Hello and welcome to the BCU Alumni Podcast. I'm Bethan from BCU’s Alumni Team and in each episode
we welcome a different member of our alumni community back onto campus, to chat all about what they've been up to since they graduated from BCU.
Today we're joined by Patrick le Quement. Hello. Born in France, Patrick came to school in the UK when he was just 11 years old.
He soon decided that he wanted to become a designer and he arrived in Birmingham in 1962 to study industrial design
at the Birmingham College of Arts and Crafts. One of the colleges which ultimately became BCU.
After graduating in 1966, Patrick was keen to become a designer for a top automotive company, as he had already grown incredibly passionate about cars.
He secured himself a role at Simca, which was later bought by US based Chrysler as an automobile designer.
Patrick soon moved to Ford, where he worked for 17 years for both Ford of Britain and Ford Germany.
Working his way up the ladder to become Head of Design in Germany. At Ford, Patrick was responsible for the designs of the likes
of the Ford Cargo and the Ford Sierra, which is a vehicle that had a significant influence on the automobile industry.
The alumnus joined the Volkswagen Audi Group in 1985, two years before he was given the opportunity to take charge of design at Renault.
He arrived as the Vice President of Design, but eventually worked his way up to become the Senior Vice President.
Patrick's first major project at Renault was the Twingo. This year marks 30 years since the Renault Twingo was launched
in continental European markets and it is now in its third generation. It is a four seater city car that was designed
under the direction of Patrick, who took an unusual approach and added a front end layout to the car that resembled a smile.
As well as the Twingo Patrick spearheaded Renaults' campaign to build the image of innovation and quality that it still enjoys today,
leading on the designs of the likes of the Scenic, Espace, Spider, Kangoo, Laguna, Avantime, Megane and even zero emission vehicles
Twizy and Zoe, as well as the low cost Dacia range. From his time at Ford to Renault, and everything in between,
Patrick has now been responsible for an incredible 60 million cars in his career, and he has won several major industry awards.
Since leaving Renault in 2009 Patrick has also designed over 30 luxury yachts
as well as co-founding Besign, the Sustainable Design School in France. In this episode will be exploring more about Patrick’s career,
how he has made his mark in his chosen industries, and how he's become one of the leading designers in history.
Patrick, thanks so much for coming into the studio today. Thank you. Thank you for having me.
So what's it like to be back at BCU, and when was the last time you were in Birmingham? Gracious me. Well, it feels terrific.
A bit of a journey in nostalgia, of course. And with regards to my last trip to Birmingham, that's in fact, 26
years ago, where I came on a flying visit to
to be awarded a doctor Honoris Causa. So I haven't come back since.
So it's just wonderful to be back. So you studied here in Birmingham in the 1960s then.
So what was it like to be a student in Birmingham at that time?
Well, I think I was extremely fortunate to have come to Birmingham,
but to have been in England at that time as well, because design education in France was nowhere near as good as
the one in Britain. When it came to fine arts or perhaps textiles and so on for sure, or fashion, let's say.
But product design, industrial design, no, this was the place to come.
And so, yeah, I feel that I made the right choice.
So over 60 million cars. That's obviously nothing short of remarkable.
What was it about cars that made you want to work in the auto industry in the first place?
Well, I was a kid, as a kid you know, I was I loved cars.
And when we drove with my family,
my father had a very large car and we sat in the car. There weren't that many cars on the road.
And each of the member of the family was given a brand. And I, being the youngest, I was privileged and I was given the name,
I was given Renault. So I would win on every journey. And I became, absolutely fell in love with Renault and fell in love
with cars, basically, and remained so for many, many years,
even though perhaps not so today. But yes, it's been a long, long love love affair with motor cars.
I suppose, because motor cars in those days represented a symbol of freedom.
The notion of going from point to point, going from a specific place to another.
And that's it was also an industrial product where the designer could play a major role in
in shaping it in to give it a certain character
So after completing your studies, then, you worked for Simca before getting a job at Ford. So what was it like working for Ford?
You were obviously there for 17 years, so you must have made a significant contribution?
I worked indeed, a long time. 17 years began in Great Britain.
Then moved a few years later to Germany, back to Britain, back to Germany.
