Putting the box on wheels

THE box is back. The cube, the geometrical primitive that warms the hearts of Steve Jobs, Pablo Picasso and alumni of the Bauhaus, is influencing auto design. Mr. Jobs ordered up a cube shape for his Next Computer. His Apple Mac cube is in the Museum of Modern Art design collection, and he decreed a glass cube for the Apple store on Fifth Avenue.

And in the show “Home Delivery” at the Modern is a 9-foot-cube house designed by Richard Horden that contains a tiny kitchen, bathroom and living space. Its name, Micro Compact Home, recalls Micro Compact Car, the name originally applied to what became the Smart car.

Nissan will bring its Cube car to the United States next spring. The spy photographs suggest a model little changed in appearance from the current one. The boxy Cube stands out for its cuteness. The high ceiling is refreshing and cheering, like a small apartment with a cathedral ceiling in the living room.

While Scion backed off the rectilinear lines of its xB with the more chamfered second generation, released last year, Honda’s Element, the Fiat Fiorino Qubo and the bulldog boxy Mini remain popular. Ford has introduced the Flex crossover, which its chief designer, Rich Gresens, who is no longer at Ford, called “the most basic execution of the two-box vehicle.”

At an introduction for the Flex, Ford passed out a sheet bearing silhouettes of S.U.V.’s and minivans, challenging journalists to identify them. I gave up right away; point taken. “Silhouette definition,” J Mays, Ford design chief, called the process of making the Flex boxily different.

Ford’s Flex is an American take on the boxy vehicle, inspired by woody wagons, specifically the 1948 Ford woody, as well as by old Land Rovers. The theme is family travel, and Ford’s designers kept talking about the horizon. Anthony Prozzi, a Ford interior designer, talked about primal family trips toward that horizon, beach and vacation trips. “We thought of taking the whole family to the beach and looking at the quiet horizon — that was the overall inspiration for the interior.”

“The quiet horizon” symbolizes opportunity and excitement and adventure — the American frontier. A horizon line organizes the interior shapes. The horizon idea also shows up in the horizontal lines on the side of the Flex, evoking both the seams between planks in a woody and the parallel speed lines of the 1930s.

The box effect is heightened by blacked-out pillars that create a floating roof of optional white or silver in the manner of the Mini or two-tone cars of the 1950s.

“The Cube’s proportions are just about perfect,” said Bryan Thompson, a Nissan designer. The car is on the edge of appearing top heavy; perhaps only the BMW 2002 or Alfa Romeo Giulia pay such exacting and risky games with the proportion of the greenhouse.

Nissan sees the Cube as the car of the future. It emphasizes space more than speed. It is a car for going slow, said Shiro Nakamura, Nissan’s design chief. It is aimed to appeal to young people who see it as social space.

The Cube is the descendant of the emphatically boxy Nissan Chappo concept. The high interior of the Chappo and the Cube suggests they were inspired by Japanese domestic spaces; there is even a sliding shoji screen in its back.

“Unlike Europe, Japan has no tradition of the horse-drawn carriage that is so much at the basis of automobile coach building,” Mr. Nakamura said in an interview. Instead, Japanese cars have sometimes tended to look back to the sedan chair, the box and seat lifted to the shoulders of servants for transportation through the crowded streets of London or Tokyo.


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