T he Executive Vice-President, Chief Creative Officer and studio head of Aston Martin, Marek Reichman is a British legend of the automotive and design industries. Since joining Aston Martin in 2005, he has been responsible for such acclaimed models as the One-77, Vanquish, Vulcan and Valhalla. Today, he oversees the company's overall design activities, from researching and innovating new tech and concepts, exploring and implementing new ideas to developing one-off commissions for Aston Martin's personalised 'Q' clients. And if this wasn't enough, he is also the man behind some of the most celebrated Aston Martins used by Daniel Craig, aka James Bond, 007.
A polymath thinker, artist and visual engineer, Reichman has an impressive track record of creative achievement. As well as steering Aston Martin's automotive design, he has been involved with such esoteric projects as the redesign of London's iconic Routemaster buses and overseeing Aston Martin’s exciting new architectural collaborations with Sir David Adjaye in New York and Bodas Miani Anger in Miami.
This interview was conducted to mark Aston Martin's partnering with Sotheby's on the occasion of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. Ahead of the June celebrations, we talked to Reichman to explore his vision of design and how he harnesses formal strategies to articulate the soul of Aston Martin, before delving into the ultra-luxury marque's rich history of automotive innovation over the decades. We also reflect, through the prism of Aston Martin's evolution, on why and how British design is globally recognised and celebrated for its innovation, beauty and brilliance.
How do you define your role as Chief Creative Officer at Aston Martin?
I think creativity is 24/7 in your brain, because it's subconscious as well as conscious. You need a space where you clarify a vision. But this is a team sport as well, it's not just myself, I rely on a team. I often say, I'm the conductor of an orchestra and my job is really to orchestrate and conduct and lead a vision, but without the players we can't have that vision.
Aston Martin cars are known for being exquisitely hand-built. How does this commitment to craftsmanship influence the production process?
Yes, they are hand-built, hand-made. As an example, a DB11 would take about 200 hours on a car; that is, human hours physically building the car - and that's after about 22 hours of painting. An Aston Martin Valkyrie probably takes close to 4,000 hours to build. It's like building two Formula 1 cars every single day. So, that’s a really important factor in what we do. But being hand-made doesn't mean that it's not hi-tech. They're built by technicians who are using unique tools, unique pieces of equipment. The Valkyrie doesn't have a single standard nut or bolt size, everything is unique. So, you have to make unique tools to bolt it and bond it together effectively.
That’s extraordinary – the amount of thought and meticulous processes that go into each car.
It really is. A mass market manufacturer may produce nine million cars per year. And in 109 years of Aston Martin, we've made just over 109,000. So, rarity is a massive factor. Even our core models, the DB11 or DBX707 are rare, due to the volumes produced.
"A mass-market manufacturer may produce nine million cars per year. And in 109 years of Aston Martin, we've made just over 109,000..."
And that obviously shapes the way you design?
Yes, you design knowing that these are very, very special objects of desire. Again, I'll use the Valkyrie as an example, it’s a £2.5m car, of which we're making 150, and there were over 600 applicants to collect these extraordinary models. Because they're collecting rarity, they're collecting the object, they are collecting to collect.
I see that the bespoke element of ordering an Aston Martin is also a major attraction for clients, as is their ability to be creatively involved with your team in creating a unique car.
I think that because bespoke is such an important part of the process of purchasing art, it's why we have more of those customers. So, it’s literally as if you would go to a renowned artist and ask for a commission. One can do exactly the same thing here. Through our 'Q by Aston Martin' offering, you can phone up my team of designers and say ‘I want you to create a one-off car, just for me.’ The Victor is a perfect example of that. These one-off commissions allow you a little bit more freedom because they are only for one customer. What I say to those clients is, ‘You've come here, not to design your car, but to commission me to design your car which will represent the language of an Aston Martin.’
"Beauty, dynamic and balance are the three key elements"
Well, let's dive into this question of visual language. What are the fundamentals of Aston Martin design?
Fundamentally, my design philosophy is based – whether it’s an Aston Martin, a kettle or vacuum cleaner - around the principles of beauty, the proportional relationship that you get through evolved inception, that is ultimately why we perceive objects as beautiful. When I lift the coverings on a car and people say ‘Wow, it's beautiful!’ that's exactly the first word I want them to say.
Because, although I use the principles of golden section, it's not just that. That simply creates something which is statistically beautiful. Our cars have to have movement, they're beautifully proportioned with dynamic movement and balance. So, beauty, dynamic and balance are the three key elements. The balance comes back to the beauty, but also it comes back to the timeless nature of something, or the inspiration of thought. Then the object has to portray what it's about to do. What are sports cars, going to do? They are going to drive! You put them on a track at high speed and they're going to get you somewhere with the benefit of power to spare. So, you're creating an object that has to inherently portray that, through its form and its language.
So, these three principles are at the heart of what you do – beauty, dynamic and balance?
Yes, they’re the three diamond principles as I say. And then, if I then wrap in simplicity with that - which is always the hardest way to generate excitement - then you have a timeless excitement. With balance, imagine a sprinter on the blocks, ready to move. They're crouched down, they're static. But you know from the poise and the stance of their body in which direction they're about to go. They're not going to fall over because of the perfect balance that is there. And that's exactly the principle I've put into all of our objects.
