Interview: Adrian van Hooydonk on the radical BMW iX and lessons from the pandemic

BMW Group head of design Adrian van Hooydonk and the iX

BMW has revealed the iX, an electric production car for 2021 which previews the marque in the new age of transport. I caught up with Adrian van Hooydonk, senior vice president BMW Group design, who explains the progressive design and pioneering technology behind this flagship car. He discusses the possibilities of reinventing the marque in the post-Covid era. Read my exclusive interview here.

Design insight: New BMW 7 Series

We are in Munich at BMW Welt, as in World, designed by the avant-garde Austrian architect Coop Himmelb(l)au as a hybrid of car showroom, entertainment venue and conference centre. Completed in 2007, it is now the second most visited site in the city. It is easy to see why. This is a fantastical structure of glass and steel that protrudes majestically up and into the clouds simultaneously sings to its neighbouring sites the Olympiapark and BMW cylinder-shaped HQ and Museum. This is pure visual drama.

Coop Himmelb(l)au means ‘blue-sky cooperative’, wordplay for the beliefs in what the firm says makes architecture ‘light and fluctuating like clouds’. There for the opening eight years ago, I was seated next to the co-founder Wolf Prix – a formidable figure as complex as the structures he envisages. Inspired by the Dadaists and Surrealists, he calls his work ‘drawing with one’s eyes closed’.

We are here to witness the unveiling of the sixth generation 7 Series, BMW’s pinnacle car in its saloon range. Automobiles like these are special jewels for carmakers and are thus redesigned once every decade to maintain their perceived value. The vast interior space inside BMW Welt helps highlight the importance of this new car. Much like the building, the 7 Series is the embodiment of luxury today – seemingly simple yet highly advanced.

Beneath the quiet, tailored metal sheet sits some serious smart tech. The 7 utilises the carbonfibre structure first seen on the BMW electric i cars whereby composite materials are combined with lightweight aluminium and durable steel to shed weight by some 130kg despite the car being taller and longer than its predecessor. This is the first BMW passenger car outside the i range to benefit from this pioneering technology.

Other advanced features include the very latest laser light headlights. The 7 can also self-park – the driver steps out of the car instructing the vehicle via the key fob to autonomously manoeuvre itself into a tight spot – and there is gesture control technology to adjust the stereo volume and accept/reject phone calls with a little finger wiggle. You could say this is a radical car in bourgeois disguise.

Adrian van Hooydonk calls it ‘modern luxury’ and for the BMW Group design director it was crucial to understand how this applies to car design today. So he sent his team to explore the world, flying them out to Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, but also ‘places you wouldn’t expect’, he notes, like Seattle, Lost Angeles and Singapore.

On their return the team filled a room the size of the vast hall we’re chatting in with objects, screens, videos from their adventures. ‘It was both enlightening and inspiring,’ he tells me. ‘It gave us lots of ideas of designing the smaller spaces. We realised it is about reviewing every detail and doing things differently.’

Van Hooydonk says it proved to him that when it comes to modern luxury there are similarities around the world. ‘For instance when you enter a luxury hotel there is a certain something there – it is about light, mood, ambience… It isn’t about, say, having gold everywhere but about being subdued, subtle. This is true of all markets.’


There is therefore no big explosive narrative with the latest 7 Series. This is a car that needs to resonate globally and so the design is restrained yet elegant with its interplay of cleanly drawn lines and the taut muscular tension of its surfaces creating a quietly expressive design. It contains tiny but nuanced changes, respectfully but determinedly updating the aesthetic of its predecessor.

Viewing the car from the profile, the strong character line that runs the length of the car dominates, directing the eye across the body. On closer inspection this is a double line and the first for BMW design. Van Hooydonk smiles saying, ‘it incorporates the door handle even better that before. It adds to the precision and quality of the car, don’t you think?’

The satellite BMW design studio in Shanghai has found that there is increasingly an appreciation of subtle luxury across the Asian markets too. Van Hooydonk has had feedback from China to reduce the amount of elements in design. Here in the 7 the smallest of details, many of which like the air vents have functional value, have been treated as little objects of desire – as graphic elements.

Inside takes a more traditional approach, yet the team has avoided any stylistic ornamentation. The cabin is an expression of easy elegance interpreting the concept of modern luxury whereby the passenger needs to immediately feel at home, at ease and relaxed so that it becomes almost a sanctuary from their busy lives. This is achieved through high levels of quality and craftsmanship and an abundance of quilted leather, tactile wood and chrome elements.

It is also about the little surprises that greet you when you enter the cabin. In the rear compartment, passengers are welcomed with the touch-operated ambient highlight around the door. And the Sky Lounge Panorama glass roof has LED lights that light up to give the impression of a starry sky at night. ‘It feels almost ethereal,’ muses van Hooydonk, ‘modern luxury is in the tiniest detail and in the elements of surprise.’

BMW turns 100 next year. And although the marque boasts a strong history, there is little association with the more sedate luxury sector the 7 resides in. Van Hooydonk explains: ‘I don’t believe people think traditional luxury should come from BMW. We are a driving company. Therefore we feel modern luxury is our niche and this has a lot to do with intelligence. This is why this car is packed with clever technology.’

