Designer talk: Luc Donckerwolke

‘I must say I didn’t expect it. I made a move from Seat to Volkswagen just a year ago and I was thinking of staying when I got the call in July. I had to tell my wife we are not going to be buying curtains for our new house in Berlin,’ Luc Donckerwolke tells me as we settle down for coffee at his new offices in Crewe. The call in question came from Bentley, asking Luc to replace Dirk van Braeckel and head up the main design studio in the UK.

The Belgium designer continues his narrative in animated unbroken sentences: ‘It is a fantastic 1923 Bauhaus building by Richard Neutra – the last house the Austrian architect did before he left for Palm Springs to work with Frank Lloyd Wright. Woods surround it where my wife, who is a painter, likes to work. Today I’m looking at a potential house in Chester – a Mexican design from the 60s. It overlooks the river Dee and the racecourse, has lots of glass and a lovely garden.’

Luc DonckerwolkeThis is my second encounter with Luc. The last time we met was at the Geneva Motor Show a couple of years back. Then he was the director of design at Seat, and in a much less jovial mood. We talked mainly of his passion for animation and cartoons, visibly coming alive as he sketched cars and talked of his other life as a cartoonist.

Luc pauses in the midst of his tale of house hunting to discuss Bentley. ‘I will not contradict what has happened,’ he says, eyebrows knotting. ‘I will have an evolution as Bentley doesn’t need a revolution. It is about respecting the values, but from a design perspective we have to have Bentley moving forward.’ Bentley, he believes, is about not having to work hard. ‘It is an adventure to drive a Bentley but not an exhausting one, rather a rewarding one,’ he explains. ‘A Lamborghini has to challenge you. When you get into a Bentley it says: see you deserve this. It is a completely different approach.’

Luc has spent the last few months creating a virtual storyboard for Bentley. ‘I’m absorbing and learning – like a kid with new toys,’ he says with visible relish. ‘You don’t come arrogantly to a brand like this and say you’re going to change things. I spent all summer learning, reading books, looking at car models, talking to people. It’s about understanding the principle values, the company’s journey, its roots. Nobody needs a luxury product so the essence is that you cannot live without it. This is the same if it’s a fantastic wine, painting or a Bentley.’ Luc knows that he needs to forget all he has learnt that doesn’t apply to Bentley. ‘It is about learning to play with different values. This chameleon syndrome I’ve had in me since I was a kid is going to help a lot.’

Continental GTHe is a bit of a global nomad. Born in Peru, his father, a Belgian diplomat, moved the family around Central and South America and later Rwanda, where Luc added Swahili to his already rich linguistic repertoire. Aged 18, he moved to Brussels to study engineering, but he yearned to be a designer. On graduation, whilst bed ridden for six months with a critical illness in Bolivia, he learnt of an ideal transportation design course in Switzerland. On recovery, he flew back to Europe and enrolled at Art Centre Europe in Vevey.

Luc calls himself the ‘lonesome designer’ who by virtue of being an outsider landed projects that have earned him cult status amongst car designers. ‘I became the designer for special projects. Most of my colleagues were linear designers who wanted to stay with single projects so they could go home at four. I never went home.’ At 47, he has a rich catalogue of cars credited to him including the avant-garde Audi A2 and Lamborghini Murciélago.

Luc’s career has largely been within the VW Group, first at Audi, then Skoda and back to Audi at the creative hub in Munich, where he designed the A2 and the R8 racecar ‘my passport for Lamborghini,’ he muses. It was at the Italian marque that Luc shone and where, between 1998 and 2005, he settled the longest. VW had just purchased Bentley, Bugatti and Lamborghini – and it had high hopes for this troubled company.

Luc visibly likes talking of his time at Lamborghini where there wasn’t a design centre as such and styling, as it was called, was carried out elsewhere with the engineers at Sant’Agata somehow incorporated this into the cars. ‘You had this super car company in the middle of nowhere surrounded by fields. In the canteen the ‘mama’ would cook the plate of the day – incredible pasta,’ he smiles.

On arrival at Sant’Agata, the young Belgium was introduced to the head of testing Valentino Balboni. ‘He was my hero. He looked like an Italian race driver – three-day beard, big sunglasses, racing jacket. He looked at me and said: ah you’re going to design the engine cover,’ he laughs. Things went according to plan though. Luc built a design centre and a strong team, penning cars like the flagship Murciélago and smaller ‘baby Lambo’ Gallardo that helped return the company to its former glory.

Sadly all good things must come to an end, and Luc was called in to perform a little magic on VW’s troubled Spanish arm Seat. Head of VW Group design Walter de Silva felt it was time for him to manage a bigger team. And despite admitting that it wasn’t the highlight of his career, it did lead to his current position at Bentley.

Now Luc is in the process of putting together what he calls his ‘dream team’ for Bentley, and is planning on a new design studio on the Crewe site. ‘It is building a team, a centre and new vision. It all works together.’ He says he won’t be designing a car until he has firmly understood the profile of the customer, admitting that there are challenges ahead: ‘People are now getting into Bentleys not because they grew up in families where the cars were driven. So we have to be stronger than ever with our values.’

I get the feeling Luc is very clear about his vision for Bentley. ‘You have to be culturally mature to be able to love our products – it requires a certain maturity. It is the difference between a Château Margaux and a basic beverage.’ He feels that the process is essential to ultimately enjoying an object like a Bentley. ‘My vision is to design cars that get the best out of you but at the same time force you to respect them.’

This is a modified version of an interview I did in December 2012 for Bentley Magazine.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Read our previous Bentley report on the Continental GT.

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