Štefan Klein “Design can function even without art, but then it would lose its soul.”

16. 11. 2016

Štefan Klein was my teacher at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava. In his class, I drew and modeled cars, bicycles and spaceships, and debated about airplanes, trains, transportation, philosophy, marketing, target groups, mobility, and possible scenarios for the future development of society. In class, we always had artistic freedom. Although we also studied subjects related to automotive construction, we were always more artists than technicians. We dreamed and we created. Many of us now work for foreign automotive companies, and then there are those who do more writing and talking than designing. That’s me. Maybe that’s one reason why I am now sitting at Café Verne, talking over coffee with Štefan Klein – about design, art, education, inspiration, and the Aeromobil.

MS: How does a designer view the relationship between art and design? When someone designs a car, can we also call it making art?
ŠK: Of course we can. At car companies, design is not an engineering profession, but an artistic profession. Design communicates with engineering, but it remains independent. The search for form and materials is expressly a thing for people with an arts education.

MS: What are the requirements for students of “transport design”? Should they be more of a sculptor, a draftsman, a philosopher, a technician, or a computer expert?

ŠK: When we look at the life of the school’s design studio – whose study program is not one year but six – I try to make it so that during those six year students will have the chance to work with many different assignments.  is very important for us to have an environment where we interact with art on a daily basis. That is one specific feature of our school. It is also a reason why car manufacturers come to us. They don’t come just because we have excellent designers, but also because they see art being made here. In fact, this daily confrontation of fine art with design is immensely inspirational for them. When they come to our school, they are not just looking at design – they check out the entire school. Sometimes they are attracted to jewelry, sometimes to painting, sometimes to sculpture. Some representatives of international car makers own collections of Slovak glass, prints, and paintings. Design can function even without art, but then it would lose its soul. The designer is both consumer and creator, just like a fine artist.

MS: It has been said that cars can be designed only by automotive experts and fans. Someone who has been drawing since childhood, and who understands the field. But at the transport design studio, the cars of the future are being designed by female students as well. And not without success. How is that possible?
ŠK: I don’t think that cars can be designed only by automotive “hobbyists.” It is the school’s job to provide its students with information about the history of automobiles. Cars can be designed on the basis of a variety of inspirations, and not just in the garage. There are a lot of women in our design studio, and in recent years they have been more successful than the men. Notone of the women has said that she works on her car at home in the garage. They are people with an artistic sensibility. At the entrance exams they did well in other disciplines, and some of them even transferred from other departments. What is important is the ability to create a new form and a new type of communication. It is more like conceptual thinking, like deciding whether to put the turn signal indicator on the right or the left.

MS: In 2000, our semester topic at the Transport Design studio was Mobility 2020. Our task was to think about what transportation in Bratislava would look like in the year 2020. People created optimistic, catastrophic, and even absurd scenarios, along with designs for various vehicles – public transit in glass cats, bicycles, flying machines, and teleporters. We thought the world would change radically in 20 years. It’s only six years until the deadline. How do you see transport in Bratislava in 2020 today?

ŠK: The car will remain a car, although it will contain many new motifs. Ten years ago, cars were metal boxes on wheels that provided something like luxury and status. Today, a car contains many more levels, and in the future there will be even more. Also, some features that we know today might disappear. The element of status, which used to be important, is receding. One important concept is interface – how the car communicates, what it has to offer. Despite today’s communications technology, even today the car offers many possibilities for how to spend time in it. Our lifestyle is changing. Digitalization has infiltrated our private lives, of which the car is a part as well. The car’s exterior will reflect new themes. Reduced size and consumption, recycling of materials. On the level of micromobility, we have addressed the question of whether small can be beautiful. Many people believe cars can be beautiful only if they are like a living room where you have everything: a perfect armchair, comfort, space. But cars exist in connection with the city and its transient nature, and in the end result they are closely connected to our survival. In order to survive, we have to make things. One change that we do anticipate is electrification – new energies, materials, and forms. There will be even more room for a conceptually different understanding of the automobile.

MS: You studied both technical and artistic disciplines – apparently an ideal combination for developing the Aeromobil. When did you realize that you wanted to design a car with wings?
ŠK: The idea came from my reading. Another important factor was the aviation background from home. In 1989, I was trying to figure out what my thesis would be about. It was a revolutionary time. My teacher at the Academy, Tibor Schotter, asked me what I wanted to make. I answered that I wanted to combine flying with a car. I have experience with both art and technology. Right now, I am living at a time when I can integrate both these areas. Conceptually, the Aeromobil functions. But now comes the time when I will have to hand my design over to professionals, specialists in this field. I know very well that if I want to do an aerodynamic calculation, I will have to invite specialists in aerodynamics. As an integrative person, I know whom to contact.