Then I, I made a last period in the United States. The I just went up the ladder basically.
It was a highly competitive environment and
interestingly enough, I met one of my former student friend
in Ford named Trevor Creed, who later became vice president of Chrysler Design and retired.
It was, as I said, highly competitive. And when I joined Ford,
I was looked upon as being a kind of an advanced designer.
I didn't never seem to actually win anything, really.
But people thought, well, this guy is a bit way off. I mean, he's he's doing stuff which maybe in ten years time or 15 years.
Mm hmm. But I was very lucky that I. I had for a chief designer a German called Uwe Bahnsen,
bit of a legend, who loved to talk. And we talked to each other.
And that one spot, I mean, I think a couple of years or maybe even less than that, he offered me to continue my study.
And so I, I worked and also studied at what is today called Anglia Ruskin.
And I did an MBA and it was all very much falling in line with my wish
that design should be recognised and not be just, you know, little artists,
but that we should be looked upon as managers, people who thought and not just
came up with nice pictures or to illustrate the marketing positioning.
So these had very, very formative years in Britain. I went on to
to Germany with a promotion and stayed there a few years, worked on quite a few cars
like the Granada and Taunus and so on.
And I was appointed for a very much senior
job in Britain, where I became an executive designer in charge of vans and trucks.
And this is where I had this wonderful experience of working on a truck called the Ford Cargo.
And I think the Ford Cargo is a there is a parallel between the Ford Cargo and later at Renault with the Twingo.
In both cases, I had it had to do with a boss who was brand new to the world of product development.
Knew, had no experience with design. And when we presented this
very modern design, he just thought it was quite normal and he felt a bit, you know, as if you
he was a bit surprised and startled to a certain extent. But basically our design intent was respected and we came up with a truck,
which not only was Truck of the year, but also was manufactured for 40 years.
You know, and I have really this is in my mind,
one of the two vehicles that I would put in my list of the vehicles that I'm proud of.
Yeah. So then I moved on to Germany, remaining an executive designer, sort of number two, Ford Germany involved
and very closely to the to the Sierra, which was which was really a program
which was a bit of a revolution in the automobile world. And and
that the vehicle I had a bit of a tough time when it arrived in Britain because British buyers
were maybe a little more conservative since the car it was replacing was the Cortina, which was a
very, very conservative, nicely designed vehicle and that the Sierra just didn't correspond
exactly to to what they they liked. I mean, they got used to it and it turns out the Sierra was,
was a highly successful vehicle. Anyway, I, I got a promotion. I was then put in charge of the design center
in, in Germany and earmarked to become the next vice president.
And I was sent to the US, didn't like what I saw and
and decided to yeah. To to to actually hand in my resignation and then I moved out.
But in any case I learned enormous amount in Ford. So I have lots of very fond memories at that time.
So I think I had the opportunity of a lifetime Renault then. Can you talk me through how that came about and why you were the perfect fit for them?
First of all, because I love Renaults and I have to say I applied 11 times,
sometimes not receiving an answer and so on, so forth. And it so happened that within Renault, the design organization
was called Styling at the time, and the head of the styling organization
had a health problem and he asked for an early retirement.
And so they wanted to appoint an engineer.
The fellow appeared to be a good candidate because he dressed funny and
and he could draw caricature. And I think his father was a gallery owner. So all of that is just absolutely perfect to replace a designer.
But the directors of the styling department refused. They said, No, we can't accept that.
We accept that none of us are good enough to become the next head. But no, we will not accept an engineer becomes our head.
Why don't you go and get a real professional like Patrick, like him? And this is how
you know I was. I was contacted. I had an interview with the president
of the of the company in his home because of, you know, the fact of being recognized and so on.
Yeah. And I rang the bell and I went upstairs and I arrived in this very bourgeois like interior.
And this this man asked me to come and sit. And he said, Oh, I know nothing about design.
He said, Well, no, yes, I do know something about design. I went to a fair in Paris last year and I bought I bought a toilet brush
and they told me it was very design and and there was a smile on his face. You know, the guy had a fantastic sense of humor.
But anyway, I left his office. I think, you know, one must remember that Renault was close to bankruptcy.
