The Elliptical Orbiter 

Luigi Colani, a ‘three-dimensional philosopher of the future’. Picture: grund.cz

29 November 2019

By Chris Dodd

Chris Dodd laments the passing of Luigi Colani, creator of the Glass Casket. 

The death of Luigi Colani in September deprives us of a wild man of industrial design, a free thinker who fashioned everything from cameras and computer mice to Formula I forms – including a revolutionary eight-oared boat of titanium and silk for the West German Olympic crew in 1972.

Colani was born in Berlin and studied aerodynamics in France. He described himself as a ‘three-dimensional philosopher of the future’ rather than a designer, adopting an unashamedly sculptural approach focusing almost exclusively on materials like plastic and glass-fibre for their pliable qualities. His team, based in a castle in Karlsruhe, built endless prototypes of often wildly extravagant motorbikes, cars and trucks. His cars were often outrageous; he radically re-bodied Lamborghinis, Mercedes, Ferraris and BMWs, following his principles of ‘bio design’, a take on curvaceous, nature-inspired forms that was far ahead of his time.

Wallpaper magazine’s tribute asserts that there was a certain amount of smoke and mirrors in the Colani mythos, for he was an incessant self-promoter equally at home with a conceptual vision far removed from engineering reality and designing consumer goods like cameras, televisions and chairs.

Colani was inclined to the round rather than the angular. He told the Independent on Sunday in 2006: ‘The earth is round, all heavenly bodies are round; they all move on elliptical orbits. This same image of circular, globe-shaped mini worlds orbiting round each other follows us down to the micro-cosmos. We are even aroused by round forms in species-propagation related eroticism. Why should I join the straying mass who want to make everything angular? I am going to pursue Galileo Galilei’s philosophy: “my world is also round”.’

One of Colani’s many car designs, The Pierce-Arrow Colani Concept Car.  Picture: CC BY-NC 2.0 (NonCommercial 2.0 Generic).

It was this kind of thinking that Colani applied to his shot at a racing eight for the defending Olympic champions in 1972. His boat was a sensation. It was designed to fit the physical characteristics of the individuals in the crew, and it constituted a new approach to both design and materials. The tubular frame is made of titanium and its tubes criss-cross between the staterooms. The sides consist of a Perspex framework perforated by large holes and covered by an outer skin of two layers of silk fibre, thus reducing weight to about 70 kilos – much lighter than contemporary craft. You can see through it. Outriggers and rails for the seats are welded on at a standard height, and the seats were originally mounted on ball-bearings.

The ‘Glass Casket’, hanging in the apex of the roof in the Rowing Gallery at Henley’s River and Rowing Museum.

The latter caused one of many problems. As soon as the boat bowed, the rails, which were far apart, moved fractionally further apart, causing the seat mounts to jam. To solve this, wooden mounted runners were fitted closer together. But these changed the height of the seats, making the outriggers the wrong height. Wooden blocks were then fitted to the upper surface of the three titanium tubes that formed the outrigger in order to raise the work.

Secret trials on the Bodensee were soon exposed in the German press, and reputations were at stake as the crew tested Colani’s speedy boat against their new Empacher designed by Leo Wolloner. First, they preferred one, then the other, finding favour and fault while reporters, some of whom were international oarsmen, issued glowing testimonies to Colani or Empacher. The tests were inconclusive. The Colani boat was eventually left in the boathouse. It was certainly sensational, but its structural problems earned it the nickname ‘Glass Casket’.

Colani’s radical boat in close-up. A one-piece titanium frame incorporating outriggers is covered by a transparent composite skin of expoxy, glass and carbon fibre.

While the crew went to the Olympic regatta in Munich and lost their 1968 Olympic title to New Zealand, the Glass Casket disappeared, forgotten for twenty-odd years. Then when the River & Rowing Museum was putting together a boat collection in the 1990s, a chance encounter uncovered its whereabouts. At Essen regatta the editor of Rudern magazine introduced me to a flamboyant figure puffing on a Churchillian cigar. Recognising the name, I grasped his hand and told him ‘You have a remarkable boat and I have a museum, and I would like to put your boat in it.’

‘Well then, I will restore it and give it to you,’ came Luigi’s reply. He wrote down a phone number before setting off for his home in Shanghai.

Two years later a fax announced that the restored boat was ready for collection. Melchior Bürgin of Stämpfli picked it up in Switzerland and trailered it to Henley, where it was suspended high in the rowing gallery just before the Queen opened the museum in 1998. Colani arrived in a classic black cab from Heathrow to witness the occasion before heading back to the airport.

Luigi Colani, 1928 – 2019. As a visit to his website will reveal,  among Colani’s radical designs were ones for pianos, coffins and lavatories.  Picture: The Online Photographer.

Like his boat, Colani cut a raffish figure on the two occasions when I met him. His regular garb was chunky white knitwear paired with handlebar moustache, cigar, shades and fedora. He was in Wallpaper’s view equal parts vivacious playboy, flamboyant artist and future visionary – at home in the ether of Salvador Dalí and Scott Fitzgerald. He drew inspiration for his boat from the movement of fish. He wanted to carry the cox in a flexible tail that would act as a rudder, steering a boat as light as possible while stiff enough to be rowed – a boat in keeping with his vision as a three-dimensional philosopher. He took inspiration from elliptical orbits such as the passage described by a blade.

Perhaps if Colani had unveiled his boat with time enough to allow more refinement, boat design would have taken a different direction going on 1972. As it turned out, it was carbon fibre rather than titanium and silk that was about to finish wood as the boat builder’s material.

Luigi Colani, born 2 August 1928; died 16 September 2019.

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