MS: If you design a cup, you should know what a good shape looks like that is easy to drink from. If you design a chair, you should know which shape is comfortable to sit in. In both cases, you can experiment without fatal consequences. But with a flying automobile, everything has its exact place, and dreams must eventually give way to function and safety. Is the Aeromobil exactly the way you imagined, or is it a compromise between form, function, and what was possible?
ŠK: There are items whose technical functioning is very simple. For instance, with a cup the designer can work alone without an in-depth study of volume calculations.

MS: And if you can’t drink from it, he can say that it’s art.
ŠK: (Laughs) I believe that the initial impulse on the conceptual level is individual performance. During my early difficulties, when the Aeromobil didn’t want to get off the ground, I sought out the help of experts in aerodynamics. They came up with a solution that I as a designer could not accept. It completely destroyed my vision. They told me that I couldn’t change the wing’s angle of attack because it was complicated and nobody could fix it. But I remained obstinate. I said that I could not accept any compromise even if it meant an extra year of work. It had to stay in the position in which I had designed it. In the end, I managed to create something that was functional even if it isn’t perfect in terms of mathematical computations. We know from history that a certain amount of stubbornness is immensely important in order to give birth to new things. New things are born only from a certain excess pressure of creativity and change. If it wasn’t like this, then we’d still be living in a primitive society. For the Aeromobil I chose a solution that took 20 years, but it is without any compromises. Despite this fact, it has been positively received for instance by technicians from NASA, and we have been invited to the Smithsonian Museum.

MS: Your Aeromobil is currently being shown both at home and abroad. What has been the international response to this daring project from Slovakia?
ŠK: The breakthrough came with a conference in Montreal a year ago, which presented the latest news from the field of general aviation. There was a section for flying and hybrid vehicles in personal air transport. We had been invited by Boeing’s Branko Sarh. The whole world was there – six teams in total. The conference was organized by NASA. Before this, we got in contact with Juraj Vaculík, invested in an engine and special construction, and a few days before the conference we flew the Aeromobil. The first part of the conference was for presenting visions. Then we told them that we would like to show them a video of our flight. The entire room grew silent, and the flight convinced them completely. Pilots believe what they can see, and not just pictures.

MS: What more does the Aeromobil need so that I can buy it at a car dealership and actually use it?
ŠK: We are currently completing the Aeromobil III, and have a test flight ahead of us. It will have avionics and an autopilot, and will have all the requisite attributes of reliability. I am convinced that we will soon see the Aeromobil as a product.

MS: You have a lot of design projects under your belt, ranging from a golf cart, an electric car, a train, a bulldozer, and a scooter all the way to the Aeromobil. What will be your next challenge?
ŠK: I am very interested in micromobility. I have my own theory of expansion and reduction. I exist on two seemingly antithetical levels. On the one hand is the Aeromobil, which is expanding into a realm that remains unknown, into which it can expand. Countries without sufficient infrastructure (Russia, India, Turkey…) will be faced with the choice of either building motorways or taking advantage of other possibilities. The idea behind the Aeromobil was that it could move through the air as well as on the ground. It expands into an environment that needs no infrastructure. Neither air nor water need infrastructure. But the ground does – wheels need roads. People are inspired by the birds in the air, the fish in the water, but they have never found inspiration from the animals that walk on dry land. Because their locomotion is very complicated. Wheels are quite a phenomenon. We don’t find rotation in nature – not a single animal has wheels. Ground is so valuable that infrastructure is a luxury. As a designer, I am interested in the urban issues. Humankind is growing and facing implacable problems. We suffer from overcrowded cities. We need to find an intelligent solution. Reduction is the same as expansion, but turned in towards itself. It, too, needs energy. If we change the way we move about and come up, for instance, with small boxes that take up five times less space than a car, then that too could be a great step forwards in terms of reduction. I am currently thinking on these two levels – expansion/reduction and the combination of the two. And I am planning to assign this topic to my students as well.


Maroš Schmidt is a designer and curator of Museum of Design in Bratislava.


Štefan Klein Aeromobile II.5, 2012 courtesy Aeromobil Ltd. photo: author’s archive. 

Štefan Klein Locomotive R-772, 1998 collaboration with: Martinská Mechatronická, inc. Martin photo: author’s archive. 

Štefan Klein Aeromobile I, 1994 author’s design photo: author’s archive.

Štefan Klein UL Molecul, 2011 author’s design photo: author’s archive.

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