The auto giant provided a window into its carbon-neutral future through American artist Germane Barnes’ installation at Design Miami 2021.

“Did you know Muhammad Ali declared that he won’t go to Vietnam, right here?” rhetorised my Lexus-operating chuaffeur, Earl, as we entered South Beach, Miami. He had migrated from the Netherlands to Miami more than four decades back, and on the ride from the airport to my hotel, he gave me a romanticised account of the city’s evolution. Soon, it dawned upon me that Miami was a consistent backdrop in Ali’s fight for racial integration and his opposition to being unfairly drafted into military service for the Vietnam War.

Germane Barnes and Brian Bolain_Credit to Steve Benisty

So, it was only fitting that my first visit to Miami was marked by another African-American’s show-stopping antics, at the international design fair, Design Miami. Germane Barnes, an assistant professor at the University of Miami, was the brain behind auto giant Lexus’ ON/ installation, inspired by the carmaker’s LF-Z Electrified Concept car. The wireframe sculpture introduces new principles to the brand’s ethos, and is aimed at achieving carbon neutrality through the ongoing electrification in its vehicle line-up.

According to Barnes, the idea behind a wireframe sculpture was to create a dramatic installation through minimal materials and transport emissions. “Shipping a physical car across the globe goes against trying to build a carbon-neutral future,” he told the media during a private dinner hosted by Lexus on the eve of the unveiling. Swings suspended underneath white arches stood at each end of the sculpture, which, Barnes said, are meant to symbolise that “we’re marching forward into this new future” while also nodding to Miami’s art deco architecture.

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Barnes carries a diverse professional background, including urban design and planning. He was recognised among the most influential urban planners in the US for his work with the “low-income black community” of Opa-Locka, in suburban Miami. Barnes and his team dreamt of inspiring a local renaissance, of turning the low-cost area into an up-and-coming arts district, but without the displacement caused by gentrification. He brings in a similar emotion to his latest work, which Lexus’s global head of marketing, Brian Bolain, believes is aimed at “reaching out to the consumer rather than expecting them to come to you.”

ON by Germane Barnes and the University of Miami, inspired by Lexus for Design Miami 2021. Photo by Steve Benisty @stevebenisty

“We’re electrifying our all-wheel-drive system, and we’re calling it directfor. It’s a smart system; it can push power to any of the four wheels independently, based on what you’re asking of the car. So, it’s going to make everyone feel like a better driver because the car is going to behave more responsibly to you,” Bolain tells me.

Another piece of what’s coming with electrification is steer-by-wire. Mechanical steering linkages become a packaging challenge by eating up space in the interior, and limiting how a car can look. “In the future, we won’t have to have that with steer-by-wire,” says Bolain, who also hinted that Lexus is aiming at creating a central control unit for more cohesive all-electric operations of its future cars.

ON by Germane Barnes and the University of Miami, inspired by Lexus for Design Miami 2021. Photo by Steve Benisty @stevebenisty.

Lexus has had a long-standing association with Design Miami. But you can’t just ‘park cars inside a tent where you see things that you’ve never seen anywhere before, and maybe we’ll never see anywhere, again.’ They’re all handcrafted, they come from someone’s imagination. “So when we come here, we have to elevate our game. So it’s one of the reasons we went, we always try to partner with someone who can bring us to life, but through their eyes,” Bolain says.

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For some, the success of Lexus’ ON/ installation might be gauged from the virality of the #LexusElectrified hashtag on Instagram; but what caught my eye was Barnes’ connection with his students, who he’s co-credited for the project. The students were in strong attendance during his talk on Day 2 of the event and cheered him on as he spoke of utilising art as a means of development beyond gentrification.

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Barnes continues to accredit his success to “the model of working with my professors who gave me an opportunity”, and aims to continue the tradition. “We want to look forward to the future, and the best way to do that is to empower those who are coming after you,” he tells the media in Miami.

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Electrification, sustainability, and youth might just be corporate buzzwords for boomers, but they certainly are going to redefine almost everything for the coming generation, and address the tiny matter of climate change, too. Speaking of which, Barnes’ support for his University of Miami students does seem to seek inspiration from Muhammad Ali’s influence on America’s youth during the late-1960s and ’70s.

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The former might be a little bit away from being crowned as a three-time heavyweight champion of the world and triggering a national anti-war movement, but he sure can do his bit in springboarding the next generation of designers and artists to use their trade for sustainable development. After all, even Ali’s humble beginnings, according to the Lexus chauffeur Earl, were scribbled at the ON 5th Street Gym, right down the beach.