The Ford Probe, the London Eye + the High Line
In our Design Object Series we highlight iconic objects designed by women. After spending months focusing on women we admire in the design industry, we decided to flip the script and shift our focus to the objects designed by such women, allowing the story of the object to reveal the impact that is possible through intelligent, empathetic design. Thousands of objects that you use and appreciate everyday…surprise! Women designed them! Many of the contributions of women to the design industry have been obscured if not erased throughout history. We want to do our part to counteract this effect by celebrating the women behind a range of objects that you’re sure to recognize. In this issue we salute three contemporary designs and the innovative women behind them: the Ford Probe, designed by Mimi Vandermelon in 1992, the London Eye, designed by Julia Barfield in 1998, and the High Line, designed by Elizabeth Diller in 2014.
The Ford Probe
In the late 1980s the shortcomings of the classic Mustang were increasingly evident to Ford developers. New models from Chrysler, Mitsubishi, and Toyota brought front or all-wheel drive, turbochargers, and other new technology to the market. These efficient coupes had better mileage and gas prices were on the rise. The Mustang, originally launched in the 1960s, was slated for a replacement that would involve a complete redesign. Ford worked with Mazda to develop the Mustang SN8, a front-wheel drive sports car built in the United States that used an existing front-wheel drive platform from one of Mazda’s best-selling sedan models at the time.
Just as production was about to begin, images of the design were leaked to an automotive magazine and thousands of outraged, die-hard Mustang fans flooded the Ford offices with complaints. Although they had already submitted an order for thousands of units, the response from the customer base was so negative that Ford canceled the Mustang redesign and pivoted, marketing the car as a new model; the Ford Probe. After side-stepping the Mustang debacle, the 1989 Probe was released with great success, and was scheduled to be redesigned in 1993.
Ford wanted a lighter, sportier look, and tapped Mimi Vandermolen, who had recently led the interior design of the 1986 Ford Taurus to great acclaim. Ford called the Taurus “a rounded edge revolution” and it was a catalyst for the explosion of oval-inspired styling that has dominated the market ever since. It was one of the earliest models to be developed by a cross-disciplinary team, meaning that the designers working on the exterior worked in concert with those working on the interior, and engineers, dealers, and promoters were also included. Vandermolen was the designer who realized that the key to a successful design would be to have the aesthetic of the interior reflect the lines and styling of the exterior. She thought explicitly about designing the car for women and told her boss, “If I can solve all the problems inherent in operating a vehicle for a woman, that’ll make it that much easier for a man to use.”
When they brought Vandermolen on, the Ford Design Studio hadn’t hired a woman in twenty years—not since World War II. Vandermolen was one of very few female designers in the automotive industry. She is famous for thinking first about whether or not the internal controls were friendly for the user, and much of what we think of as standard ergonomics for car interiors—which were originally designed for the convenience of engineers and not drivers—we owe to her influence.
The London Eye
Mimi Vandermelon’s use of ovoid curves shifted the aesthetic of car design in the US, and a circle is the ultimate curve. The London Eye is a massive circle on the London skyline, reminding us how beautiful and how unusual a circle is in this urban context. From 1999, when it was built, to 2006, the London Eye was the tallest ferris wheel in the world, measuring 443 feet in height. The vantage point of the highest observation position provides a stunning view of London and the Eye remains a popular tourist attraction to this day, often credited with the boom in ferris wheel construction that followed its success.
In 1993, wife and husband team Julia Barfield and David Marks submitted the concept to a competition for a new London landmark to celebrate the then impending millenium. Though no winner was declared, Marks and Barfield undertook the construction themselves, locating a site on the south bank of the Thames river. Originally the installation was only meant to stand for five years but the overwhelming popularity of the attraction led it to be preserved and, in 2006, illuminated with LED lights so as to be a landmark on the London skyline at night as well as during the day.
The wheel of the Eye measures 394 feet and is connected to a central hub with 64 cables. 32 passenger cabins are mounted along the wheel, a number that is symbolic of the 32 boroughs that make up Greater London. The wheel rotates at just two revolutions per hour, allowing each passenger a long look at the historic city.
The High Line
Like the London Eye, the High Line is an iconic installation in a giant city that makes incredible use of public, outdoor space. Where the London Eye provides a stunning overview of the city from a high vantage point, the High Line provides a gently elevated perspective; not like the view from the Empire State Building, but not like a view from any other park in NYC, either. The urban landscape rises up around visitors to this elevated park, the buildings becoming like trees and shrubs as they integrate with the native plant life. The High Line is a 1.45 mile long greenway suspended above the city sidewalks, repurposing old train lines that were scheduled for demolition before the proposal for a park went through. It is not only a park but a public space for arts, community events, food, plants, and convenient access points to the neighborhoods below. The elevated train lines, developed in the 1930s, were in decline throughout the 60s and 70s and completely defunct by the 80s. In 1999 CSX Transportation, the owner of the elevated rail line, invited proposals for recreational renovation, and in the early 2000s the land was rezoned as a public park. The non-profit conservancy Friends of the High Line was founded to oversee the development of the park. The founders noticed that, while considered by many to be an eyesore, wild plants were thriving on the abandoned rail line. A team that included a landscape architecture firm, a planting designer, and a design studio came together to create a unique public park dedicated to native plant species. The planting designer was Piet Oudolf, the Dutch plantsman famous for a revolution in the use of grasses and native plants.
The design studio was Diller Scofidio + Renfro, an interdisciplinary studio that combines architecture as well as visual and performing arts. Elizabeth Diller is an architect famous for her “alternative strategies in space-making.” She took an interest in activism and community issues early in life, and carried a passion for social activism into her career as an architect and designer. Through her subversive lens, anything could be architecture. Of the practice she founded with her husband, Richard Scofidio, she explained, “We wanted to question habits of space.” She questions the very concepts of space and architecture to expand our ideas of what these terms can signify, how they can be integrated into the landscape, and how they can impact our daily lives.