Okay? And I didn't actually negotiate my my salary. That was that was not my thing. But
basically I left and he asked me if he wanted to hire me and he wanted to he gave me carte blanche to total free
hand to do what I would I wanted to do with the design department, but make sure that I get back innovation into Renault,
which had been producing very highly conservative vehicles.
And I said the one of the first thing that I would like and that's the only condition that I will basically impose
is I do not want this new organization, which I intend to call design to answer to engineering.
It has to answer to the product development group. At the same level as in gang or or product planning.
And he said, Fine, we've got a deal. And so that's how I joined
Renault under excellent conditions with a cut in my salary of 40%, which they made up within two years.
So yeah, that was just perfect. So your first major project to Renault was of course
the Twingo, now celebrating its 30th birthday. You stonewalled into many issues whilst designing the Twingo.
So can you tell me about them and how it could have been a totally different car?
Yes. In fact, before leaving, the former head of the styling activity gave me two keys
and he said, okay, this is the these are the keys of the models which are shut up in garages somewhere in western of Paris, in the suburbs.
And it's a program that you might really be interesting to to to look at.
And so as soon as he left, you know, I'd been in the in the company maybe less than than a month.
I had these two models brought back to to the design center
and they opened the boxes and I saw these two models. One didn't interest me too much,
but it was this funny little car, which I thought was very interesting because it was a one box design
by one box it means one silhouette, not, you know, a broken windshield. And then the hood,
it was smallish, probably too small to almost close to one of these city cars.
So these fancy cars that they have in France, which people at 16 can drive all, you know, young 16,
but they don't have a license and they're bloody dangerous, too. But
and it had a not a very nice front end, really,
really a sad sad but but also a grumpy.
Yeah. A grumpy look and I organised a meeting with the president
and I had no I had I knew that this car had been got rid of
or stopped because it wasn't making any money. And, and I said, yes,
but you know, you've given me this assignment of innovation and this car really has enormous
potential for me, represents the the DNA of the company.
And he agreed to give me a small group of engineers and we reworked the package, made it just just a little bit bigger
so that it could become of a size that people would use it even to go on motorways and go away on a vacation.
And I set the team to, you know, to improve the car and of course, to try to find a front end,
because the front end was just really the poorest part of the car. And as time went by, there was no answer.
I just couldn't get something that I was happy with. And what I wanted to do was to get a car which
was happy, you know. I called it well after after the drawing that I'm going to talk about
now, ‘la voiture du bonheur’ the car of happiness, and time was going
by, you know, and we were coming close to this presentation. And then finally I did something which I never did.
Namely, I did myself a sketch, you know, to just to convey the idea gave it to the director of exterior design after the car.
And it was very simple sketch of front end of the car and, and the car had a smile
and inside was a fellow driving it also with a huge smile. I said, This is what we've got to do.
It's got to have eyes and you've got to you've got to be able to recognise. It's got to be almost have a human feeling, you know, And
and we immediately worked on that, you know, very quickly. And
then came the day of the presentation. And I recall there was, first of all, the economic you know,
the meeting on the economics of the car. And basically they had made huge improvements, but the car was still not satisfactory
for a company that was in dire straits, you know, So
they said, well, yeah, maybe we just go and have a look at the car. So we went down the stairs to the showroom.
It was covered, had the car uncovered, and the car
smiled at the president and the president smiled at the car. And, you know, you must remember I was just brand new in the company
in that company, people who, you know, some of them had been there 30 years or whatever.
And I said to the president, this is not this is not a car. You know, it's like a pet.
And in fact, when you go when you drive it home, if it's very cold outside, you don't leave it outside,
you don't park it outside. You put it under your arm and you take it upstairs and put it in front of the chimney.
And the president understood my humour and so on, so forth,
Yeah. But the rest of the of the directors, you know, they thought this guy is mad
and we soon are going to see blood all over the place.
But it didn't happen. So president says, well, you've really got to make efforts on this.
This is not from a financial standpoint and then we'll do the market research.
Okay. So here goes all the work is done and then the time comes to
to do the market research, and market research, just like in Ford was
David Ogilvy had a very good expression. He said that market or companies use market research
like a drunkard uses a lamppost, more for support rather than illumination.
