The butcher's boy at the cutting edge of car design

His dad is a butcher, but the young Galwayman has found a meaty role as the head of the new Peugeot design lab

His dad is a butcher, but the young Galwayman has found a meaty role as the head of the new Peugeot design lab

CITROËN HAS undergone a design revolution in the past decade, reviving the DS range while creating an avant-garde appeal to the French brand. One of the instigators of this revolution has been a softly spoken Galwayman whose talent has taken him to the head of its sister company Peugeot’s new design centre.

We meet on the Peugeot stand at the recent Paris Motor Show, where alongside the latest cars sits a funky new grand piano. It’s the first official delivery from the firm’s new design centre. And it was created under the watchful eye of a talented young man from Oranmore.

Cathal Loughnane takes his seat among a throng of Peugeot staff and clients in the firm’s private cafe at the back of the stand. His Irish accent remains intact despite more than a decade in Paris, although when speaking with colleagues his French seems word-perfect.

“I have to magnify my Irishness for the French, the English and the Germans,” he says.

He might be mixing it with the cultured style gurus in the design capital of Europe, but Loughnane comes across as someone who could mix as easily down the local in his hometown as among the Parisian sophisticates.

Despite his youthful appearance, his design credentials in the motoring world are impeccable. He has styled numerous interiors for Citroën production models and the innards of the C-Cactus concept, a hatchback that heralded the rugged look for the likes of the DS4. He has worked alongside the designer Gilles Vidal during his 13 years at the firm. Vidal is now head of all car design for the Citroen and Peugeot brands and the man to whom Loughnane reports directly.

Yet despite this motoring pedigree, Loughnane’s roots are more in meat than motoring.

“My father was a butcher in Galway, Sean Loughnane’s in Foster Court. Now my two brothers have taken over, and they have a sausage-manufacturing company on the Tuam Road making Loughnane Sausages. If you’ve ever had Aldi sausages then you’ve eaten them already. They don’t tell me about the business, but their houses are much bigger than mine.

“Basically, my grandfather was a butcher, uncles were butchers, cousins are butchers. I’m the only male Loughnane who doesn’t cut meat for a living, or work in a hotel or in the food industry.”

Following secondary school at St Joseph’s in Galway, he went on to study mechanical engineering at DIT on Bolton Street.

“During the last two years there the guys from Gowan Distributors had this experimental communications thing. They took some engineers, some architects, mechanics – all the sort of ancillary car design people – and made them design cars. I designed the world’s ugliest taxi and somehow won the competition the first year. As part of it, Citroën sent a designer over every two weeks to guide us. Then at the end someone at the press conference asked if I wanted to be a car designer. I said, ‘God, yes, and I’ve got nothing to do this summer.’ The designer from Citroën at the event didn’t understand that I was only half-serious and went off and tried to organise an internship for me. I forgot all about the off-the-cuff comment, but when I came back in October they said, ‘We’re really sorry we couldn’t organise the internship, but we will see what we can do for the future.’ I didn’t even know they had tried.

“I did my fourth year and got a three-month internship during that year with Citroën, and at the end of it they asked me if I wanted to stay. So that’s how an Irish engineer became a car designer. I just learnt design old-school at Citroen, doing interiors for 10 years. They simply give you paper and pencil and say, ‘draw.’ After years of telling you it’s crap they say, ‘oh, that one’s actually okay, you’re getting there.’ Then year after year there’s less ‘that’s crap’ and more ‘oh, yeah’.”

His engineering training helped him understand both sides of the automotive world. It also coincided with the renewed focus on design by car firms.

“Around 1991 car firms realised that design was important and since then every car firm has built up massive design teams. As a consequence the private-design houses that used to service the industry are slowly going out of business, unfortunately. They haven’t really capitalised on looking for non-car work. Pininfarina is probably the exception. They’ve done what we’ve done, in a way.”

And what they have done is diversify. The design talents at car firms, the multimillion-euro equipment and the ability to work with a multitude of suppliers on ultracomplex problems mean that there is a business opportunity to offer these services to those outside the automotive world. That’s where the new Peugeot Design Lab comes in.

“The simple fact is that there are hundreds of design agencies and star designers out there, but they are all built around making tables and chairs, computers and telephones. Once you give them something as complicated as a car, their teams are not equipped for it. A car is thousands of engineers, 300-400 outside suppliers. It takes five years, hundreds of millions of euro, thousands of people over that time. There are virtually no product design houses that can handle projects that big outside the car industry, aside from aviation and boatbuilders. Yet every car-design studio has to handle projects that big and complex. The outside car-design houses built their framework around designing for cars.”

Loughnane also points to the rich heritage at Peugeot as an engineering firm as much as an automaker.

“It’s worth remembering that Peugeot is 202 years old now, and there were thousands of products before they made their first car. When we did our launch for the Design Lab in June we got some of the catalogues from 1902. In one of them there were 150 pages of tools and, on the back pages, two bicycles.

“So as they went through the history of the brand for the bicentenary two years ago, they said, ‘Hold on – we used to do loads of other things that were cool, and we need to revitalise this.’”

The Design Lab is clearly regarded as a desperately needed future profit centre for the car firm at a time when it’s trying to turn around its automotive operations. Peugeot is burning through €200 million in cash a month, and its shares trade near a 23-year low.

For Loughnane, the creation of his new lab was timely.

“Basically, after 10 years of doing the same thing, I was looking for other opportunities. You find after a while that you know the air-conditioning unit better than the air-conditioning engineer who is giving it to you, because you’ve been doing it for 10 years and he has been doing it for three, so you start to think it’s time to move on. Things get a little bit repetitive. I worked on the Cactus concept car for almost two years, and after that time you need to break out of it.

“So after a decade I went to the head of design at PSA and said I need a change, and Gilles heard that I was looking around and he told me about the plans to create a product department at Peugeot, and asked if I would like to come and join.”

As to the sort of projects Loughnane and his team are working on, he understandably has to remain quiet.

“A month and a half before I left Citroën, our first major customer approached Peugeot, not knowing we were considering the Design Lab. They wanted a car-design company to work on their product. It’s a major project that will not be out until 2016 – and even then we probably can’t talk about it because some of our customers don’t want to communicate that we were involved.”

But judging from the concept styling examples that are suggested in its publicity, the Design Lab sees its future in areas such as aviation and marine, along with specialist products from the tech world. It might not be too long before we’re cruising at 40,000ft in the comfort of a cabin designed by an engineer from Oranmore who cut his teeth in car interiors.