All That Jazz: What Inspires Fiat Designer Roberto Giolito

Fiat designer Roberto Giolito's influences are free-form, including architecture, typewriters and, above all, music

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Danilo Scarpati for TIME

“We can never say a seat is just a seat,” says Roberto Giolito, the lead designer of the Fiat. Other car companies order seats from outside vendors. But to Giolito, a seator a steering wheel or a taillightis an opportunity to add to the tapestry that is Italian industrial design. “I have to pay attention to materials and possibilities,” he says. To visit Giolito, 50, at Centro Stile Fiat, the design center in Torino that’s built like a giant industrial art gallery, is to understand that vehicles can be a form of high art.

Giolito’s latest model, which will reach the U.S. next year, is the Fiat 500L (as in long) hatchback, the five-door, five-passenger version of the iconic Cinquecento. Introduced in 2007, the new Fiat 500 was itself a revival of one of the essential automobiles of the 20th century, a stylish, affordable subcompact that first appeared in 1957. The 21st century version has sold over a million units.

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After graduating from Rome’s Institute for the Artistic Industries in 1985, Giolito won a position at Fiat in a design contest. Since then, he has helped shape everything from experimental electric vehicles to sedans to sports cars like the Maserati to the New Holland farm tractor, which sits near the entrance of Centro Stile Fiat like a piece of modern agricultural sculpture. But before he was a designer, Giolito was a jazz bass player; a high school music program gave him the chance to jam with American masters like the saxophonist Lee Konitz. He played his way through design school, earning money on the side by teaching music, and he’s still in a band today. (He also has a collection of vintage vacuum-tube-powered audio equipment to play his vinyl jazz recordings.)

The progression from music to design makes intuitive sense. A jazz bassist must be creative yet disciplined to keep his group in rhythm; similarly, a car designer has to craft something that’s beautiful but also makeable to exact standards. Most of all, Giolito says, jazz teaches you to extend your creative boundaries. One of his heroes is Charles Mingus, the iconoclastic jazz bassist-pianist-composer. “Mingus loved Duke Ellington,” he says, “yet he moved miles away from his favorite music.”

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This lesson in the value of taking creative leaps served Giolito the student well. He entered a world in which form followed function, but that thinking was about to be shattered by Italian industrial designers such as Achille Castiglioni, Alessandro Mendini and Ettore Sottsass, who embedded function deep within whimsical and modernist approaches to things like corkscrews, bookshelves and typewriters like Sottsass’s Olivetti portable electric. “This was very stimulating for me,” Giolito says.

Another early inspiration was the Apple II, which he acquired at age 22. Giolito used the computer to design the home where he and his wife raised two boys. The Apple II also helped him create a futuristic three-seat, battery-powered car with center steering in collaboration with Chris Bangle, who went on to become BMW’s design chief. “It was exciting,” Giolito says. “I found myself managing interiors and exteriors that anticipated the Smart.”

To dream up the 500L, Giolito gravitated to yet another discipline: architecture, particularly the work of Le Corbusier and Jean Nouvel. “Some of the lessons of Corbusier are important to managing the evolution of cars,” Giolito says, “especially the combination of transparent areas and structural zones.” For his 500L, that means a larger proportion of glass to metal for maximum transparency. Likewise, in the Corbusier manner, the roof of the 500L isn’t a closed envelope; it’s usable space in the form of glass. “We used this element to create a good canopy, to create the atmosphere inside the car,” he says.

His early e-car had no hood, which Giolito now sees developing rapidly as a trend as engines shrink and power plants migrate. Factor in new technologies like 3-D printing and suddenly everything about contemporary automobile creation is up for grabs. Designers will have more freedom and flexibility; consumers will get more choices. “I imagine a car compatible with the things you already own,” Giolito says. Today, you can order a 500 to match your couch or curtains, with any of 1,500 combinations of seat colors and interior schemes. We’ll buy our cars more the way we do our fashions, Giolito predictswhich will certainly suit an Italian designer.

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