FRANKFURT — Luigi Colani, a German designer known for applying sensuous shapes from nature to high-tech objects like supersonic jets and super sports cars, died on Monday in Karlsruhe, Germany. He was 91.
His death was confirmed by Albrecht Bangert, who wrote the 2004 book “The Art of Shaping the Future” with Mr. Colani. He did not specify the cause, saying only that Mr. Colani had been severely ill.
Many of Mr. Colani’s best-known designs, like a long-haul truck where the driver sat inside what looked like a plexiglass flying saucer, were considered too far out for mass production.
He often faced criticism from members of the German design establishment who said his work was overdone, utopian or simply impractical. Yet others considered him a visionary in an unimaginative world, and his fanciful work was displayed at major museums like the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. In 2007 the Design Museum in London staged an exhibition of Mr. Colani’s work.
Mr. Colani also designed everyday objects, among them the Canon T90 camera, introduced in 1986, which was praised for its rounded, ergonomic design, and headphones for Sony in the 1990s that anticipated the earbuds of today. His “Drop” tea service, a collection he designed for the German porcelain maker Rosenthal in the early 1970s, complete with a teapot, cups and vessels to pour milk, is considered a classic by many.
The British designer Ross Lovegrove once said that Mr. Colani’s work managed to be both ancient and contemporary. His designs for space shuttles or 1,000-passenger jumbo jets incorporated timeless forms from nature. Rejecting the austere angles and straight lines favored by many German designers, Mr. Colani preferred curves and bulges, which were often unapologetically erotic, or which referenced creatures like sharks, manta rays and birds of prey. He described his work as “biodesign.”
Mr. Colani, whose long hair, bushy mustache and ever-present cigar made him instantly recognizable, became wealthy enough from corporate commissions to operate his studio for a time from a moated castle in western Germany. But he spent much of his money on projects that corporate clients would not finance.
In the 1980s he built a fleet of 20 prototype cars, some designed for speed but most engineered to be fuel-efficient and better for the environment.
“He thought about how the world would look in 50 years and 100 years,” his son Solon Luigi Colani said.
But, he said, no car company was interested in producing his father’s designs, and “it disturbed him there was so little interest.”
Luigi Colani sometimes hurt his own case by refusing to compromise. He was known to insult executives who failed to grasp his concepts.
“That made his life difficult in big firms,” Solon Colani said. “But it was also his character not to tell such people, ‘O.K., you’re right, my fault.’”
Lutz Colani was born in Berlin on Aug. 2, 1928. His father, who was originally from the Italian-speaking region of southern Switzerland, was an architect for film studios — the equivalent of an art director today. His mother worked as a prompter in theaters, occupying a nook underneath the stage and whispering dialogue to actors who forgot their lines.
As a boy growing up in Nazi Germany, Mr. Colani recalled in a 2007 interview with The New York Times, he loved to visit an airport and a racetrack in Berlin, and he developed a lifelong fascination with fast planes and cars.
After the war Mr. Colani attended art school in Berlin, trudging through the ruined city to get to class. Food was scarce, so he moved to France, where he worked in a coal mine because the pay was good.
In the mid-1950s Mr. Colani made his way to Paris and worked on designs for the French carmakers Simca and Citroën. Fascinated with the new materials becoming available, he designed a streamlined fiberglass car body that could be purchased as a kit and installed on the chassis of a Volkswagen Beetle.
His expertise in working with plastic led to lucrative commissions from German furniture makers. Mr. Colani’s eclectic output also included toilet seats, desktop computers and uniforms for Hamburg police officers and Swissair flight crews. Despite his fascination with technology, he preferred to work with pencil, paper and clay rather than design software.
Mr. Colani displayed a knack for self-promotion. He changed his first name to Luigi in the 1960s because all the famous designers were Italian.
“He was a born PR genius,” Mr. Bangert said.
The focus of Mr. Colani’s work later shifted to Asia, and until recently he maintained studios in Shanghai and Karlsruhe. He continued to sketch new ideas until his final days, Mr. Bangert said.
In addition to his son Solon, Mr. Colani is survived by his companion, Yazhen Zhao, and another son from a previous relationship.
Mr. Colani often complained that mainstream design was too conservative and indicated that he felt underappreciated.
He told a German newspaper in 2008 that he was the best designer alive. But in a separate interview, he said he preferred not to think of himself as a designer at all.
Rather, he said, “I am a three-dimensional philosopher of the future.”