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MINI Living At The Milan Furniture Fair

The Milan furniture fair is always an enjoyable feast of out-there work. Typically art-masquerading-as-furniture or installations of dazzling complexity and bewildering utility. Which makes it all the more interesting that over the years, a number of car manufacturers have chosen the Salone as the location for model launches or campaigns to promote their brands outside the benzine-tainted halls of motor shows. One of the most high-profile of these is MINI. This year, the not-so-small car maker debuted the latest instalment of their ongoing MINI Living series of installations; Built-by-All, an exercise in shared space and cohabitation that allowed visitors to configure their own apartment around a central integrated furniture and storage unit. This pastel-coloured utopia was created by Studiomama, a London-based consultancy who over the years have created a number of interior concepts showcasing their expertise in small spaces and clean but playful design.

The MINI Living sequence of experiments is intended to show that the brand understands the pressures faced by their younger customers: the high cost of living in urban centres, the shrinking size of modern apartments - the simple fact that increasingly, existing home ownership models are not working for millennials (due to external factors and not the prevalence of avocado in their lifestyle choices, one might add). These works, commissioned by MINI from a wide range of designers and architects, have explored new formats for homes and offices. To date, they have all been conceptual works, unveiled at major international design fairs, but last year MINI announced it was partnering with the Chinese property developer Nova Property Investment Co. to build a shared live-work space on a former industrial site in Shanghai’s Jing’An district, putting their ideas to the test in a real-world setting.

Whilst MINI Living has sought to position the brand as more than ‘just a car manufacturer’, there is little in MINI’s family of four-wheeled products to overtly connect them to their bricks and mortar relations. It is arguable that these new models for residential living are reflected obliquely in services such as Drive Now, the car share scheme allowing members to pick up and drive MINIs on the streets of several large cities around the world, but this is a BMW-branded service and also uses BMW cars. So far, the link between four MINI wheels and four MINI walls has remained theoretical.

An obvious opportunity might be to provide MINI-sharing schemes located in the MINI Living spaces, to offer rental contracts that included a membership of such services, perhaps graduating to a preferential subscription option for a little more. It is also a bit surprising to see that MINI hasn’t explored the car-as-energy-source model demonstrated by Renault with its striking Symbioz concept at Frankfurt last year, perhaps this is due to MINI’s ev efforts playing second-fiddle to the ‘i’ range of BMW cars. As yet, there is no strong ev narrative around MINI, despite its obvious suitability to the urban nature of their products.

Perhaps on a more fundamental level, it would be good to see MINI demonstrate a vision for how the learnings from their residential concepts could be brought back into their vehicles: what does shared space mean as a concept when applied to a car? As Renault started to investigate with the Ez-Go at Geneva this year, how will a car designed from the outset to be part of a shared mobility service, differ from a privately owned one? In its layout, in its use of materials and in its functionality?

The consistency with which the MINI Living story has been developed is refreshing to see, there has been a genuine attempt to start a conversation about how we will live and work together in the future. It is hard to shake the feeling though that there is still an un-seized opportunity for MINI. A chance for them to address what this public/private boundary will mean for cars, how the design of city cars can adapt to increasingly densely populated urban centres and what the future relationship between car, house and even energy grid might be.

After all, shouldn’t MINI living be about BIG ideas?

Clive Hartley at Quarterre Studio