"I think one of our most beautiful cars ever was the DBR1... it's simply one of the most amazing forms on the planet."
When was this design philosophy encapsulated? Was it when Aston Martin was creating racing cars in the 1920s, 1930s? Did it all come together then?
I think that at Aston Martin after the war, there was an Italianate kind of direction, because we used Italian style houses to develop the car bodies. In particular we used Touring, which is based in Turin, so the British designers went over there to work with the Italians, to create the bodies. We then worked with a company called Zagato, another Carrozzeria, and they brought all that influence back. So, let's say from the late 1950s onwards, we were starting to look at form and beauty. And I think one of our most beautiful cars ever was designed for function, it's the DBR1. There were five cars made, it won Le Mans in '59 and it's simply one of the most amazing forms on the planet.
That was a revolutionary design!
Speed is beautiful in racing, not form. Yet for me, that car has one of the most evocative forms that has ever been created. Partly, that’s due to the material used, through the structure, through the thickness of the material and how you could form it. It was very thin aluminium, all forms were very gentle, very soft to fit around the frame and the body. And then it was very much about making sure that what we thought were good aerodynamics at the time worked well.
Around that time, in the late 1950s, what else was happening in design? What other factors do you think were driving British advancement in the design field?
I think there were a lot of advances. The Royal College of Art, for a start, in the early 1960s, had the first automotive course. Then, the world of fashion was incredibly good for the UK as well, creative thinking was becoming part of the nation’s vocabulary and Britain was at the height of creativity during the 1960s. We had some great exhibitions and there were lots of inputs from people coming to the UK, bringing knowledge. There was also a desire to move ahead, to change. Donald Campbell was trying to break world speed records and that drive to succeed and that drive to win, the will to win, was really, really important. Because Campbell himself was trying to lightweight a car and get it to go over 400 miles an hour, and someone else goes faster. Right, I'm going to beat them again. That drives change and it drives engineering innovation if you like. I think the innovative nature of our island mentality was very, very important.
So, this island mentality has always been a factor in our desire to evolve, innovate and develop?
It has, and I think the UK has also always been in the forefront in using materials. For instance, the UK was one of the first countries to really exploit the advantages of aluminium. And that came through several things. We've always had a brilliant air force, and I think aerospace was critical in those kind of technological advances in materials and engineering development. Today, 80 per cent of the Formula 1 teams are based in the UK, and they're based in the UK because we have this amazing capability.
Why do you think this is?
I think the education and the university systems we have through Cambridge, Oxford, the northern universities or down here in this hi-tech triangle between Silverstone, London and Oxfordshire is quite incredible. And I think back, too. I was a Royal College of Art graduate and if you think of what Victoria and Albert did in terms of promoting art, science, design, dance, music in South Kensington in the 19th century, that so vitally important. Imperial College is embedded within that university spot as well, and simply still today one of the best universities on the planet in terms of material, science, and development. I think there's always been a core desire to develop. But within that triangle of industry then material, science really came to the forefront. And that's where we made the biggest advances.
"The Royal family are such important supporters of British design and innovation. Charles is a lover of design and a fan of Aston Martin"
We’re celebrating that British creativity as part of our Jubilee festival this year, which brings me to another interesting facet of the Aston Martin story – the Royal family! I believe Prince Charles is a huge fan of Aston Martin?
We were delighted to welcome him to our facility in Wales. To come along and open the factory in St Athan, which is the first-time cars have been built in Wales for 50-odd years was quite a moment, and I hosted him there. I have also had an opportunity to meet the Duke of Edinburgh and sat on the board of the last design prize that he gave, as his personal advisor. The Royal family are such important supporters of British design and British innovation. And Charles himself, as you've mentioned, is a lover of design and a fan of Aston Martin. He runs his car currently on sustainable ethanol, which is an amazing thing as well. And we've looked after the car at Aston Martin Works for many, many years.
Most people watching The Crown would have noticed Charles’s character was driving a DB6. And that's the car that his son, Prince William, then got married in, and we provided a Bond car for another wedding as well. That relationship with the Royal family is for me, really important. Without Victoria and Albert, we wouldn't have some of the achievements in the 19th century that led to an educational system to support the arts. And the royal family has continued to support the arts through time. Today, Aston Martin are Royal Warrant holders which, on a global scale, indicates a certain quality level and is a very important signifier of Britishness.
And finally – we at Sotheby’s are incredibly excited to be partnering with Aston Martin. What does this collaboration mean to Aston Martin?
I think it's a great collaboration, because the curation, collection and auctioning of art and artefact is an important part of the culture of what I was talking about initially, which was collecting. So, there's a direct synergy. And I think there are many places you can go and see art and experience art. But typically, if you think about a place like Sotheby's, there is a guaranteeing of the authenticity of something and you're providing a service, a platform for those hidden gems to come out and be shown with their true value.
And for everyone who wants to see it, they can have access to it. You can go along and see that thing that maybe never even went to an exhibition. So, art, for me, is clearly my most important thing on the planet. And I think that applies to many people, because art is beyond politics, beyond culture. Whilst there is a lot that people don’t all agree on, you can always agree on beauty. And, as a commercial artist, I think that's why the association is fantastic because that's your core base. Your core base is the curation of art in whichever form it comes.