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Roberto Giolito: the star designer you've never heard of

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Words: Graeme Lambert - @graeme_lambert

Published on: May 8, 2012

Words: Graeme Lambert - @graeme_lambert

Published on: May 8, 2012

Roberto Giolito: the star designer you've never heard of

Car designers need thick skins - more so than an engineer, company executive or even humble hack merrily pushing opinion across the airwaves, information super highway or ink-laden page. With every new car revealed - concept or production - you're invited to look through a window into the designer's mind - showcasing personal taste, thought process and even lifestyle choice. This is their creation, the equivalent of offspring; their baby.

There's no middle ground. Design is so subjective that as soon as you lay eyes on a new car your opinion will be formed. It might soften, or even change with time, but you will have an opinion - of that there is no doubt. And never has a subject been so polarising; these new models could either be lambasted with laughter or lauded with applause - and everything in between.

It must be difficult not to take either extreme personally, but for those lucky enough to be surrounded by applause there is a new challenge. Successful designers are regarded as a bit of a semi-celebrity within the industry, and it's all too easy for them to disappear up their own black polo necks with a smug grin. There's plenty who struggle to resist the lure, enjoying their fifteen minutes of spot-lit drawing board fame, outspoken comments hitting the headlines before mysteriously retiring from the game or failing to set up their own successful design studio.

And then there are the other pen pushers, who like the more 'well known' designers, have had a hand in creating the automotive landscape we live in, without plastering their personality across the front page. It's these men and women that really make a difference - even if they're not widely known. Their products might not be as flashy as the single-unit supercars, filthy rich SUVS or luxurious limos but they are clever. Everyone knows that clever design is good design.

Which brings us neatly onto the new Fiat 500L, the first of a new line of cars to be spun off the super successful 500. This sub brand will bring us a variety of 'premium' models to include a seven-seat MPV (the first 500L will only seat five), as well as a junior SUV in the mould of Nissan's Juke. Think of the 500 line as something similar to Citroen's DS models, or if you're feeling particularly complimentary you could liken it to Toyota's Lexus - though it has a long way to go to emulate that success.

And the new 500L is without doubt a clever design. It somehow manages to take the regular 500's look and meld it neatly with a practical MPV body. The design team talked of inspirational New York loft spaces and even a bread bin - but even they had to admit plenty of inspiration came from the original 500, and especially its spin-off, the original Multipla from 1956. An even smarter piece of design (for its time), this was the car that really got Italy's families moving - accommodating up to six people at a time.

And the car that links the 500L to the 1956 Multipla? That would be, what is in my personal opinion, the finest creation to come from the Torinese brand. Not the most beautiful, not the most exciting, but by far and away the cleverest. Step forward the 1998 Fiat Multipla, a car that the 500L will effectively replace - and the brainchild of Roberto Giolito, Fiat's design head, and of course the man behind the new 500L.

The reason it beats the pretty 1993 Coupé (also Giolito's work, along with Chris Bangle, he of BMW's flame surfacing fame) and neat new Panda is six-fold. That is, despite its sub-four-metre length, the Multipla can carry six people all on individual chairs, and here's the rub - their luggage too. At a time when Renault could only offer a five-seat Scenic, and its seven-seat Espace was much more expensive and made do with a compromised load space, Fiat was offering the perfect solution. Here was a people carrier that could carry both people and their luggage - without doubt a first for the compact MPV segment. It flopped of course, as, save for legions of savvy Italian taxi drivers, it appears there were around 12 people who actually liked the looks enough to buy one.

But the car is less important than the idea, and of course the man behind it. Thanks to his hand in the creation of some of the best concepts (remember the cheeky ecoBasic? all his) and most interesting production models Fiat made, Giolito is probably the most influential designer you've never heard of. Speak to him, and he's quietly spoken, humble and rather refreshingly to the point with little in the way of corporate caginess. He's undoubtedly a petrolhead, but also a man who loves intelligent product design - something that shines through in the cars that bear his lines.

So while this newly unveiled 500L may not be as 'clever' as Roberto's other masterpiece (deep down we truly wish it was also a six-seater), one thing's for sure: the next line of models to appear under the 500 banner, with fresh input from Giolito and his team, could just be the thinking man's premium product.