Anyway, the results were presented. The president wasn't there, but it was just all the senior members
outside of the president and maybe the executive committee. And the result was that 25% people just loved the car.
You know, the people had seen the models and they saw our model and they just loved it. But the it wasn't just appreciate.
They didn't just appreciate. They loved the car. 25% said, yes,
we like it, but we wouldn't like to be the first on the block to drive. Yeah. And 50% hated the car.
I mean actually loathe the car and said this is not a car. It's not serious. It's you know, it's a caricature.
It's been designed by Walt Disney and so on, so forth. And an enormous amount of pressure
put on me to change the car, to change the front end, to wipe off the smile and then just give it a serious
look, you know, And there was no one who actually defended that.
You know, everybody agreed that I had to change the car. I went on a long, it was a long weekend.
And I went to the south of France and I was thinking about this. This was before, you know, emails existed.
And when I came back, I sent a small note to the president and I wrote
and this was already taking a risk because he was not my boss. I had somebody in between, but I sent a note and saying
the biggest risk for the company is not to take any risk. And I ask you to choose between instinctive design and extinctive marketing.
And he wrote back on the note, I completely agree with you, mon cher directeur my dear director, let's go.
And that's how the car was approved. But of course, today, you know, when you when history is told, including in books,
and they never tell that part or they try not to, except that the president
Raymond Lévy, in the preface of the book, he told the story. And so now, you know, if you go on Internet
and you put instinctive design versus extinctive, then you'll find the story.
So that's the story of the Twingo. So what do you make of the auto industry now then?
And do you think more creativity is needed in the cars of today? I don't feel at ease
with the automobile industry today. I, I think first of all, I, I did have a
just before the year 2000, I really had serious doubts
about what I had done. You know, you made reference to 60 million cars, but, you know, just to make it graphically
more visible, were you to put these 60 million bumper to bumper, no space,
just bumper to bumper, they would go down 6438 times around the world.
Okay. That's one hell of a traffic jam. And of course, I became more and more conscious of
the planet. Yeah. And all that is related to
just saving ourselves, you know, from from the woes that is, that we are facing.
Um, I feel the automobile industry today. I understand they’re moving towards,
you know, electric vehicles fair enough, except that the making of electricity is, is made,
you know, the electricity made comes from charcoal burning
central, whatever is called. And I find also
that there is a lack of imagination and we are surrounded
with SUVs, which I refer to, as such uninteresting vehicles, and they all look very much alike.
And I, I don't see much of identity
and I don't see much change happening. And I fear that
in the automobile industry, the design world is not present enough that we've reverted back to just styling, basically.
But I don't see a sort of a politically committed or politically not in the sense of the, you know, the party, but engaged
world on the side of design. You know, it's as if we're just accepting, designers are just accepting the message given to them and just,
you know, no, I don't want any arguments. Just do it, you know, And they come up basically with very similar stuff.
The world over. Yeah, right. So in recent years then you've been designing yachts,
so can you tell me more about how that opportunity came about and what you've achieved in this new step in your career?
Well, I learned to get back into drawing just before I left Renault
because I participated in a in an article which asked for us to have designers or senior designers
to come up with a drawing. And in that it should be something that we consider to be iconic.
I chose a laguiole knife, which is something very traditional,
even though it was revisited by Phillip Stark, and I did a
rather nice drawing and I felt that, you know, getting back into drawing seriously, I mean, of course I continue to draw, but seriously
was like, you know, getting back on a bike, basically. And I did this nice drawing and it was just fluke,
you know, because the next drawing I did was just awful. And the one after that was even worse. So basically it just tells you that you never get a free lunch.
It you really have to work very hard. I got back into drawing and then I was contacted by a company,
a big group, who contacted me for a quality oriented
project because in Renault I was also for four years the corporate quality man, and they asked me to,
they made boats and could I help them to improve the perceived quality of their group.
So I got involved, established processes, they accepted all those. And then at one point, one of the bosses said,
How would you like to, you know, design a boat for us? I said a boat? but I've never designed boats.
I mean, I know nothing about boats. He said, Oh, don't worry, you'll be working with a a really good team.
