The “art car” subculture started in the late ’60s with airbrushed portraits on low riders and hand-painted murals on hippie vans, but art cars didn’t get mainstream attention until 1975 when BMW commissioned artist Alex Calder to paint a 3.0 CSL and lay the foundation for its Art Car Collection. Four years later, when pop artist Andy Warhol required less than 30 minutes to paint an entire BMW M1 race car, art cars secured their place in automotive history, and now they are continuously commissioned by global automotive manufacturers who have collaborated with renowned artists including César Baldaccini, Jenny Holzer, Jeff Koons, and Richard Phillips.
That said, not all art cars are created by big-name artists. One of the all-time coolest art cars was brought to life by an unknown roadie named Dave Richards, who worked for Janis Joplin and was paid $500 to paint “the history of the universe” on her 1964 Porsche 356 SC; after being restored in the ‘90s, the car sold at auction for record-breaking $1.76 million. The psychedelic art car is a favorite of an up-and-coming artist, 26-year-old Hanna Schönwald, an industrial designer who lives just outside Hamburg, Germany. Six months after graduating from Pforzheim University’s School of Design, she hand-painted a white, 964-generation 911 coupe with bold black strokes to complement the car’s surface reflections, and the project snared the attention and admiration of Porsche, landing Schönwald on the company’s list of “all-time greatest art cars,” right next to Joplin’s 356.
We sat down with Hanna Schönwald to hear more about her passion for automotive culture and how she came to design an art car all her own.
IRON & AIR: What was your earliest exposure to car culture?
HANNA SCHÖNWALD: My living area influenced my thinking around what I wanted to do with my life. I grew up in West Germany, which has nothing to do with the automobile industry, but at age 13 we moved south to Stuttgart, which is where Mercedes-Benz and Porsche are headquartered. Suddenly I felt like everyone around me had the goal of working for these companies, so it piqued my interest for cars and the techniques and the technical development in this area. I changed schools and there was a guy — who is now a car photographer — who drew cars, and so we would have sketch battles. I thought more about perspectives and different car brands, and it further developed my interest in the technique because as I drew them, I wondered why is one car like this and another car like this? That’s when I started digging deeper into the automotive thing.
I&A: From there, how did you push even further into the car space?
HS: At 16, I got a job at a car repair shop, because I wanted to buy and drive my own car. My mom said it was very expensive, not only to buy one, but because there are many things you need to repair and fix, so I thought, “Okay, I have to do this on my own.” I learned the basics and started to work on my own first car, a Ford Focus. It wasn’t that easy to work on a new car, so I decided to buy an old car, a 1978 Mercedes-Benz W123, and then it was easier. Then I got accepted into Pforzheim University’s School of Design and considered focusing on transportation design, but it was too specific for me, so I decided to do industrial design instead.
I&A: What turned you off about transportation design?
HS: It’s too specific, you only learn to draw cars and mostly focus on sports cars. I think to develop new products, especially cars, you need more ideas from other topics and put them into new concepts for mobility. Transportation designers learned a lot about sculpting and shaping forms, and it was very arty, but for me, it didn’t connect with technical nuances and fundamental innovations — too much smiling, you know? I don’t want to say every transportation learner is only able to do arty stuff, but for me, industrial design is a mix of art, craftsmanship, and technical abilities that aid innovation.
It was hard to find a studio where we could paint on the Porsche, and we had only one day to do the whole project. I’d never painted on a car before, and I couldn't redo anything if I messed up, so I only had one try.
I&A: How did the art car project come about?
HS: A client of mine loaned me his 964 to do art on, and I asked him if it’s OK to ask Porsche if they are interested in the project. He was fine with it, so I made a rendering, sent it to Porsche, and asked if they were interested in featuring it on their channels. They said, yes, it’s very cool, it’s interesting, and that I should do it and send it to them. I produced a video and everything on my own. There was a very small budget for the project so I reached out to friends of mine for help. It was hard to find a studio where we could paint on the Porsche, and we had only one day to do the whole project. I’d never painted on a car before, and I couldn’t redo anything if I messed up, so I only had one try. It took me 10 hours to draw on the entire Porsche, and after it was done, I was very frustrated because it was not as perfect, as I imagined it could be. I know I could have been better, but it’s totally okay from the circumstances. That was the main challenge: to put everything in a very short time frame. But it was a lot of fun because my team was very motivated, and that was a lot of fun.
I&A: Are you planning on doing another art car in the future?
HS: No, that is it. It was one take, and I don’t have to do another one because what I wanted to tell, I now told. I don’t plan to do another one, but maybe in the future … I don’t know. Maybe there’s opportunity out there. In general, I don’t like to say “no.”
I&A: Are you currently pursuing any new passion projects?
HS: I’m starting the restoration of a Land Rover Series 3. I’m thinking about doing a graphic novel around the story and everything involved with the restoration. I don’t know what that will look like, or if I will make a video with it or something because I only wanted to — for my sake — do the project for myself, because it’s fun for me. Maybe I will try to do a short documentary about the restoration process; I don’t know yet.
I&A: Are you more focused on furthering your artwork or building your industrial design career?
HS: While I do work as an industrial designer, most of what I currently do is art. And for now, it’s fine. I know I can do more in my industrial design job, but for now, it’s totally okay because there are some art projects that have popped up that interest me a lot, so industrial design is on hold for a bit.
I&A: Is there a reason that your artwork tends toward portraiture?
HS: For me, one of the main functions of art is to trigger emotions, and the best way to show emotions is through facial expressions. In fact, most of my portraits are inspired by emotions, and they show fictional characters that I made up based on those feelings. To imagine a person’s face around an idea or a specific moment I like to capture gives me a lot of artistic space. In contrast, if I work on commission, a lot of people have come to me and said, “Oh, can you draw me or my sister?” or something like that. From an artist’s perspective, working so close to an already existing motif probably isn’t the most exciting task, however, to see that this makes people happy is a good thing.
I&A: What do you want to see from your future?
HS: Until six months ago I was like, “Okay, I have to be a very big designer in a big company or on my own.” I had a very straightforward plan for myself, how my life has to go, and where I have to be in 10 years, but since I moved to Hamburg, I let everything go to focus on what’s currently around me, and then the art car came. At this moment, I feel like I don’t have to make a very tight plan. I just have to let things develop themselves a bit. Currently, I can’t imagine working in a company that is doing industrial design because I don’t want to do only design. I want to develop a whole idea that I have when I feel it is necessary to do that, or it’s a good thing to do that. I think it depends on time, and on a certain level of freedom. I’m just getting out of school now, and now I can start to build my own business, and I have to be patient and see where it goes. I don’t want to say, “OK, I want to be a designer, or I want to do only art in the future.” I need to see opportunities that are out there for me and then do what I can do to make them better. I don’t know where I’ll be in 10 years, and that’s fine by me.