An interview with twin visionary designers. As told to Chris Nelson.
Pioneers: Iliya & Nikita Bridan
The bond between identical twins is undeniable, and while you can see it and sense it, it’s hard to understand unless you share the same genes with someone else. Over the last six years, I’ve come to appreciate this deep, biological connection by spending time with 34-year-old Iliya and Nikita Bridan, twin brothers from Canada who both pursued careers as automotive designers. Even though their lives have run in parallel since birth, neither has tired of the other yet and now they collaborate on some of the coolest automotive builds, including the Dropped Alfa and the Half-11, working out of their shop, Oilstainlab, in Signal Hill, California. I sat down with the Bridan twins to know what they did to get where they are today and better understand how they hope to pioneer in a fast-changing automotive world.
&SONS: What is it like growing up as a twin?
ILIYA BRIDAN: It’s like you grow up with a best friend. You’re together all the time and you're never lonely, per se. It's different than having a brother because there's an inexplicable bond that you just have. It's also challenging because if one of you is good at something, you want to be good at it too, and vice versa. It's not a competitive thing, though.
NIKITA BRIDAN: More than that, we empower each other. Someone comes up with a stupid idea or something, and then the other guy empowers him. Or if one guy doesn't have the skill to do something, then you help him out, or whatever. You always help the other twin out, right?
Shop Iliya's & Nikita Outfits
&SONS: How’d you two decide to get into automotive design?
ILIYA: We don't come from a very artistic family. My mom's side was pretty much all military, engineers, and...
NIKITA: ... doctors. Yeah, artistic creativity is not a very good thing in our family. It's a waste of brainpower, according to them. But still, as kids were drawing dinosaurs and cars. Canada didn’t have much car culture; I remember this one time when we saw a BMW 7 series, and our minds exploded. Our fascination with cars really piqued after my dad wanted to buy a new car and he brought home a Consumer Report guide that had all the numbers and statistics for every car and everything, so Iliya and I memorized it, front to back. Then we’d quiz each other, like the wheelbase of a Dodge Grand Caravan versus the wheelbase of a Ford Expedition.
ILIYA: Then on family road trips, we would play a game in the backseat, looking from 400 yards at the car coming to overtake us and ask each other, "What is it?" Based on headlights or whatever.
NIKITA: Now the only cars that I recognize are cop cars.
ILIYA: We also got really into Gran Turismo 3 on PlayStation 2. We played that nonstop.
NIKITA: Oh, that’s right. We were never really traditional car geeks because we weren't allowed to work on things. Our parents thought that old cars are rusty and dangerous and that we’d end up working as mechanics, which would be even worse than working as artists.
&SONS: At age 17 you both enrolled in transportation design classes at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California. Where did life take you from there?
NIKITA: While I was still in school, I had a dream internship at Volkswagen’s Advanced Design Studio in Santa Monica, or at least I thought it would be a dream internship. I nearly quit after four weeks. I was like, "Is this what car design is? I want out. I don't want to be a car designer." Then the whole economy took a shift in '08, with people getting fired left and right. When I started there were, I think almost 80 people working, then by the end of the internship, it was like 24 of us. Then after Iliya and I graduated from ArtCenter, we both went to work for Toyota. We only lasted there a year. It was a good time, we learned a lot. The studio is super professional, so learned a lot about the process, and everyone was nice, but we got screwed by their human resources department, being Canadian with visas and everything like that. We ended up leaving because a guy at Honda hired us both. We worked there together for three years, but then they got sick and tired of having two of us around and kept Iliya, while I went to Hyundai Genesis. I did four months there and just hated it, so I quit, went to General Motors, and stayed there for four years before reuniting with Iliya at GAC. We were there for only nine months ... it did not end well.
&SONS: Where are you working now?
NIKITA: I’m working freelance on industrial design projects.
ILIYA: And I’m working as a designer at Canoo.
&SONS: Is it fair to say that, for both of you, transportation design has lost some of the luster it once had?
