Nikon and Italdesign: A Japanese Camera's Italian Design Heritage

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I am a sucker for design and, years ago, when in the market for my first SLR camera, it wasn’t really a feature set that sold me on a brand, it was the way the Nikon SLR looked to my eye and felt to my hand that made me target the N6006. Little did I know then that the design of the consumer N6006 had Nikon F4 DNA in its good looks and that the Nikon F4, which I consider the best-looking SLR ever made, had acquired its pulchritude from famed automotive designer Giorgetto Giugiaro’s Italian design firm—Italdesign.

Over the years, Giorgetto Giugiaro created some of the world’s most enduring automotive designs. The ubiquitous Volkswagen Golf Mk 1 (known on these shores more popularly as the “Rabbit”) is a true classic, with almost 7 million cars sold. The DeLorean DMC-12, made extra famous as a time machine in the movie Back to the Future, was penned by Giugiaro, as well as another movie star, the Lotus Esprit S1, that turned into a submarine in the James Bond film, For Your Eyes Only. In keeping with Giugiaro’s “folded paper” design work, the exotic BMW M1 was raced after being hand-painted by artist Andy Warhol.

Founded in 1968, Giugiaro’s Italdesign (now owned by German car maker Audi) specializes not only in automotive design and styling, but wide-ranging industrial design applications, as well, including its 30+ year relationship with Nikon. To find out more about the relationship between Giugiaro and Nikon, I spoke, via email, with Nicola Guelfo, Head of Industrial Design Styling at Italdesign. *

The Nikon F3

B&H: Your website states that you have been involved in a partnership with Nikon for 30 years. When exactly did the partnership begin?

Nicola Guelfo: We started in 1980, with the F3 project.

B&H: Did Nikon approach Italdesign, or did Italdesign approach Nikon?

NG: Giorgetto Giugiaro was and is very famous in Japan as a car designer. Nikon asked him to apply his skills, approach, and vision also to the design of a camera.

The Nikon F4

B&H: What other cameras has Italdesign had a hand in designing?

NG: Basically we’ve been involved in every new professional product from F3 on. This means F4, F5, F6, D1, D2, D3, and D4. We also designed the Nikonos RS camera and we worked on several concepts for consumer products.

[Note: Italdesign did not design the D5, but that camera’s design is clearly based on the D4 platform.]

Nikon D2

B&H: Did Italdesign receive any design awards for its Nikon cameras?

NG: Yes, we won an iF [International Forum Design GmbH] award for the D4.

B&H: Do you have a dedicated camera-design team? Or do you have freelance designers who work on many industrial projects?

NG: We don’t have a team dedicated to camera projects, but we create a team of designers for every new project.

The Nikon F5

B&H: Are the designers who work on Nikon cameras also photographers? What kind of photography experience do they have?

NG: Most of our designers have a passion for photography since it’s a sector strongly close to design. They take pictures as a hobby; not as a profession.

Mockups of the early F4 design in clay

B&H: Would you tell me a bit about the design process? Do you start with a blank sheet of paper, or does Nikon approach you with specifications, size requirements, and an outline of what they think the camera should look like?

NG: Designing professional cameras is important to keep in mind several ergonomic and functional requirements coming from professional photographers. To fit these requirements, we start our design research from technical layout developing new ideas under the point of view of ergonomics, function, and style. The goal is to finalize them into an innovative but functional product.

Nikon D3

B&H: What other design input does Nikon have in the process as far as the aesthetics of the camera body?

NG: We, together with Nikon R&D, define new levels of interface experience for users. It means to provide not only a modern design but also an instrument that can deliver better performances for high-demanding users.

The Nikon F6

B&H: Obviously, the camera body should house a specific set of internal components—prisms, film spools, digital sensor, shutter mechanism, batteries, etc. Is Italdesign consulted in the operational mechanicals of the camera from the start? Or, are the mechanicals designed to fit inside the body design at some point in the design stage? For instance, in the photographs of the F4 clay mockups, there are two very different prism-housing designs—do you have, on hand, the prism that Nikon wishes to employ, or is the prism designed in conjunction with the prism housing?

