There is an ongoing debate between artists and designers about what constitutes design and what qualifies as art. The central theory states that any creation — no matter how beautiful or how intricately designed — can be qualified as art until the moment it fulfills some other specific purpose. Once that creation accomplishes the specific task it’s designed for, it becomes a product and not a work of art. So, art can only exist as a work of art for art’s sake. However, there are objects like the Toyota Setsuna Concept that challenge that notion in both thought and execution.
Originally conceived to show off Toyota’s aesthetic abilities for the 2016 Milan Design Week, the Setsuna concept car (to quote Toyota’s own statement on the vehicle) exists specifically “to defy the notion that cars should only be seen as industrial products loaded with the latest technologies.” Now, that doesn’t expressly say that Toyota engineer Kenji Tsuji and his team set out to make a work of art, but the thinking behind the Setsuna still takes a very emotional, even existential tone.
When it debuted in Milan, Toyota described the vehicle as embedding the affection owners grow to feel for their cars as the years pass — comparable to the love of a friend or family member. That’s an artistic statement, an idea driving the creation of something to express an emotional or psychological truth. That’s an artistic intention.
In Japanese, Setsuna means “a moment or an instant.” The temporal theme repeats itself throughout the car’s identity from initial idea to construction materials. In addition to that thesis of growing to love our cars as entities, the minds behind this machine wanted to examine how cars “continue to change and offer new value as they are taken care of with love over time.” You see those same words repeating themselves —”love” and “time”— two factors that define our existence as human beings.
To honor the ever-present temporal elements in the Setsuna, it’s made of wood — literally carved from trees that grew over many years. Wood has a different relationship to time than the metal automakers use. Time can weaken metal — rusting or corroding it in the elements. But, if properly cared for, wood cannot only weather the years but age gracefully — taking on a new character and adding beauty. Again, you find those same through-lines of time, care and beauty.
Now, you couldn’t put together a green car lover’s dream machine like this and put a fossil fuel-burning engine in it. They’d go together like a hippie and a teamster. So, the powerplant for the Setsuna is a fully electric motor. Traditional stats like horsepower, 0-60 times and mpg miss the point entirely for a car like this.
The types and grains of wood used in the Setsuna were carefully selected and intentionally positioned to give the car visual appeal without the need of paint. Darker hued woods go into the steering wheel and leather wrapped seats, while lighter shades of straight or cross grains stripe the car vertically and horizontally. Occasional aluminum flares are used to offset the wood for a little extra visual pop.
In an amazing feat of engineering, the Setsuna’s bodywork was assembled using the Japanese construction techniques of Okuriari and Kusabi. These carefully honed “joining” systems allowed for the wood to be assembled without nails, screws, bolts or adhesives. The car essentially snaps together, settling snuggly like an organic entity. The only industrial era “fasteners” that go into the car are found in the metal mechanical parts.
All of those bodywork pieces can breathe, stretch, contract and age, interacting and evolving with each other. But, with the proper TLC from the would-be owner, that wood will remain strong and resilient. Of course, since the car’s body parts are carved from wood and hand-assembled, they can just as easily be removed and replaced in the case of some unforeseen damage.
Ambitious in intent and obsessive in execution, the Setsuna is a polarizing automobile. Some are charmed by its ability to blend simplicity in appearance with complexity of function. Others consider it a bit of a silly, impractical gimmick with more pretentiousness than horsepower.
Those polarized reactions are what might push the Setsuna over the razor’s edge from car to art. A main purpose of art is to generate some sort of a reaction from the viewer, and the Setsuna manages that on many levels. Regardless of what it inspires in the eye of the beholder, there’s no questioning an artist’s level of love and passion went into creating it.