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Gunnar Schmidt – Citroen DS legend

In conversation with Prof. Dr. Gunnar Schmidt about the “Citroen DS legend”

Portrait of Gunnar Schmidt

Since its initial launch in 1955, a lot has been written and said about the Citroen DS – what made you want to add something new to this topic?

In principal, as a cultural and media scholar, I am always interested in questions, such as “how is meaning connected to objects?”
Using the example of the Citroen DS – a major design object of the 20th century – I was interested in reconstructing this process with the help of an abundance of historical materials. Additionally, I noticed that in Roland Barthes famous essay from 1955, numerous DS ideas were mentioned, yet very little was explained. To dig deeper and search for answers intrigued me.

Roland Barthes mentioned in his essay, that the DS is an object fallen from the sky. What exactly did he mean by that?

First of all, its sudden appearance and its sensational novelty.
Citroen had striven for extreme secrecy during the development that had begun in the 1930s. However, one can also read his wording as a conscious appreciation of the car and an ironic innuendo to the abbreviation DS: Déesse, the Devine coming from heaven.

This vehicle doesn’t move you forward, it moves you upward.

The Citroen DS has achieved, what other brands are dreaming of when they do a launch – leaving the orbit of the mundane quickly, to play a significant role in the lives of many, even an entire country. What helped here?

The conventional answer would be: its new radical shape in a historical context. Breaking through traditional carriage-like box shaped cars with the bulge and length of American models. Also, a number of technical innovations, such as soft suspensions and new glazing should be mentioned.

More difficult to answer is the question as to why the DS became so popular over night and hit the awakening of the European Zeitgeist, the desire for lightness, so precisely. The successful/effective mythologisation of the DS is jointly responsible for this. Roland Barthes himself called the DS the new Nautilus – Jules Verne’s legendary submarine that allowed captain Nemo to glide through the sea. Barthes also associates the DS with sleek science-fiction spacecrafts, the sacred rock of Christ, and Gothic cathedrals. His essay, which actually meant to critically question the myth, in the end assures it.

Citroen strategically advertised the DS not as a car, but as an attractive image, which reminded of an aeroplane, a rocket, or an “Über-Objekt”. This type of marketing hit the nail on the head, allowing to forget the war and dream of the future and social advancement.

Therefore, the DS also promised a new sense of mobility?

Exactly, a more feminine idea of it. Softer, lighter, without virile bumper bars and radiator grills. Gliding, and vertical instead of horizontal. This vehicle doesn’t move you forward, it moves you upward. Other drive on the road, you glide across the globe. This explains why the DS was often showcased without its wheels at trade fairs.

Citroen DS

Such showcasing was probably more known of cars in the museum context.

Die Nähe zur Kunst ist sicher kein Zufall. Der DS-Designer, Flaminio Bertoni, war ursprünglich Bildhauer. Und die extrem avantgardistische Inszenierung des DS war von Anfang an Teil der Vermarktung. Bis heute beschäftigen sich immer wieder Künstler mit dem DS. Der mexikanische Konzeptkünstler Gabriel Orozco ist einer von ihnen. Für seine Arbeit »La DS« ließ er das mittlere Drittel des Autos herausschneiden.

Such a close connection to the arts surely was no coincidence. The DS designer, Flaminio Bertoni, originally was a sculptor. The edgy presentation was part of the marketing from the very beginning.
Up until now, many artists engage with the DS. The Mexican conceptual artists Gabriel Orozco is one of them. For his project “La DS” he removed the central third of the car.

The remaining two parts create a new streamline version and make it look like a bullet, like a sculpture that wants to illustrate a futuristic manifest “… a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.” Such intertwining and references are uncovered in my book. An analysis rich in content and detail portrays the historical production process of the DS as design legend and focuses on myth, icon and art.

Once again going back to the topic of myth. In theory, can any object or brand become a myth, when the right ingredients/elements and an impactful story are cannily combined?

Probably not. It takes a special constellation to turn an object into a myth or icon. As already mentioned, in the case of the DS there were important historical connections that turned the DS into a myth. First war and ruins followed by a longing for a new beginning and perfection. Whether Citroen was strategically aware of this or felt it intuitively is hard to say.

The economic success, however, was huge. Citroen sold 1.5 million DS vehicles between 1955 and 1975. The upswing momentum ended with the oil crisis and it took a further 35 years until the idea of the DS was resuscitated.

How does Citroen still benefit from the DS myth today?

In 2009 Citroen launched a new model – the DS3, which at least is a direct link to the DS. In 2014, a premium brand called DS Automobiles was launched, which is now part of the PSA Group, that includes among other brands, Citroen and Peugeot.

According to PSA, this new premium brand stands for “style, advanced technologies, comfort and dynamic, fine materials and sophistication.” This thought is not far from the DS concept, which originally targeted high-income earners. A target audience that has “Le Monde” on the passenger seat and makes love on the back seat, with the Eifel tower in sight. This “DS-Frenchness” cliché was lampooned plenty in Helmut Newton’s series of photographs from 1974.

What makes your book worth reading for brand creators and advertising professionals?

They will gain a better understanding, that myth for one thing operates on the limits of desire and promise and on the other hand on the understanding of the world. Therefore, references to the present are just as important to recognise as the future ahead. Simple product campaigns surely meet their function to inform. However, only when aspects of reality are seriously thought through and the product reacts to and accompanies this intelligence, can brands be able to address the soul.

Prof. Gunnar Schmidt’s book “Mythos-Maschine” is available at edition imorde from June/July 2018 onwards.