Yeah, you know, give it a try. So I worked on this very first boat, which was the
Outremer 5X, which is a catamaran sailing boat. Okay. I’m into sailing boats,
even though I'm not a sailor, you know, but okay. And the first boat did very well. It was
voted the elected European Boat of the Year and Multihull of the year and in the United States.
And then, you know, then there was another and then another and now sort of I’ve got to, as you said in the introduction, 33 boats.
and I’ve got right now, this very day, this day, uh, two boats being launched at the Cannes Yachting Festival.
So I got into the yacht by absolute pure accident. And what I did know is that when I left Renault,
I banned the word, I’ll say it softly retirement, okay? And I just didn't want to
I mean, I, I just didn't want to just go cycling or learn something new or what I wanted to do
is start as an apprentice into a something I knew nothing about. I didn't want to be a trophy designer, so I just
wanted to start at something right at the bottom. Well I didn't really, but
I had to learn everything. And then yeah. And so now I've been, you know, working about 12, 13 years in this in this business.
And I just just love it, you know? I'm just so happy to to be
so busy. Really busy. So you've also co-founded
your own design school, so what inspired you to set it up? And also what do the students at the school get out of it?
Yes, I think it's very much based on what I was saying about feeling
starting to feel ill at ease about that I had been a product, or participated as a productivist, you know,
producing, mass producing vehicles without having this concern about natural resources,
about about the environment and so on, so forth. And it so happened that I met up with a couple of people
who felt very much in the same way. One was already the head of a very large
French design school called Strat College, and the other was a very famous,
very, very world famous naval architect. So the first one was called Maurille Lariviere and the second Marc Van Peteghem.
And we had discussions for a couple of years and we elected to
create a school, an international school on the French Riviera, because it's much nicer than, you know,
close to the Belgian frontier, nothing against Belgium, but, you know, the weather is a little bit nicer and
and it's unusual in the sense that it's in English, the tuition is in English and it's totally international.
So we have 29 nationalities in the school and
we base our teaching on the United Nations, recognition of the points
associated with sustainability. It's in the brief and we have a lot of students
who will come to our school maybe to do the Masters, or maybe they will go to Licentiate and then move to another school.
It's clearly very much oriented towards sustainability
and we're very involved with with industry, with institutions.
We have a continuously projects, you know, with companies, various companies or, you know, hospitals or many, many different things.
And yeah, it's, it's something which we really felt we wanted to do and that we had to do.
And I felt as a, as an individual that it was a bit of a small payback, you know.
So yeah, I'm very happy to have participated in that. And it's, it's,
it will celebrate its 10th anniversary in October.
So you've been selected as one of our industry icons at this year's alumni festival.
So what does that mean to you? Well, it's a big word, you know, and
well, I'm not sure how I can answer that. You know, of course, I'm very proud to know. But,
um, I think more so, I'm, I'm, I'm proud that it actually comes from BCU, you know, because
basically I'm ever thankful for the education I had here.
I feel it's far better than what other people were getting in other universities at the time
taking, not taking anything away from, you know, the RCA where I was.
I also taught at one time. But I think as a as a course in what was in my days
called product design engineering, it was really one of the very, very best. And I can I can say that I learned all the fundamentals here.
It was a damn good experience human wise as well.
And so I can't think of a better place to receive such an honour as being called an icon of industry.
But yeah, I can't say any more than that. And final question then, if you could go back to your very
first day here at BCU, what is the one piece of advice you would give yourself?
I think it's opening out, keeping your eyes open. It's very much a message that
I've tried to transmit to all the designers that I've worked with. I've hired hundreds of designers in my time
and to all the young designers that I'm, or students,
and I ask them to keep their eyes open. And the worst thing
is to become a specialist in one field. And I think designers need to have a broad culture,
they need to travel, they need to work with
people from various nationalities. And there is a saying from Enzo Ferrari, the, you know, the
founder of the Ferrari Motorcars, who said that teamwork has replaced the solitary genius.
And I think this this is probably the key factor, this notion of working with people.
And I'm delighted to continue to work in that way with even today, you know, I work with
with groups of people and with people coming from various countries.
So, yes, that would be my advice. Thank you so much for popping by today Patrick and coming on to the podcast.
Hopefully we'll see you again very soon. Thank you.