Defining Style

Maybe I was a little hard on Thierry Henriette. A French magazine had asked for an evaluation of some models introduced at the Milan show, and the Mondial RZ Nuda, styled as it turns out by Thierry's company Boxer Design, got a thorough roasting. 0 out of 5 to be exact, with the added comment that it had "all the style and panache of an oil refinery". Okay, so I'd had a bad day.

No doubt offended by this insult to an indigenous product, the subsequent issue carried the results of the 2003 Motorcycle Design Awards, in which the same Mondial scored second place within its category. The editor also delighted in observing that the same person responsible for the earlier put-down was also President of the Motorcycle Design Association and instigator of the awards which acclaimed it.

In reality, these awards are decided by a democratic process over which the organisers have no influence, so the paradox could easily be resolved. But explanations weren't invited, the editor preferring simply to savour any humiliation of the English as belated revenge for Waterloo. All the same, they had a point.

Style is indeed hard to measure, and I live in constant fear of having to present a design award to something utterly hideous, thanks to the collective votes of my peers. Their decisions can sometimes be alarming. This year, one member even voted for the Bakker Grizzly, a kind of disorganised two-wheeled pick-up which gives the impression that the entire design was made up as they went along. Beauty was clearly in the eye of that particular beholder, although a sharp stick may have been more appropriate.

This goes to show that even professionals disagree about what constitutes beauty, which is probably a good thing, otherwise motorcycles would all look the same. But even they have to work within parameters of acceptability - our collective perception of what works and what doesn't. To stop things getting too predictable, there is always the added element of fashion, which constantly works to challenge our preconceptions. A good designer will not only be aware of the latest trends, but also be able to select which are applicable and to what degree. Bolder ones will try to push the limits, but in doing so they risk overstepping the mark.

The Salzburg-based consultancy Kiska Design threw restraint to the winds with the radical KTM RC8, which certainly goes all out for maximum impact. Whether or not the design is actually attractive is being hotly debated in Readers' Letters columns the world over, but Kiska is playing on pushing the envelope of Edge Design to its limits, having been among the first to apply the style to motorcycles. Just a few years ago, such a design would have been dismissed out of hand, so the element of timing seems to be critical.

Countering that is the argument that the best designs are timeless. Some even appear to improve with age, although this means simply that we have now learned to accept the style without question. Every design must have been new at some point, if not necessarily controversial. Following the "timeless classic" philosophy is a fairly risk-free strategy, and has proven extremely lucrative for Harley-Davidson, although even The Motor Company needs to reinvent its products from time to time to give customers a reason to keep buying them.

Style is every bit as important with the classic look, where detail takes over from novelty as the primary issue. Not all would-be imitators have understood how crucial this detailing is to the overall acceptance of the design, and lacking the pedigree of the archetype, have failed to convince the buying public of their credibility. In Harley's case, that tank badge is an integral part of the aura.

Clearly then, style is more than skin deep. It encompasses the image of the product, a factor not missed by company spin doctors who protect their identities vehemently. It also demands that the hardware matches up to the image. Drop a two-stroke into a Ducati 916, and it immediately becomes pretentious, which is why you won't find a Cagiva Mito at the Guggenheim, even though it looks almost as good.

So how do you measure style? Well, it certainly can't be quantified, which is why many company CEOs are nervous about the whole issue. They know it's vital to their profit figure, but are unable to predict its success. To complicate things further, a certain exclusivity is vital to the plot - if everyone rode an MV, it would drastically reduce its impact. This may explain the success of after-market accessories for cruisers, giving that extra touch of personalisation now that there's virtually a Harley parked on every street corner. Even success it seems can be counter productive for style.

An analysis of the word would need to involve a mixture of aesthetic excellence, desirability, exclusivity and timing, but even with all the essential elements in place, nothing is guaranteed. Style is an art, not a science, and as such it can neither be measured nor easily defined. As Sinatra once recounted, you either have it or you don't.

Glynn Kerr, December 2003