For Robert Melville, inspiration can come at the most unlikely moments. Even while taking his kids to the Natural History Museum. “I was looking at these fish thinking, they’re full of good ideas,” he recalls.
As Chief Designer at McLaren Automotive, Melville needs to understand the laws of aerodynamics, and it makes sense to let evolution do the research and development for him. By observing nature, he says, “you see the same shapes repeated, so there’s an intuitive visual language: you understand the way it works because you’ve grown up with it. If you can capture that in a design language, it means it’s not a trend. It’s timeless, it’s pure. It’s got integrity.”
Integrity is key to Melville’s craft. “Our design statement is to create breathtaking products that tell the visual story of their function,” he says. “There are no arbitrary lines.”
While Melville spends more time managing than physically designing these days (“Somebody else has done all the sketches; I describe the vision”), he still sees the hands-on element of the process as vital. Each new car begins life as a clay sculpture in the design studio. “It’s just the same as pattern cutting, stone-masonry, making a last for a shoe,” he says. “In the same way that, with a jacket, after a couple of weeks you might notice it’s got this really nice detail in the pocket… it makes you appreciate that an extra layer of love and attention went into the product. That’s what we certainly aim for.”
Melville values digital craft just as much as handmade work. “There’s definitely an appreciation now for what digital can be,” he says. “The whole craze for 3D printing a few years ago devalued the skill that goes into it, whereas now I think people realise what’s possible – for example, in Formula 1 cars, you can produce a 3D-printed part with almost a birdlike bone structure inside.”
We’re back to Mother Nature. In a business obsessed with airflow and keeping weight to a minimum, he returns again and again to the birds and the fish that he used to sketch as child, growing up on the outskirts of Leeds. “If you look at a shark’s gills, the way they’re layered, the water flowing from that peak at its nose and around the body– it’s communicating the way it functions,” he says. “All the fat has been removed so it looks lithe and athletic.”
The ability to replicate such lean speed and strength in a car, Melville maintains, boils down to a commitment to craftsmanship and attention to the minutest detail. “It’s only by having specialists in each area who are obsessive about looking at the tiny details that you save weight and make these marginal gains,” he says. “It’s the craft that combines modern technology and materials with a level of intricacy that is above and beyond what you normally expect.”