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Barker Brings Love Of Cars, Experience To CSULB Campus

Published: March 15, 2013

Peter Barker brings a love of world car culture to CSULB as a new member of the Department of Industrial Design.

Before joining the university in last fall, Barker worked for 20 years in higher education and 10 years as a consulting industrial designer with clients in Europe and the U.S. handling challenges as varied as access platforms, metrology (the science of measurement) technology, home products, bicycles and toys.

As a specialist in automobile design, he is especially pleased to be in Southern California, a world-recognized center for car culture.

“I’ve never been in a place where there is so much reliance on the automobile,” he said. His previous base town of Coventry used to be a mini-Detroit for the English car industry with a flourishing car-making base, but only Jaguar and Land Rover now remain. “I feel I grew up with car culture and I admire American cars of the 1950s and 1960s especially.”

As a design educator, the 20 years of work by this one-time resident of St. Albans includes serving as principal lecturer and program manager in the Department of Industrial Design at Coventry University as well as visiting lectureships and external examiner positions on other campuses in England and Spain. His research publications cover automotive design and development, automotive design history and driver fatigue. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in industrial design at the Royal College of Art in London, the latter in 1987.

Design runs in his genes. Barker believes it was his maternal grandmother, a surrealist painter in 1930s London, who first injected art into the family. She married a successful engineer, Hugh Barker, who worked for Otis lifts in Chicago during the Roaring ’20s before returning to England to further success in manufacturing and an interest in industrial design. Hugh Barker eventually hired Raymond Loewe, the founder of modern industrial design (the Greyhound bus, the Coca-Cola bottle and the package for Lucky Strike cigarettes). Barker became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1998.

Caring about cars is not always fun, as Barker discovered after a recent classic car show in Long Beach. “I saw what I felt was the high point of American car design with its confidence and attitude had passed,” he recalled. “For instance, the 1959 Chevrolet Impala was a fantastic car that used to stop my fellow Britons with their mouths open. This was brash Americana. Today, the car world is a different place with competition coming from everywhere including the Far East.”

Barker pointed to the legendary but lumbering Chevrolet Impala as an example of a design that time forgot.

“The Chevy Impala died with the growth of regulation,” he said. “Impact and safety regulations are particularly responsible. For instance, the central drive shaft of an original Chevy Impala would spear its drivers straight through their hearts. Their bodies would slide down the seat because there were no restraints. They might catch on the gear shift but then they’d slide out the door which didn’t lock properly. In an accident, they would have been dead in seconds. It was dangerous but, my God, what an expression of beauty. It was a glorious bubble of design.”

Peter Barker
PHOTO BY DAVID J. NELSON
Peter Barker

Barker still can be moved by a beautiful car. “I’m an emotional person,” he said. “I’ve shed tears over designs. Unless a designer feels that emotional connection, he or she will be in professional trouble. A good designer doesn’t mind letting their emotions flow. But you still need an analytical edge. You need to think about what you’re feeling. Good industrial designers will feel that emotional response then ask why they felt that way. Can I analyze how I feel about a shape? Is it the tail fins that make me so happy? Or is it the flow of the bumper? I don’t know what it is that makes me feel the way I do about automobiles but the people who can extract that emotion and put it back in their own work are good designers. It represents a balance between the two halves of one’s brain. An industrial designer harvests the best of both halves.”

Barker’s special interest is the design and success of European mini-cars. “The mini-car has a future in the small roads not only of Europe but in the urban settings of the U.S.,” he said. “Look at an older city like Long Beach where parking is at a premium. Mini-cars come into their own here. Making small, beautiful things is very close to the European heart. It is a matter of what cars fit which landscape. Could the Chevy Impala have existed anywhere but the U.S.?”

Technology plays a role in his work but it is just another tool. “Communication technology is particularly useful to the industrial design major like those we have here at CSULB,” he said. “There has never been a better time to be in education because students’ pocket computers can access information from all around the world. I’ve used motion-capture technology when it suits me but it is just another tool. I pick it up when I need it and put it down again.” He points to such early design influences as Alec Issigonis, the designer of the Mini; Harley Earl who began the General Motors design revolution in the 1950s; Fiat designer Dante Giacosa; the designer of the Citroen 2CV Pierre Boulanger; and the designer of the VW Beetle Ferdinand Porsche, who went on to develop his own famous range of sports cars after World War II.

Barker is glad he chose CSULB. “I’ve always heard good things about Southern California and I’ve even had students from my previous employment in Coventry who made the transition,” he said. “Exchange students with CSULB had an absolutely great time, so when I saw the opportunity to work here, I thought I’d better give this a try. When I interviewed here I thought, ‘This is the place for me.’”