NG: It’s a real co-design. We develop new ideas and we discuss them with Nikon technicians, pushing them to harmonize the mechanical layout to design needs. Prism design is a good example of this kind of harmonization, is the result of strong cooperation between designer and R&D.

Nikon D810

B&H: Is there a complete list of projects you have completed for Nikon available?

NG: We worked on every single professional camera from F3 to D4 and Nikonos. All the other reflex products (like D40 or F801 etc.) were derived from professional camera design.

The Nikonos RS

B&H: You mentioned that the lower-end camera models had designs based on the professional Italdesign cameras. Were those modified designs done by Nikon or in collaboration with Italdesign?

NG: No, the declination of our design into lower-end cameras have been carried out by Nikon team.

B&H: Are you currently working on any designs for Nikon that you can discuss?

NG: Unfortunately, this is non-disclosable information, since confidentiality is one of the most important parts of our job!

Nikon D4

B&H: Do you, or other designers there have a favorite Nikon camera that you would want to share with us?

NG: Frankly speaking, we love them all. They put a signature on different ages and set a standard for so many years. We are proud of the opportunity to develop this unique partnership.

*Interview has been edited for clarity.

Italdesign also shaped the V-line of Nikon binoculars.

34 Comments

Damn! This is one interesting thread!

I agree!

Nicola Guelfo must have been mistaken when he answered, "We started in 1983, with the F3 project," to your question, "When exactly did the partnership begin?" Nikon F3 was released in 1980. The project should have started in 1980 or earlier.

I still have one of the earliest cataglogs of Nikon F3 dated June 15, 1980. When you open it, you see a phrase "Perfezione Nikon e design Giugiaro per introdurvi nel nuovo mondo del reflext." signed by Giugiaro and printed in bright red on black bacground as if to remind you of the red vertical line on F3's black body. This catalog also features beautiful, amazingly beautiful sample photos taken by Jay Maisel. It's my treasure.

Good eye! I guess he did get his timeline messed up! We will correct the text. Thank you!

I would love to see that catalog! I bet it is amazing. Thanks for writing in, Shigeki!

Kami taiou, Yamamoto San. The Nikon F3 was released in 1980, indeed, and we have amended the typo.

Thank you!

— Copy Editor

My turn to correct my typo. The sample photos were taken by Jay Maisel, not Mazel. I'd appreciate it if you would correct it. Thank you.

Corrected! :)

I have Canon, Minolta-Sony and  pentax bodies, Bang for the buck, I stay with Pentax. The rest is just vanity. I have never had a Nikon, it is still in my bucket list to own one film F series and one DSLR, I respect Nikon's reputation, I confess...

Hey Carlos,

Nikon F4 cameras can be found on the web these days for a song! The mechanical F3 and earlier cameras are a bit more expensive, but none are really too pricey!

And, for your DSLR, the D100 can be had for a song as well! :)

Frankly, I see no use for Italian designers in camera design. Unlike cars, most photographers look for simplicity and usability in cameras, not style. I have been using Nikons since the 1970s. The older cameras were great. New ones are solid state electronic wonders. I have little patience for hacking through menus as I shoot. Don't get me wrong, I learned scientific programming in 1969. How is that for a retired dinosaur engineering professor? I think the user interface detracts from the enjoyment of image making, so I refuse to play along. Just set the state-of-the-art camera to manual, shoot away.

Now, style is the THING for cars for MOST people. I drive a BMW and a Cayman, neither of which is an Italian design.

Hi Ahmet,

I also think the user interface is a huge consideration in camera design and cameras seem to be getting worse the more complex they become. You might want to take a look at the Fujifilm mirrorless lineup if you long for the olden days. Having the controls, in dial form, on the camera body makes things amazingly simple.

As for your cars, German design is not a bad thing. Nor is Japanese design of German cars. I think my Joji Nagashima-designed E39 2002 530i Sport is one of the best looking Bimmers ever made.

