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Drivers found: Five CMU profs all had designs on VW's redesigned Beetle

Tuesday, March 02, 1999

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

What are the odds of five guys at the same workplace buying the same new car in five different colors?

  The VW love bugs of Carnegie Mellon University's School of Design are, from left, Bernard Uy, Rick Landesberg, Robert Swineheart, Chris Pacione and Craig Vogel. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)Cutline

Pretty good when the workplace is Carnegie Mellon University's School of Design, the guys are design faculty, and the car is Volkswagen's New Beetle.

What pickup trucks are to pig farmers, these redesigned classics are to designers.

They just had to have one.

"I was first," says Chris Pacione, and he isn't crowing about being the first to drive up for a Post-Gazette photo shoot.

The industrial designer and assistant professor had lusted after the curvy car's "beautiful form" after seeing a picture in a magazine long before it hit the U.S. market last year. One day in June he barely beat out a couple to buy the only one he could find that wasn't already spoken for. It's blue.

He says, "I wanted a green."

"That's flattering," says his colleague Rick Landesberg, as Pacione peers into the 1999 Granny Smith-colored apple of his eye that Landesberg has just parked in the circular driveway in front of CMU's University Center.

Hey, here comes a silver one, which has to be that of Bernard Uy, who, like Landesberg, is a graphic designer and an adjunct associate prof. (Uy also is a principal in Wall-to-Wall Studios in the Strip, and Landesberg runs Landesberg Design Associates on the South Side.)

Pulling up behind him is a white Beetle driven by professor Robert Swinehart.

  Related article:

Beetle's return means slap-happy revival of 'Punch Buggy'


And bringing up the rear is the red one of Craig Vogel, an associate professor and an associate dean of the College of Fine Arts.

Boy, these cars really do attract attention.

Within minutes of being precision-parked for PG photographer Steve Mellon, all the Beetles are chased out by an exterminator-esque security guard shouting something about a fire lane.

Off rolls the blue-green-silver-white-red parade, turning heads and turning up smiles along Forbes Avenue and across campus on the

way up to the Schenley Park Oval. Just as everybody's parked there, a Pittsburgh police officer approaches, but he just wants to look at all these neat cars.

The designers, too, find them irresistible.

"Total design," says Swinehart, who can go on and on about reasons this one is better than his and his wife's original early '70s Bug, and it's not just mundane features like, say, heat.

Like him, Landesberg was enamored as soon as he read, in Graphis magazine, about the "guerrilla-like" efforts of company designers who weren't even supposed to re-invent the Beetle. Their achievement was overall "real design" - that is, "The way it works, the way it looks, the way you think about it."

Giving a tour of his, Landesberg points out "functional yet delightful" touches ranging from the much-talked-about dashboard bud vase to the lever that old-fashionedly ratchets up the front seat.

After showing off the sticking-out-its-tongue way an opening handle flicks out of the hood when you pop it and the rubber flap at the gas cap to protect the fender from scratching nozzles, he grins and says, "Like any example of good design, it's really about smart thinking."

Vogel actually has talked about the car in lectures on human factors and design history. He was at the Industrial Designers Society of America national convention in San Diego last year, when the car won a Gold Award in the IDEA competition, and he got to talk about having one in his own collection on National Public Radio.

Certainly, many, many other design types are driving the things. But these five account for one-sixth of the design faculty at CMU (with 18 full-timers and 12 part-timers), which makes their purchases quite a coincidence.

As Swinehart told a CMU News writer last month, "As colleagues, I think we really believe it is cool we all drive one."

Not quite as cool as it was for all five to squeeze into Pacione's open car and pose on a windy, snowy day.

Still, they're all so effusive about how much they love their New Beetles - for being, as Uy puts it, "cool, fun, funky, hip and goofy-looking" - that one can't help think of the commercial possibilities. Someone should make some calls so Volkswagen can ...

"Sue us!" one of them shouts, and everybody laughs.

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