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Talk: Gilles Vidal

“Creativity meets technology”

As chief designer, Gilles Vidal is not only responsible for the appearance of Renault models, but must already know the future today. This is probably why the Frenchman is also a philosopher. The 48-year-old Gilles Vidal was trained as a designer in Switzerland, at the Art Center College of Design in Vevey. He knows the French car industry like few others, having worked for Citroën and Peugeot, and since 2020 he has been chief designer at Renault.

radical: French cars have always been different in terms of design, more elegant, more playful – how do you explain that?

Gilles Vidal: As a Frenchman, I’m perhaps not the right person to explain it. But it’s true, there are some peculiarities in French culture, which is determined by many artists, painters, sculptors, musicians and so on. These people dare to create things that are perhaps a little unusual, playful, different, even unexpected. In addition, there is a high affinity for technology; in France, there has always been the idea that an engineer and an artist can come together to create something that is creatively daring and also technically useful. Examples include the Eiffel Tower, Concorde, the TGV.

radical: What are your favourite vehicles from the past?

Vidal: My absolute favourite car is the Bugatti Atlantic, its proportions are wonderful and the lines are great. And the fin that runs across the whole car makes the Bugatti unique. But again, there was a technical necessity for it – and it was solved very elegantly.

radical: There are also many design icons in Renault’s history. With the R5, Renault will give one of these legendary models a new lease of life in retro style as an e-vehicle. Have you run out of ideas?

Vidal: No, not at all. We do ask ourselves the question: can you do retro-futuristic design, can it work? But first of all, you have to have vehicles in your history with which it works. The R5 is a good example of this. It was a very successful, very popular vehicle that also expressed a cool zeitgeist in its time. And it was also affordable. And that’s exactly what we want to express with the new Stromer: it should be cool, iconic – and affordable.

radical: Here at the Mondial in Paris you presented the 4ever – you are taking a completely different approach with a famous name, a design icon.

Vidal: “To bring the 4ever Trophy into the modern era, we’ve combined its form with technological sophistication and carefully crafted the details so that the design resonates with those who already know the 4L as well as younger generations who may not yet know about the car’s illustrious history.”

radical: The new, pure E-platforms would actually make it possible to build cars completely differently, to give them a completely different design. Why does that only happen in very few cases?

Vidal: That’s a good point. Every engineer, every architect, even every designer has their habits of how they design something. We have to challenge these familiar codes first and then break them in the future. We’ve certainly done that with the new Mégane, we’ve moved the four wheels all the way out to the four corners of the car, we gain a lot of space with that, even though the car is much shorter than the previous models. That is already a big gain, also for our customers. But of course we can implement this much more consistently – and we will do so when we are sure that customers are ready for such vehicles.

radical: Does that also apply to the interior? The completely flat platforms would open up new possibilities. But you still see centre consoles and centre tunnels in completely new e-vehicles, even though they would no longer be necessary.

Vidal: That is also a process. There are clear requirements, for example the safety standards that we have to meet. The customer is not interested in how exactly a door has to be constructed and what kind of impact protection it offers, but we designers and above all the engineers are then in a corset. As a designer, I can say we’re going to completely empty the interior and then furnish it beautifully, but that’s not technically possible at the moment. But on the other hand, the new Mégane is a good example of what can be done today. We moved the air conditioning into the previous engine compartment, which gave us a whole new amount of space when designing the interior. And the occupants definitely benefit from that.

radical: There are already many new materials for the interior, seat covers made from former fishing nets, for example. How important is it to express in a new electric vehicle like the Mégane that sustainability is a central theme?

Vidal: Every manufacturer has its own idea, including the exterior design. But we at Renault don’t want to limit ourselves to a few visual gadgets. When I came to Renault, I was very surprised at how far they had already come. It wasn’t just a matter of thinking, everything is already there, ready to be used. And that is crucial.

radical: As Renault’s chief designer, you’ve long been working on the next generation of the Mégane, including vehicles that won’t be on the market for another 10 or even 15 years. But at the moment the pace of development of new technologies is rapid, solid-state batteries, for example, will be much smaller than current batteries – and will again give designers new possibilities.

Vidal: For a designer, it must always be about challenging the status quo. With technology, however, we are dependent on science, we also have to know when what will be possible. These solid-state batteries in particular will definitely give us a huge advantage – and we are of course taking that into account. But we don’t yet know exactly when that will be. The same applies to new, intelligent materials that will perhaps make it possible for us to build cars in the future that can change their shape, offer a lot of space and comfort in the city, but then become more aerodynamic on the motorway. We are not that far yet, but I can, I have to imagine it.

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