five-door, before the runout deals started – were higher than similar-size horrors from Asia.

But the car’s outstanding qualities more than justified the cost.

Skoda’s Roomster is another case in point.

This Czech-made five-seater was the closest thing in Australia to the small van-based thing in Australia to the small van-based wagons so popular with European families. With a huge and flexible interior, good efficiency and great driving dynamics, it was the thinking parent’s alternative to a compact SUV.

The Roomster was part of Skoda’s launch line-up when the brand arrived in Australia in 2007, was deleted, then reinstated and deleted again, with the last seven being sold last year. Skoda’s lack of mainstream status, and dealers, was obviously a problem, but I suspect the Roomster’s paltry sales were a consequence of buyers simply not being able to get past its appearance to perceive the beautiful usefulness of the thing.

While the oddball Skoda was rejected, the awkward-looking GLE Coupe will probably be welcomed warmly. While the sensible Volkswagen was ignored, the compromised X6 is d recognised as a status signifier.

It’s all rather disturbing, really.

In a just world, intelligence, honesty and virtue should triumph; in the Australian car market today they cannot even guarantee survival. Meanwhile, there’s profit to be made with ugly, cynical, stupid and useless cars. That the market’s appetite for them seems to be growing makes me very uneasy about what the future will bring.

There’s a profi t to be made in Australia with ugly, cynical, stupid and useless cars

Good form

FORM following function is an idea with a long history.

It was coined by American architect Louis Sullivan in an 1896 essay (his exact words were “form ever follows function”).

Sullivan, a designer of early Chicago skyscrapers, was condensing concepts developed by architects of ancient Rome.