Galwayman Cathal Lougnane’s job is Head of Peugeot Design Lab in Paris. He has nothing to do with cars in his job. Instead, he simply designs… things.
For those who may not have realised it, Peugeot began its life as a designer of all sorts of objects and in setting up its Peugeot Design Lab two years ago, the famous French car manufacturer wanted to cash in on expertise that it had built up over the years through its work on making cars look and function well.
“I’m in charge of the design studio, except for the cars,” says the affable 36-year-old. “I’m also in charge of all the design that we do for outside customers. So, if it’s not a car, then it’s me. And if it’s not Peugeot, then it’s me as well!”
It’s a job with a blank sheet where just about anything can happen when he walks through the door in the morning – an absolutely perfect occupation for someone who loves creating things and seeing how they work. So what type of customers use such a place?
“We’ve only been open a year and a half so far for outside customers, but for the most part it’s aeronautical – a lot of the stuff that flies. We’re also doing a lot of brand imaging, oddly enough. We started off designing products, but now we’re actually designing a lot of brands more than anything else.
“Once you work on a car, you can do everything and this means that our studio is very multi-disciplined, so it’s not just about designing the product, but it’s also about designing the brand, the message, the communication… even the industrial processes. We’re doing a lot of consulting on industrial processes; which means that there are a lot of companies that have trouble translating the really sexy designer’s sketch that they have into a working product and assuring that the quality of the design is as good as the quality of the product that comes out of the factory at the end of the day.”
Loughnane points out that all of this is nothing new to a company that mass-produces cars. The mass-production of cars is, he says, is probably the most complex design challenge that exists, so it’s really a case of applying this unrivalled design expertise to all other areas.“Planes, trains and yachts are probably more complex again, but we have to produce 10,000 cars a day,” he says, “so the machine that builds our machines is probably the most complex there is.”
PSA Peugeot-Citroën is the second-largest car manufacturer in Europe and employs a veritable army of 200,000 people – an army which contains, Loughgnane says, an expert on just about everything.
“We don’t have a guy who can build a rocket engine. Other than that, there’s an expert somewhere in the company on pretty much every subject that exists, be it communication, electronics, aerodynamics, design, marketing, branding, sales, distribution, fabrication… the lot.”
Loughnane’s journey to the top of this company started in Oranmore in Co Galway. Born into a butcher’s shop, he studied electrical engineering in Bolton Street College, Dublin before going on to work for Peugeot-Citroën. He was chosen to work on the interiors of cars – a job he did for over a decade with the company, before being selected to run the Peugeot Design Lab.
Where he works is close to Peugeot headquarters – about 10km from the Champs-Elysées and just down the road from Versailles. It’s a fair cry from the West of Ireland to come to work at the continent’s second-largest auto manufacturer in the continent’s most densely-populated city. One wonders what it was like at the beginning. Did he have much French?
“None!” he laughs. “I did pass Leaving Cert for my French because I thought ‘I don’t need this! Why the hell do I need to learn French? When am I going to need to speak French?’ and then four years later, I found myself at Porte Maillot on my own going ‘Damn! I should have learned French!'”
Nothing like being thrown in at the deep end?
“Oh, you have a choice – it’s either learn French or spend the next ten years eating at McDonald’s. So you learn French pretty quick!”
Even though Cathal comes from a spot that’s on the edge of Ireland’s largest Irish-speaking area, he’s not a gaeilgeoir and he doesn’t speak any Irish: “I’ve erased it from my brain, I’m afraid, to make room for French. It’s the most pointless thing I’ve ever learned in my life. I’m very much much in the camp of let it die – it’s beyond useless.”Sacrilegious words coming from a man from the edge of Connemara?
“I’ve got plenty of family in Connemara – my grandmother lived there, but I’ve also seen the hardcore gaeilgeoir side too… Perhaps it’s because it was forced on us that I resented it so much but there are things in our past that we need to let go of as a nation.”
It all sounds like a dream job of endless creativity with the backing of such a huge organisation. Does he still pinch himself to realise what he does for a living?
“The closest thing I’ve done before to what my job is right now is when I was a kid playing with Lego. I get paid to do what I would do if I didn’t get paid to do it. I have this massive Lego-box and we spend our day just playing with it.
“Working on cars, you know what the next five years are going to look like because the project is so big and so long… There’s a lot of the element of surprise in my current job; things just randomly turn up. For example, there’s a call from someone who says ‘I have this thing, do you want to work on it?’ and you go ‘F***ing awesome! Cool! Yes!’ So there wasn’t much surprise working on cars, but now there’s a lot.”
Loughnane heads up a crack unit of about 15 people working full-time with him and he also has access to the additional team of 150 that are working in Peugeot’s car design, as well as another 250 people working on Peugeot’s global design division.
He lives in Versailles, which he describes as “nice and calm… It’s nice: there’s a park, a market on Sunday and lots of really good restaurants. It’s more family and residential than the Marais or the Bastille or somewhere in Paris proper.” And to alleviate any possible home-sickness, there is, he says, one half-decent Irish pub, “which is really a French pub with Guinness posters on the wall.”
Cathal’s new job is also finally getting him to see much more of France. Up to that point, his knowledge of France’s geography was very limited and he admits to having a vague awareness of Marseilles being “somewhere near the Mediterranean” but now his work takes him to every corner of the Hexagone and he has built up over the last two years, he says, an encyclopaedic knowledge of the country’s motorways and fuel stations.
From his 13-14 years of experience of life in France, how does he find his adopted home? Is it a better organised country than Ireland?
“It’s kind of hard to answer… I think that they’re about the same but for very different reasons. I never saw Ireland as being organised in any way at all; I think that we’re totally disorganised, but Ireland, as a country, is so neighbourly that we almost don’t need to be organised – it’s a case of ‘come around for tea and we’ll sort something out!’France is twenty times the population of Ireland so it’s a lot more political… at the end of the day, France is just as disorganised or organised as Ireland. We both work things out but for different reasons.
“There are a lot of rules and structure in France, but even when it’s complicated and a pain in the ass, it’s all for a good reason. It really is about making everybody’s life a bit better: the healthcare system is really good, everybody gets a lot of holidays, but for me, the one and only thing that messes everything up is the fact that jobs here tend to be for life. That’s the one thing that cripples this place. Take that out of the equation and it’s probably the best system in the world. Everything works really well except for the fact that if you don’t want to work, you can just come into work, sit down at your desk and just not work. There are very few people that do that, but the 5% of those that do are enough to just ruin it for the rest.
“With that one exception, France is and should be a model for everyone. It’s pretty well put together.”
When asked what he misses most about Ireland, Cathal struggles for an answer: “Can I say Taytos and Cadbury’s Chocolate? Maybe Supermac’s? I don’t know… I think I’ll stick with cheese-and-onion Taytos – you can’t get that here.”
What’s the thing he loves most about life in France?
“Proper good food,” says the only one in his family not involved in the food trade in some way and who has worked as a butcher, baker and deli-maker from the age of eight or nine.”In Ireland, we have better ‘bad food’. In France, they don’t do junk food well, but they’ve got some really good ‘good food’.”