Last week we were invited to Milan to witness the European premier of a new concept car by Audi and to meet the man who penned it, chief designer Marc Lichte. The venue was a rather unusual pop-up boutique nestled in the fashionable Brera design district – the twinkling festive decorations outside adding a bit of sparkle to the occasion.
The Prologue is a study car that signals an evolution in design for Audi. It takes the marque’s clean design aesthetic a step further. With its long wheelbase, wide track, low cabin and intricate oversized wheels, this is an elegantly proportioned car.
Inside, the cabin is quiet where emphasis is on introducing classic automotive material – wood, leather and metal – but in their most natural form. It is also highly technological with three invisible screens on the horizontal instrument panel allowing the driver and front passenger to interact so that the latter, with a simple swiping motion across the screen, can transfer information across to the driver.
Lichte is relatively new to the job, having joined Audi in February brought over from sister brand Volkswagen, where he headed up the exterior team. We caught up with him to find out more.
Design Talks. This is your debut concept car for Audi. Yet it is so much more than a simple prototype; it is an expression of Audi design going forward. How would you describe the core brand values?
Marc Lichte. Audi has to be sporty, progressive and sophisticated. A big part of the history is technology. These core brand values need to be emphasised even more in the future. These will form the basis for the design of all future models.
DT. You seem to have a strong vision for Audi…
ML. [VW Group design director] Walter de Silva did a major step when he created the single-frame grille in 2004 with the sixth generation A6. It was a simple idea, but no one had done this before. He looked at our past racing cars and connected the upper grille to the bottom. This has been one of the most important steps for Audi design.
It has taken ten years to establish this, but now is the time to take a bigger step. It is dangerous to have a revolution at this stage, as everyone knows this as the face, so we have evolved the shape by extending the width of the grille adding volume to the car.
DL. You talk about emphasising the quattro identity of Audi cars going forward, something that is visually evident on the Prologue.
ML. One of the most important brand values for Audi is quattro. Our competitors have rear-wheel-drive cars, so they always stress the rear wheel. Quattro is more than a drivetrain concept. It will be emphasised on all our future cars but in different ways.
DT. What is your favourite element on the Prologue?
ML. It has a very fast slim greenhouse that is reminiscent of one of my favourite cars the original TT, which will become part of the sedan [saloon] design language.
DT. Audi excels at interior design and it is interesting to see how here you have created a serene environment that is also extremely high-tech. How do you marry the two?
ML. As cars become more advanced, the technology has to become more visually subtle. We wanted to introduce technology but not necessarily in the way say Tesla has. We needed to integrate the displays in the architecture – to be invisible almost.
DT. Is what we see production-feasible?
ML. This is a teaser for the production A8.
DT. One criticism in recent years has been in how similar Audi cars are beginning to look. Do you have plans to inject a dose of model differentiation?
ML. Yes, the A and Q cars [saloons/sedans and SUVs) will have differentiation, as will the cars within these segments. This includes the proportions of the single frame, so that the A8 will have a more dominant, a more proud single frame than say the A1.
DT. I hear you’ve been working on an electric concept car…
ML. It is still top secret! All I can say is that in the same way we will differentiate A, Q and R, we will differentiate our future E models.
DT. Are there any contemporary designers who you follow closely?
ML. I have a lot of furniture by Mies Van der Rohe, designed in the twenties that still look so modern. I like the work of Constantine Gricic and [contemporary] designers who do something progressive but at the same time timeless. From my classic car collection it is the 69 Porsche 911 that inspires the most. It is progressive; the shape is timeless, reduced to the minimum. It is easy to do something wild and fashionable but I think products need to be timeless.
DT. Where do you go for inspiration?
ML. The architecture of Scandinavia, the clean design, timelessness using warm materials like wood. But I still come up with the best ideas when sailing my boat. My heart is in sailing – I’ve been racing since I was six. On the weekends when I’m on my X Yacht XP33 racing boat in the Baltic Sea, this is where the creative energy comes in. This is when I do my thinking.
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