Thanks for reading!

I totally agree with your statement. You can add price to that. I rather see affordability to Nikon than design. As an advertising/Graphic Artist (40 year) career individual, practicality and to be able to buy a D810,D4, D3 body, with be great. I haven't been able to get there yet because I can't affort a D3 or D810. Although I love my D50 more than I do my D7000. Want a full frame and that is what I'm talking about $4000 is a lot for a camera body, I say forget design for those who can't afford it. Target to those in taht market. Hire me Nikon.

Hi Patricia,

I think we can all agree that price points on camera gear is too high, regardless of design! Remember when cameras, even the best cameras, were all priced well below $1000?

My guess is that outsourcing the design does not add much to the cost of a camera, if at all. In fact, it might be cheaper to outsource than employee a full design staff. The D5 was not an Italdesign project, and, I believe it was priced north of the D4 line.

Thanks for stopping by!

Ahmet, I'm an engineer also, and I believe that there is a great deal of similarity between automobiles and cameras -- they're both meant to be driven. I own a Nikon D300s, and although I had a choice of about a dozen different DSLRs with similar pricing and image quality, for me the D300s was the clear winner simply because of the way it "drives." It feels so natural and comfortable in my hands, all the controls are where they naturally should be, and I almost never have to go into the menu system for anything. An excellent user interface is the result of a good (although not necessarily Italian) designer and good engineers, whether it's a car or a camera.

And good design is almost always beautiful. That's what separates a BMW from a run-of-the-mill Ford. Sure, they both have similar steering wheels and pedals and shifters, but there's just no comparison, is there? A well-designed user interface does not detract from the enjoyment of neither driving nor image making; when properly done, the UI just seems to vanish.

Well said, Julian! I agree!

D300 forever! (I own the non-S version!)

Todd Vorenkamp wrote:

D300 forever! (I own the non-S version!)

Thanks, Todd. All kidding aside, I'm sure I'll keep the D300s until it dies, as it's such a joy to use. I clean it weekly to make sure it lasts a long, long time. As for the "s" version -- well, its video is only 720p and I make video clips only once in a blue moon. Hang onto your video-less D300! 

I shall! :) It is a great camera!

Taste is personal: From the beginning I hated Giugiaro-cameradesign, for me it is 3rd rate Italian design (for 1st rate Italian design - Pininfarina, Bertone, Zagato, ... - I only have the greatest respect). Great design for me is a marriage between beauty/simplicity, functionalism, and ergonomy. The great examples for me are the classical Leicas and classical Japanese cameras (Nikons and Canons of the 50-70s and, I am still mourning its decease, Olympus OM, so beautifuly small and efficient in its handling). No silly bulbous forms except where necessary (handgrip), no bulkiness which impedes travelling lightly, only those buttons and switches that are essential and crucial for capturing the decisive moment placed in such a way that they "connect" naturally to your fingers instead of chaotic dashbords... The design of a camera should in no way distract from or impede its aim: concentration on the picture you're preparing to capture. Good design is Zen.

Youl will understand that I am a happy man with the current retrotrend in cameradesign (cf. the beautiful Leica M10)!

Well said, Sir!

Thanks for writing in!

Great article!  

Thank you, rich!

No mention of the Elephant in the room? The Nikon F. Incredible omission.

That is, was, still is, THE design. And Nikon knew it, I remember advertisements that were just pictures of the camera, like a full page, with the legend "Glass and Steel." After that, since then, everything is imitation and fiddling around the edges.

Hi John,

The Nikon F was not an Italdesign creation, therefore was not mentioned in the article. Italdesign's partnership with Nikon started with the F3.

I hope this link sooths you: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/hands-review/classic-cameras-field-mighty-nikon-f

:)

I have owned almost every Nikon including the Nikon F, 2020, D-300, to the D-7100, now. I have also owned a few Canons, Minoltas and Leicas. You my notice that, today, almost all DSLRs look the same. They are more like copies than original design. But, I do have to say, the new Nikons/Canons/Sonys are amazingly good, but there is no real need for most photographers to buy anything more than an APS-C camera. The prices are too high. I am looking for the next D-750, the D-760, if Nikon keeps all the features and adds the No Deep Pass Filter, feature... I just hope they don't add 4K, which will push the price too high for me. Then I will buy the D-750, after I test it, at a lower price than it has today, at under $1400 for the body, I'm in.

