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The BMW Guitars

Building the guitars for Nikita Gale's 63/22 at BMW Open Work, Frieze London.

Back at the end of June I was approached by Frieze about a special project, to build some guitars for an installation by a then-unnamed artist, for a secret client. It was all very hush-hush. Naturally, it piqued my interest.

Today, I'm back in my Essex workshop, exhausted, with five of my hand made guitars hanging on the wall of the BMW Open Work Lounge at Frieze London, in Regents Park. Each is named after a significant black female musician. They've been there all week, as part of a brilliant collaborative work with LA-based artist Nikita Gale and the incredible designers of the new all-electric BMW I7.

It has been a simply brilliant experience.

During the course of July, I found out more about the project - "63/22", the artist, and BMW's involvement. Having been approached by BMW to create a work for the lounge, as a car fan, a guitar fan, and someone who is ridiculously curious and knowledgeable about design and design history, Nikita immediately knew what she wanted to do - in fact, she'd had an idea lurking for around seven years, and it was a perfect fit: "63/22".

With a body of work that frequently referenced music and the tools and people responsible for its recording and creation, Nikita knew that early rock and roll and blues songs were often about cars, used as explicit metaphors. While at college, she had also learned that during 1963, Gibson USA had enlisted the much-vaunted automotive designer Ray Dietrich to design a guitar for them, and the Firebird (and latterly the bass Thunderbird) was born. Hyper modern for the time, the Firebird - like so many great designs - was not a great commercial success. But it did represent a dramatic change in the way people thought about guitars, showing that it was possible for a guitar to be a shape which wasn't simply a derivative of the western acoustic. It also crossed the boundary between the guitar and car worlds. The synergy was obvious.

It was early in the evening of 28 July when my inbox pinged again. Sketches. From the BMW design team. I'd been really nervous about them - I've seen enough guitar designs by non-luthiers to know that there can be a tendency to put form too far ahead of function. Worse, I'd heard is said numerous times over the years that the Gibson factory workers had freaked out when confronted with Dietrich's Firebird design, finding it too unusual, too complex, to produce economically. Would the same happen here? I tentatively opened the zip file.

I needn't have been concerned: the sketches were genuinely breath taking. Sure, there were some aspects which had me scratching my head, some features which I really didn't know if I could make work. But I really wanted to try. And that's the thing with good, interesting, exciting design. It should inspire you, and there were several designs that I immediately knew I had to make. But... I'm a single builder. I have a 'bijou' workshop. Could I actually get five of these things on a wall, in the VIP lounge of the world's largest luxury car manufacturer, at Frieze of all places - one of the world's most influential contemporary art fairs - by the 10th of October? I decided to give it the old college try.

a large, black, luxury BMW car sits on a plinth of white oak wood, in a comfortable lounge. Five unusual guitars hang on an oak wall behind it
The BMW Open Work Lounge, Frieze London. Photo courtesy of BMW.

The team at Frieze - Rachel, Marina, and curator Attilia - plus Nikita and I, worked to select a short list from the sixteen designs the BMW team had sent us. That list was whittled down to five sketches, to represent the five My Modes of the I7. Time was already very short, so we agreed on making two that were fully functional and three that were prototype/mock-ups, (but I didn't do that - all five are proper, fully functioning guitars).

I scaled up the sketches I'd received, prepared full size 3D plans, experimented with different ideas to make the sketches work - all the time trying to stay as close to the proportions of the sketches as I could. I worked out how I could keep the top of "Lynn" - which had the working title "Hidden Mechanics" - as free of hardware as possible, but still headless. I worked out how to wrap it in 1mm thick cashmere, which refused to stretch. I experimented with heat bending and vacuum forming acrylic for "Minnie", before concluding that I'd have to carve it by hand from wood after all. And there were more challenges besides. But, I made it! The finished guitars, with the original sketches for comparison, are below.

Want to know more?

I'll follow up with more images and articles about the build specifics in the next few days, but for now will just say being involved in 63/22 has been both hugely challenging and immensely rewarding.

In the meantime, if you'd like to read more about Nikita's inspiration for 63/22, you can hop over to Forbes and and read their detailed interviews with her about the project.

For a great article by Frieze, which goes into detail not just on the specs of each guitar, but more importantly the musicians for whom they are named and why Nikita chose them, check out this link.

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