A life-long watch fan, being directly involved with the design process of the Richard Mille RM 11-03 was a dream come true for Robert Melville, Design Director at McLaren Automotive.
You worked at Jaguar Land Rover and General Motors for three years each before joining McLaren. Is the experience any different?
I’ve been at McLaren for nine years now and it feels like home. The culture within the studio is different to anywhere else. This is very important to me. To have an environment where people can take risks, be brave and be at their creative best.I challenge the team and they challenge me back. One of the most interesting changes is the speed at which the company has grown. We started as a one-car company and then we developed another and now we can be working on three or four projects at any one time. And staff-wise, we are set up to deliver that volume of work having gone from 500 to 2,500 people on site. We build the Sports, Super and Ultimate series all on-site at our high tech production centre next door to the technical centre. We also have McLaren Special Operations (MSO) where vehicles can be fully customised through to having completely new, one-off designs created.
Tell us more about the design process at McLaren.
As a process we sketch, make 3D models and from there we choose the two best options and make them full size before we narrow the choice down to one – all pretty standard. Where we are different is that we work with the engineering team hand-in-hand from day one. I would always want to work like this – I want to know engineering as well as design. It is a holistic and brave approach but this is the most efficient way to create products that are at the cutting edge.
A McLaren vehicle is not just another road car. The designs are challenging and very exotic, but as people learn more about them they start to understand them. They are completely different to mass market cars – they look avant garde but they always have a function and reason for being.
A bit like a Richard Mille watch, then?
Exactly, it is very much like Richard Mille. Some people might like a classic dress watch and may not get why anyone would buy a Richard Mille because it’s not their taste. But the point is, it’s not trying to be. Watches are personal and so are cars – you buy a McLaren or an RM as a statement of the companies – because they are new and because the materials and aesthetics are “out there”. The mission statement at McLaren is “breathtaking products that tell the visual story of their function” – for anything we design, there needs to be an easy understanding of why that design is advantageous. And I think it is the same at Richard Mille.
What has given you the most satisfaction in your career?
When I arrived at McLaren, the 12C had been launched, but basically it was a new company and did not yet have a strong identity for the new generation of road cars. I’ve been able to create that identity, as well as create some amazing cars – each one is a family member with a different character and I’m proud of all of them.
I look at the 650 – it is exactly what it needed to be and it delivered what the market was after. The P1 is an icon in its own right with little that can be improved, and the 570S Coupe, GT and Spider managed to bring this elegant and well-controlled design language to the mass market, And, then, with the 720, it felt like we had embraced everything a McLaren should be – the sculpture and feel of an F1 car, wrapped in exotic, muscled surfaces with ultra-dramatic features such as double-skin doors and eye sockets.
The Senna was an amazing opportunity – it is effectively our 100m Olympic sprinter. Designed like a military project, we had to crunch the numbers and work out exactly what the car needed to be. The exterior and interior reflect that goal of being McLaren’s fastest road-legal track car, designed to our epitomise our key design pillar of everything for a reason.
Tell us about your watches.
I have a Bell & Ross Commando that I treated myself to, to celebrate the launch of the McLaren P1. I love the boldness and that it is an instrument. I have old Heuers, Doxas, a Lemania, a Porsche Design and a Sicura. I’ve had quite a few and restored them – some myself – and I have shoeboxes filled with old watch parts. I’ve also designed a case and bought a movement to fit it, but it was never finished due to the costs involved. I think that my passions are reflected in the watches I love – the RM 16 and some of the complicated pieces by Vacheron Constantin.
You must have been delighted when Richard Mille partnered with McLaren?
I knew Richard Mille as a brand and had watched its growth. I liked the images I saw in magazines, but it wasn’t until I went to the factory, saw the watches being made and put them on my wrist that I really understood them – and I fell in love there and then. When we first met Fabrice Namura and his team of engineers, we realised that there was a shared design philosophy and the project became a meeting of minds.
We agreed on the RM 11-03 McLaren Automatic Flyback Chronograph, focusing on an existing model and adapting it. So, we worked on the case material – Carbon TPT interwoven with Orange Quartz – the crown, which is designed like a McLaren wheel and the pushers that were inspired by the eye sockets of the 720S. The rubber strap has details reminiscent of the P1. We have created a sporty and iconic RM watch with a McLaren twist. The flyback function makes it easier to use and the skeleton design shows off the technical detail through the case so, as with our story, everything is there for a reason. It is about simplicity versus complexity – a simple case, with a complicated annual calendar and chronograph movement.
You were happy with how the relationship progressed?
It was so easy. They are the best bunch of people – so passionate, so professional and they really know how to enjoy themselves, too. Fabrice’s team made sketches, we marked those up picking out key details. They made the prototypes, we tweaked them and so on.
There are many differences between car and watch design but, when you get down to it, all you need is the package and the architecture, the vision of the watch and the vision of the car. It is all about functioning around that architecture. Both McLaren and Richard Mille have different challenges and pressures to the more mass-market brands: we have to be fresher, braver and a little shocking.
What does the RM 11-03 McLaren say about the two companies involved in its creation?
It shows true harmony. We are the Richard Mille of the car world and they are the McLaren of watches. We have created a breathtaking watch of outstanding aesthetics and I believe our mission statement, “everything for a reason” applies. We can boil the design process of both companies down to three words, which will continue to inspire us as our 10-year partnership grows: understand, explore, create.