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April 2005

Driving Force

Meet the man behind the MOTOR—BMW designer Chris Bangle

Chris Bangle sure has a lot to answer for—in more ways than one. As Director of Design at the BMW Group, he oversees every aspect of design for BMW cars and motorcycles, Minis and Rolls Royces. It is a position that requires a fine sense of balance as he walks the line between corporate and artistic mind-sets. The job is the link between engineering innovation and design passion.

More specifically, as Director of Design for the BMW 7-, 6-, 5-, Z4, X3 and the recently launched 3-series, the 48-year-old American took the iconic Bavarian automobile and gave it a thoroughly modern—some would say futuristic—look. At the heart of the change is a concept that charges the vehicle’s surface with ridges, curves, creases and concave scoops to cause parts of the car you expect to be dark to appear lighter and vice versa. When searching for a metaphor to describe the new style, BMW settled on “flame surface” because, supposedly, it created an impression of flickering flames. All well and good in theory—and you can’t deny that the results are distinctive. The problem is that sections of the motoring press and some hardcore fans caught their breath when the aggressive new style was first unveiled in 2001 with the 7-series—this was not quite what they had expected in their beloved Beamers! The controversy has since died down. BMW no longer uses the term “flame,” preferring to let the car designs speak for themselves. And mild-mannered Chris, the man at the center of the flak, remains unapologetic. “BMW is indeed a motoring icon,” he explains, “but what needs to be appreciated is that an icon simply cannot stand still. It needs to develop with the times, otherwise we would reach a dead end as a brand.”

The thing that strikes you about Chris is his passion. An entertaining speaker, he offers a clear and persuasive vision of design and its position within the automobile industry, arguing that what BMW is out to achieve is nothing less than “art on wheels.” So, how did a boy from Wausau, Wisconsin, end up in the BMW driving seat? After graduating from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, he worked as an interior designer at Adam Opel AG, where he rose to Deputy Head of the Interior Design Studio. He then spent seven years as Head of Exterior Design with Fiat, in Italy, before coming to Munich in October 1992. One could imagine that being offered the position of Director of Design at one of the world’s most prestigious brands would be enticement enough, but he admits there were other factors at work in his decision to accept, namely his Swiss wife, Catherine. “She maintained that if we ever moved to Germany, then Munich was the only option, because of its Italian flair,” he laughs. Chris took control of the BMW design board at a time when the company was reassessing its market. Part of his challenge was to give each of the models a distinctive look. The problem was, as Chris sees it, “car design in the 1980s was in the doldrums.” People were growing weary of the post-1970s wedge-shape cars and designers were seeking a way forward. In an attempt to re-create the glamour of the 1950s, a number of manufacturers were going retro, but BMW wanted to build a design platform that would stand it in good stead for the next 20 years. Among the many places BMW designers looked for inspiration was architecture. In the 1980s and 1990s, architects were moving away from standard box shapes and becoming interested in the surfaces of their buildings. “This had parallels in car designs,” explains Chris. “There is only so much you can do with a wedge design and then you have to look for other ideas. One solution for BMW was to infuse the surface of the cars with energy.” Chris believes that, when the first of the new models rolled down the ramp, BMW design took a huge leap forward. Company management clearly agreed. In October 2003 he assumed complete responsibility of overseeing the design of all BMW lines—BMW, Mini and Rolls-Royce.

BMW is now halfway through its overhaul and, while most car manufacturers’ sales have been stagnating, BMW’s have soared by 34 percent. However, only time can tell whether or not the curvy new styling will prove to be the Great Leap Forward that Chris maintains. The next challenge is the success of the newly released 3-series. Traditionally the 3-series is BMW’s top seller and the brand’s icon. Appearing on German roads since March 2005, the design is less radical than the 5- and 7-series. If it suceeds, it will go a long way to confirming the validity of Chris’s vision.Yet, if he is under pressure, he shows no sign of it. When I ask him about his expectations for the new car, he says without hesitation, “Overwhelming success.” He grins, and then adds, “Naturally.” <<<

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