The coming together of two British icons—Mini and designer Paul Smith—is a match made in heaven.
Much like the design ethos of the two brands, MINI Strip, a reinterpretation of the classic MINI Cooper SE, is raw yet refined, minimalistic yet intricate, traditional yet modern.
The automotive design, a result of the collaboration, was unveiled at an exclusive preview in London in August 2021. The electric vehicle model boasts a Smith-designed interface, interiors and body, which, says the designer, “channel simplicity, transparency and sustainability”.
Oliver Heilmer, Head of the MINI Design Studio, adds, “Paul asked essential questions right at the start of the design process with his fresh, non-automotive perspective.”
MINI Strip’s design process began with the literal and figurative ‘stripping’ down of a three-door MINI Cooper SE to bare essentials. Heilmer adds, “I know and love the existing car. But by respecting the past and looking to the future we have created something very special and truly unique, by going back to basics and reducing things down. The principle of maximum reduction was applied to produce a minimalist, high-class design with a fresh and unconventional appeal.”
The idea to create a sustainable version of MINI evolved into reality last spring when Heilmer called Smith to talk about working together on a new project. He had loved the British designer’s stripey version of the original Alec Issigonis-designed Mini, one of three commissions (the other two were Kate Moss who tattooed hers with spider’s webs, and David Bowie who plumped for an all-over mirror finish) unveiled at London’s Design Museum to celebrate the Mini’s 40th birthday in 1999.
Automotive design has been reimagined using just the most essential parts of the MINI Cooper frame, which is where it derives its name—MINI Strip—from.
Smith says his design for MINI respects the origins of the car. The starting point for Smith was a memory he held of a car body before it had been painted and fitted with all the trimmings. He came up with a plan to focus on the ‘imperfections and the traces of the manufacturing process. “Tadao Ando’s architecture, with its perfect little circular indentations, has a similar quality.”
The colour paint finish on the exterior of the original MINI has been discarded in favour of a raw look, which is safeguarded by a thin layer of transparent paint as protection against corrosion. The car shell is an intense shade of blue, which imparts it that look of glamour.
To ensure MINI Strip comes across as a “functional object and robust companion for everyday life”, as Smith puts it, grinding marks from the manufacturing process have been retained on the galvanised steel panels of the body. The designer says that he was looking to achieve the ‘perfect imperfection'.
So, how bare is the design?
Consider this: Smith has added visible screws in add-on parts to the main body in a nod to his passion for modifying bicycles. MINI’s identifiable black band was 3D- printed in sections from recycled plastic, along with the distinctive rear and front apron inserts.
The handlebar tape-wrapped steering wheel rim has been reduced to its simplest function. Connected to the rim by a trio of aluminium spokes, the steering wheel’s impact absorber possesses a mesh covering that allows the driver to view the airbag it contains. Door panels feature a mesh similar to the one seen in the steering; it exhibits fluctuations in transparency when viewed from different angles.
The grille trim, aerodynamic wheel covers that help in reducing drag, and panoramic roof are fashioned from recycled perspex. Smith has stripped down virtually most parts of the car’s outer shell except for the dashboard, topper pad and parcel shelf.
However, even the dashboard alludes to Smith’s minimal, pared-down aesthetics: a semi-transparent section with a smoked-glass finish covers it. The designer has drawn inspiration from MINI's preference for circular elements. The circular altar, for instance, accommodates the driver’s smartphone as a de facto media control centre.
The design, for all its homage to minimalism and bare-boned aesthetics, incorporates several playful details such as the signature five-coloured Paul Smith stripes on the insides of the door, or a charging flap with an engraved drawing of an electric plug that opens to a burst of neon green.
Instead of covering the door panels, the designer has layered them with mesh so that you can see the steel within. Exposed cables run up the middle of the car. The driver’s airbag is visible behind a grille in the middle of the cork-lined steering wheel. The dashboard holds a dock for an iPhone and a charging cap identified by a little doodle hand-drawn by Smith.
The seats are kitted out in a knitted fabric, while the dashboard topper pad, door shoulders and parcel shelf are fashioned out of recycled cork. The terrazzo-esque black and blue floor mats showcase the heterogeneous composition of the materials used in their manufacturing.
Materials of an environmentally sustainable future such as recycled perspex, rubber and cork replace traditional leather and chrome, and yet MINI Strip looks as glamorous and cutting-edge as any other.
For MINI Cooper, the car prototypes the future–how high design can coalesce with sustainable use of resources in automotive design. Circular design and sustainability are the overarching features driving the aesthetic. Smith refers to the design as a ‘classic with a twist’, everything that is anti-ornamentation.