From sketching as a young boy to becoming one of the most influential automotive designers of our time, discover the innovative and mesmerising journey of Frank Stephenson
Frank’s penchant for design came to fruition far earlier than he can remember. He had always been led by colours as opposed to numbers and became more comfortable communicating visually than through language. “I was just wired that way from the beginning – my father is from the Northern Hemisphere, and my mother is more Southern. My mother is very artistic and colourful, whereas my father was very technical. However, I followed in my mother’s footsteps, so I think I was just born to be a designer.”
He fondly remembers days where he would draw for hours on end, instead of going out to play with other children. “My mother had to throw me out of the house because I refused to leave, and I guess around the age of 10 was when I really started to develop an interest in cars. The combination of looks, sound, and movement started to resonate with me in the sense that I visualised them from an artistic point of view.”
One memory that still sticks out in Frank’s mind is a walk through the park with his father. “We were walking and I remember seeing a car on the road and it blew me away”, he says. “When I went home I drew the car over and over again – it was amazing. It was like an epiphany, and I believe that was the turning point in my life when I started going crazy for drawing and designing things, with the end result of turning them into something realistic. I love the idea of having a prototype, then seeing someone driving it on the street, happy and smiling. That is what I actually love – I could care less if I own the car.”
In terms of what inspires his impressive and varied designs, Frank has always looked to nature. “I have always been really interested in nature and biology since a very young age. Some people say that they garner inspiration from architecture, furniture and fashion, but I have never been that way – those types of designs are temporary in my eyes. For example, if you are inspired by fashion one year, then the following year that fashion is out and there’s another one that’s in, so they’re all kind of like temporary inspiration. Nature to me is limitless and timeless – there’s no excess in nature, it’s basically designed to do a job. It does it absolutely perfectly, because if it didn’t, it would die off. And it only changes when it needs to change, so that kind of applies to my designs. I try to design things that look good for a long time, which are driven by nature’s principles.”
Frank further encapsulates his thoughts on blending design with nature by touching on the science of creating a beautifully proportioned object. He explains that the science is called the “golden ratio, which is about 1.618, and if you use this process your shapes will be pretty well-proportioned right from the start. Therefore, my inspiration is nature’s biomimicry, which revolves around being inspired by nature in such a way that you can see a connection. And that tends to make my designs last for a longer time. It’s not like next year that will be out of fashion.”
Obstacles are not in Frank’s vocabulary as he mentions that if you work with like-minded passionate people, then impossible never seems to get in the way. And after 30 years of working for the likes of Ford, BMW and McLaren Automotive, to then starting his own design studio, Frank Stephenson Design Consultancy, he has come across a plethora of hard-working and creative minds. “I need people to be as crazy as me in my career, and I’ve always tried to create that kind of team around me – passionate designers turn out passionate work, which is absolutely great.”
Frank chuckles at the easy, but not so easy question of what he believes is the greatest car ever built, or his favourite. “I would say the Jaguar E-Type Series 1 fixed head, which was built between 1961 and 1967. It was designed by a gentleman named Malcolm Sayers who wasn’t even a designer – he was an aerodynamicist, but he created something absolutely beautiful and stunning in my eyes.”
Despite his love of designing automobiles, Frank’s vehicle of choice is actually a red Ducati. “I like bikes more than I do cars – my bike is heavily modified and barely legal on the road. I also have a beat-up old defender that I tend to use when I want to take my two dogs on a trip to the countryside – it’s like my favourite pair of blue jeans that I have had forever.”
Guided by the principles of originality and authenticity, Frank’s interests have blossomed into much more than designing cars, allowing him to go beyond the limits, creating for him liberating prospects. “It is interesting to point out car designers per se have never really delved into designing anything else. However, I have made the switch into aeroplane design among many other things”, he comments.
“If you look at an aeroplane, they all kind of look the same. This is because we never involve designers – companies usually just take an engineering approach. But if these businesses ask other designers, from other industries what is their viewpoint on what an aircraft should look like, they will get different answers. And now this new aircraft that I am working on, known as the flying taxi, is the first chance to break away from traditional conventional aircraft design.”
In terms of inspiration, Frank studied the look of birds and fish – the shape of each and how gracefully they move. He was then able to translate his taxi into something that looks like a flying fish. “If you look up you would not recognise my design, you would think of it as a creature flying in the air. Basically, the aerodynamic principles that I’ve learned in car design has translated into this project.”
“However, an aeroplane has to not only be beautiful in my eyes, but flightworthy. Therefore, I worked very closely with engineers – this created a much deeper connection between design and engineering which makes this project truly one-of-a-kind – people will be able to travel in a straight line at low altitude with no pilot, in complete comfort and peace.”
What’s next you may ask? A roll call of other prestigious projects include a baby car seat, and he will also create a new revolutionary cosmetics product. There is a lot more on the horizon for Frank Stephenson’s design that will surely be impactful, influencing designers for many generations to come.