The Phantom is rarely wholly redesigned. These magnificent motor cars are imagined to last way beyond fashion cycles, each personally tailored to be kept, cherished and passed through generations. Yet, given the speed of technology and material change, the grandest maker of grand luxury transport tends to give its pinnacle product mid-life touch-ups — new expressions that are almost always client-driven.
The cars you see here with various impressions are based closely on the eight-generation 2017 Phantom. The changes are light — subtle embellishments and adaptations of the original design. The most prominent evolution is to the pantheon grille, where a polished horizontal line between the daytime running lights now sits above the grille. At the same time, a subtle geometric refinement highlights the “RR” badge and Spirit of Ecstasy mascot, while the grille illuminates much like the smaller Rolls-Royce Ghost.
Elsewhere, 3D milled stainless steel wheels with triangular facets are available to commission in a fully or part-polished finish. Alternatively, the new disc wheel in polished stainless steel or black lacquer recalls the romance of 1920’s Rolls-Royce motor cars.
I asked Felix Kilbertus, head of exterior design at Rolls-Royce, to guide me through the revised Phantom and help shed light on innovations within the new luxury landscape.
Nargess Banks: For the latest Phantom, you’ve opted for “light-touch” aesthetic changes. How did you decide what needs to be evolved and what to leave alone?
Felix Kilbertus: We wanted to bring out the best in the character of Phantom. Certain principles were clearly off limits — altering the proportion or its presence, for example, or change simply for the sake of change.
Which chimes perfectly with the words of your co-founder…
Henry Royce said, “Take the best and make it better.” Every idea for a potential change that was put forward was evaluated through that lens. Does it represent the best? Can we make it better? And only where we saw the potential to add something meaningful did we do so.
The pantheon grille is the best example. It looks seamlessly integrated, and only when compared to Phantom Eight do you see the enhanced precision of the geometry and the serenity that the “horizon line” lends to the front end. And the grille is illuminated for the first time on Phantom. Not all changes are obvious either. For example, every blade on the grille is placed slightly differently, spaced more evenly and fitted closer to the grille frame. [Our motto is] take the best and make it better.
I know it’s early days, but do you see the next-generation Phantom undergo a much bolder change?
Phantom, as a nameplate, represents a long line of motor cars spanning almost a century. Each generation has found its own shape, spirit and personality, often becoming symbols of its time. When the time comes, I expect the next generation will also mark its era.
Of course, it is much too early to speculate about the car. Firstly, we let our clients decide when it’s time to replace the current generation of Phantom. And we need to be open to the needs of our future generation of clients. It is futile to design and define such things any earlier than necessary, lest we let today’s mindset cloud our judgment of the shape of things to come.
Designing the Phantom surely involves delving deep into the now and future of luxury. As a designer, what does luxury mean to you?
I see true luxury as the result of many things done correctly rather than a goal itself; it is an emerging property rather than a specific material, code or symbol. I find it very hard to describe what luxury means today. It is multi-layered and complex, and it is great fun to see what meanings luxury can take on nowadays. There is a light-heartedness that I particularly cherish when things seem to start with someone saying: “Wouldn’t it be nice if …”.
I like that… but surely, as makers of luxury, more accurately grand luxury products, you have a responsibility to respond to what’s happening in terms of climate, technology and so on.
Absolutely. Addressing the future, the key factors to pay attention to are changes in technology, taste and time. Each requires designers to respond accordingly: from new freedoms of form resulting from technological advancements to designing for changing tastes and lifestyles to the rapidity with which opinions and understandings are affected due to the access to information relating to different cultures and societies. At Rolls-Royce, we have a rich and long heritage to draw from, which enables us to innovate while remaining timeless and true to our brand values.
Rolls-Royce operates in the broader world of luxury — a world far beyond motor cars. What do you learn and take from other sectors: fashion, industrial design, architecture and so on?
We learn a lot from the luxury industry and the shared attention to detail, the importance of true originality and the quest for personal expression. We can learn about beauty, pure form, elegance, expression and extroversion from fashion. But what I would take from it most is how it makes us feel and what it says about us as individuals. Architecture, as a discipline, is of particular interest. “Think like an architect” is a motto we like to remind ourselves of.
Can you explain how this inspires you?
What we mean by that, beyond not taking the easy route of the automotive commonplace and its styling clichés, is to really think about the spaces we inhabit as humans and pay attention to the expression of volumes, shapes, lines and materials. Architecture is a much older practice than car design, possibly more said, thought and written about in the centuries before the car was invented than industrial design or automotive design during the last century.
The automobile has impacted our societies and cities, yet architecture has been an even deeper source of inspiration. As designers, we work in the long tradition of the applied arts, where craft, science and technology directly meet our human needs and ambitions.
Rolls-Royce is deeply invested in the arts, championing emerging talents through the Muse program, including highly provocative contemporary art, and supporting numerous arts organizations. How does this aspect of your business impact your thinking?
Art is a great source to draw inspiration from, for both the aesthetic beauty traditionally at the center of fine art and the conceptual work that helps us understand the underlying changes in the world. Contemporary art tends to occupy itself with subjects long before the questions it asks have found answers in society.
With an increasingly younger client base, how does Rolls-Royce design respond to new codes, expectations and expressions of luxury?
Our clients are surprisingly young, with an average age of just 43. And so were our founders, who started our company over a century ago. In this sense, I feel the marque is now closer in spirit to those pioneering years than ever. You realize this by looking at the incredible expression of our early Phantoms, many of which sported unique and even eccentric body styles, colors, materials and features.
How does this then influence your design thinking?
We look at our cars as canvases for self-expression. Phantom is certainly special in this regard. The “gallery” [where clients can commission artwork to be displayed behind glass across the fascia] epitomizes this, literally reserving an exceptional space for pure artistic expression. Of course, this extends beyond that one canvas to the many surfaces on the interior and exterior, turning the whole car into moving art.
As one of the most respected brands within the high luxury landscape, what are the opportunities to evolve the scene to be less about material value, and more about the value of time, craft, shared moments, even experiences?
Rolls-Royce is known for its impeccable craftsmanship; we are known for our choice and execution of materials, our components’ durability and reliability, and the finishes’ authenticity and beauty. Since this is a certainty, we can comfortably move beyond this aspect and invite clients into our ateliers and workshops — into our global center of luxury manufacturing at Goodwood.
Has the centrality of craft impacted you as a designer?
Meeting the minds and hands behind the object certainly has made me see our products and brand promise differently. I can see the same fascination in the eyes of our clients when visiting us and discovering this focus and dedication. The experience makes a big difference: seeing and feeling where things come from, how hard it is to make them, and the unique skills needed to produce something properly. It creates a deep connection, a sense of origin.
This is luxury as experience at its pinnacle…
In exceptional cases, our patrons will embark on a long journey with our creative team, sometimes lasting many years. The memories made on the way are an integral part of the final product, as nothing is left to chance, with every detail discussed and created to measure.
The car’s interior design can easily show new luxury by applying ecological materials and showcasing handcraft. But as head of exterior design, how do you express a more progressive luxury through form language?
This is a very good question. One aspect of progressive luxury in exterior design is expressed through the sheer quality of shape and execution, ensuring things can last aesthetically and materially for a long time.
Another aspect is the absence of superfluous elements — our models have no nameplate on the exterior, for example — allowing for a certain purity, letting large surfaces simply speak for themselves. Yet another is great attention to proportion, as flawless proportions avoid the need to distract the eye away from compromised areas with great stylistic effort. Serenity, purity and effortless proportions create the subtle desirability that makes our cars last for a long time.