ILIYA: I'll say this. It’s an evolution of maturing as a designer and understanding what you're really trying to create. When you're in ArtCenter, you’re naively thinking that you're going to reinvent form language, that you're come going to come in and redesign everything, and that you're God's gift to mankind. You're like, "This is so easy. Why don't they do it?" Then, your first few years you run up against some walls that are really hard and no matter how many times you run into them, they don't break and you slowly realize there's only so much you can do. That's why the results are on the street that you see.
"We need to design vehicles from a sustainability point of view, a manufacturing point of view, a cost point of view... it's more interesting to solve those problems than to make dynamic linework or a more sculpted body side."
It just basically came to the point for me where I couldn't work for an OEM anymore because their vision of what a car is so old-fashioned and irrelevant to the everyday people that you talk to. They're still trying to make emotionally appealing cars when most people no longer emotionally connect with a vehicle. It's really, really stupid in some ways. We need to design vehicles from a sustainability point of view, a manufacturing point of view, a cost point of view... it's more interesting to solve those problems than to make dynamic linework or a more sculpted body side. It's picking up on the new challenges of today's marketplace. That's what I get excited about nowadays more so than cars. I could really care less about the newest hypercars or whatever. I'm just like, "Who cares? If it goes fast, who cares?" Does it help make the world a better place?
NIKITA: I agree, more or less. I think when you're a student you get excited by something that just looks new or you haven't seen that before, or maybe you don't know enough to know that's been done before or something. You have to learn how hard it is to make something real. I think for us, it's only real when it's physical when you can interact with it, use it, whatever. We have so many projects that are just renderings. It's dangerous because it cheapens it if it's not real in a way. It's interesting because of how much more effort it takes to make something real and function versus just making some renderings.
&SONS: You appreciate the value of computer-generated renderings though, right?
NIKITA: Oh, of course, and the coolest part about it is that it empowers people. Like Blender, it's a free, open-source graphics program, and it’s as good as anything else out there. You don't need to pay for a license; all you need is a computer. If you're creative, what better way to show what you're capable of? You can basically use the same program that the best guys in the world use to compete for attention and show what you're capable of. I think it's an awesome, cool trend that democratises creation, but I think it’s very different from building something for real because that's a serious commitment: financial, time, everything.
&SONS: You’re currently going through that whole experience with the Half-11 project, which started as a computer rendering and is now a runner. What was it like driving that Can Am-inspired machine for the first time?
NIKITA: I pretty much said my goodbyes to my wife, Kira. I was like, "Are you sure you're not coming this weekend? Might be the last time I see you." As soon as I strapped in and went out on the road course it was fine, but the first 20 minutes before going on track, it was just like, "Holy shit. This is a rocket ship you're strapping yourself to."
&SONS: A rocket ship you built...
NIKITA: Yeah, and I just hoped everything's tight. I spent the previous two days going over every nut and bolt, making sure everything's good because we're going to go 160 miles an hour, but the car was great. I was almost too tired to be super euphoric after the whole prepping, emotionally and mentally, I was just spent. It was a relief that nothing happened and now, looking back at it, it's the best feeling you could have. The car isn't going to kill us. It's actually really comfortable, it drives really nice, and it handles amazingly. It's like, "Oh, shit. We could actually drive this car every day on the street like we talked about.”
&SONS: What’s next for the Half-11?
ILIYA: Well, we're designers by profession, so the engineering side was the hardest for us to get our heads around. Now we’re getting to the design part, which is making body panels, making the interior, and making everything cosmetically really nice, and that’s where we shine. That's the fun part now. It's dressing it all up, making it look like the actual renderings, and focusing on the details. There’s a saying: “There are no bad ideas, just bad execution.” Focusing on the details and the tailoring can make a dramatic difference in the finished product.
"From cuffs to collars to buttons, everything is dope ... very cool."
&SONS: Speaking of details and tailoring, do you dig your &Sons apparel?
ILIYA: There’s definitely a bunch of cool little details on the clothes. I like the jacket’s cuffs, the way its pockets are sewn on, and that the inside of the lapels are exposed and kind of rough. It’s cool.
NIKITA: Agreed. At first, they look somewhat like basic clothes, but they’re not. They’re neat and elevated, sort of like a vintage Porsche reimagined by Singer Vehicle Design. From cuffs to collars to buttons, everything is dope ... very cool.