I will also test the new and the next, Fuji GFX-50 with the 23mm=18mm. Then I can die a happy man.

Hey Jeff   Why don't you move up to the D-5, I just got one, there is nothing like it for shooting birds in flight. 

Geoff,

Digitally (Nikon wise) I started with the D1x (the D1s color was atrocious), D100, D200, D300, D300s, D7000 and now we have two (identical) D500s. Don't waste your money on the overpriced ("hey look how expensive my camera is") D-5. The D500 is a gorgeous piece of photographic equipment. Add the 16-80 lens it's nearly perfect: 20mp (overkill), usable iso up to 25000 (above that is marginal), fast FPS, wicked accurate and fast AF with tracking, no Low Pass for tack sharpness (save for the moire), DX & 1.3 crop, 4k video which is lucious , articulating touch screen is an amazing and long awaited addition and great batter life.  All that (including the lens) at a ridiculous low price of $2400 or less when on sale. Compare that to the body only price of the D-5 $6500. The d-500 specs are near identical to the D-5 save for a few 2 more fps and usless ISO.

Just rent both for a couple of days and compare the results. You can buy three D500 kits for the price of the D-5 body only.

As for the article on style, meh... Cameras don't sell because they look good. They sell because they perform well. Give me pinhole camera that outperforms current models and I will use that. My rule is so long as it has great ergonomics and useful features (great output of course) then who cares what it looks like? Working photographers don't carry around gear because it looks good. It's in their case because it gets the job done. It's not a fashion statement, it's a photographic tool for pete's sake.

Great pitch for the D500, RP. I agree! It is an amazing camera...the D5 for those who are not enamored by full frame and want to save a ton of money!

Regarding your last statement. If you had two equally-performing cameras and one looked better than the other, to your eyes, which one would you pick up? Design isn't the only factor in a camera's performance, but I do believe it does help sales as well as the overall photographic experience. I think it is a combination of functionality, design, and ergonomics...and all of those things are symbiotic.

Just my $0.02.

Thanks for stopping by!

Want to buy me a GFX-50 as well? :)

I think the design have powerful influence on the popularity and sales of the camera.

Good design have to be involved with the quality materials from the hard clicks buttons and switches to the body itself.

I remember that my dream was to buy the F4s because it look just the perfect camera, of course finally bought it.

today I have the D810 which is much better camera but less fun to shout.

the feel is much more plastics and less quality and the design is more conventional.

Today Canon xD and Fuji X do much better work in the design, so I hope Nikon will make some redesign in the cameras' like they use to do.

I think you mean, Ergonomics. Design is more about how it looks. Ergonomics is more like how it fits in the hand and the locations of the buttons and ease of use. In most cases it is matter of leaning how each camera is set-up. 

Design, ergonomics, functionality, user interface...all critical parts of the overall photographic experience.

Thanks for stopping by, Geoffrey!

Re: Design is more about how it looks.

Geoffrey, Design without ergonomics is merely decoration. I'm a professional designer and a professional photographer, and I've shot for nearly fifty years with everything from Leicas to 8x10 view cameras. The shape of a camera is extremely important as it affects the placement of controls, size, weight, and the ability to keep it clean and dry in difficult conditions. That said, my last "flagship" Nikon was a D3, and I've since owned D800 and D810, but last year (because the size and weight of even those is just unnecessary with the great advances in digital technology) I switched to Fuji XT2. Beautiful pictures with no aching back, knees, or shoulders -- that, to me, is excellent design.

Well said, Jim!

Hi Yuval,

I agree!

I have an F4, not because I needed one, but just because I think it is a work of art. I love having it up on my shelf and carrying it around from time to time.

Thanks for reading!

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