I ask van Hooydonk how design should respond to cars becoming increasingly big and complex tech gadgets. ‘For us this is something worthy of exploring further,’ he says. ‘I think cars can and should become more intelligent. But they should be serving the customer. In the end the customer should be able to decide what he or she wants to do otherwise we are saying we don’t need the customer anymore and that I think is not so clever.’

Read more about the car as we test drive the car in Portugal, published in Wallpaper*.

Nargess Banks

Read our previous reports on BMW design here.

Read about BMW Welt when it was unveiled in 2007.

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Adrian Van Hooydonk on Mini and BMW design

We caught up with BMW Group design director Adrian Van Hooydonk at the 2014 Paris Motor Show to discuss the latest Superleggera Vision Concept, sustainable driving and the future of Mini and BMW design.

DT. What inspired the team to create this latest Superleggera Vision Mini concept?

AVH. A two-seater roadster is very British; it is very traditional as a concept, yet how the design came up has such an Italian flair. It was a joint project between the very Italian Touring Superleggera and our Munich design department… so it became an interesting mix.

DT. Will the minimalist interior design translate to Mini production cars?

AVH. The dashboard was empty with the original Mini – that was all the technology they had then. We have returned to this. But now if you want to create an interior that is empty, you have to put a lot of technology underneath. We believe this is the future: to have a display in the centre of the dashboard, with everything else hidden away.

DT. What is your intention with this concept car?

AVH. You could say it is a letter of intent. There are of course certain design cues that you can very well see on the Mini of the future. For instance the front and rear end, and much of the interior that is reminiscent of the original Mini. Yes it is a vision we have for Mini – it is straight from the heart and what us designers are dreaming of.

DT. The car drives electrically. Is this also a vision for a Mini electric car?

AVH. As Mini is an urban brand, part of urban driving in the near future will be electric whether hybrid or full electric. We have already shown with BMW i that is can be very emotional, fun and fast… and yes it could work for Mini.

DT. How would the electric Mini emotionally evolve?

AVH. It is almost too early to answer this question. The Mini E offered electric driving but it was only a conversion. In the future we need to see if this should lead to a complete new design direction or not. Maybe it becomes an integral part of what Mini is. It is important to move the brand into the future and modernise it, and to give each of the cars a more unique character.

DT. How has the BMW i brand impacted on the company as a whole?

AVH. It was exceptional – it is the forefront of new technology for the whole group. We were extremely radical with the technology, manufacturing and form. Maybe with the other brands, when the time comes, we will integrate electric mobility which will influence the design but not to the extent of the i brand. It won’t make sense to do an i sub-brand for all the brands.

DT. How do you see the future of sustainable mobility for BMW?

AVH. The way we see it, electric mobility is new to the market, maybe avant-garde and maybe we’re at the forefront, but it will one day be a normal part of every company. Then you don’t need to do sub-brands. BMW i will continue its mission to deliver the newest technology that we see for the future. It will always operate ahead. Next year we are launching a car where we’ve worked hard to lower the weight and this was partly achieved by using the carbonfibre technology from the i cars. All I can say is the transfer of technology is already happening.

DT. You showed the BMW Vision Future Luxury earlier this year. How does this reflect your future form language, especially with the flagship 7 Series?

AVH. It is a true vision for our brand, full of ideas that will roll out in our next cars. We are very serious about these ideas. It is also our intention in terms of form language to go in this direction which means using very few lines. If you look at the car there is a lot of drama on the body but there are only two lines. Lines for us are graphic design; car design is more three-dimensional… what happens in between the lines. So the lines have to be sharp, precise and have the right tension, but what happens in between is even more exciting.

DT. What other elements will filter through?

AVH. The laser lights up front and in the rear is a technology we are working on that you will see in our cars. The interior is one landscape that flows into each other and the display is more integrated into the dashboard… a melting together of the central display, the header to allow the user to move information from one to the other. This we see as the future.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Read our previous reports on BMW here.

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Barber & Osgerby interpret BMW design

‘Cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals; I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object,’ the philosopher Roland Barthes wrote in 1957. Earlier this week the contemporary motor car met with great religious art, with a provocative dialogue emerging between the past and the present.

Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby’s installation for the London Design Festival, Double Space for BMW – Precision and Poetry in Motion, sees a couple of giant mirrored silver structures suspend in the centre of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Raphael Gallery. Their choreographed movement- flat on one side, curved on the other – distorts our view of the seven surviving designs for tapestries in the Sistine Chapel.

The mirrors heighten the scale of the room, and it is dimly lit for added visual drama. As you stand, small, almost insignificant beneath, looking up as you would in the Sistine Chapel, you hear a conversation taking place between the grandeur of the Renaissance artwork and this contemporary structure.

Engineering firm Arup built the structure on site in just over a week. The artwork here is priceless and on loan from the Queen. Known as ‘cartoons’, the painted designs were commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515, created to guide weavers. Later Charles I purchased them and they have been with the V&A since 1865.

We caught up with Adrian Van Hooydonk, director of BMW design. Standing beneath this overwhelming structure he jokes that one of the 4,000 or so screws that hold it together came loose on completion. All they could hear was its rattling sound so a brave engineer was sent up high and inside the mirrors to locate this.

The project was sponsored by BMW, the idea being for Barber and Osgerby to interpret the design values of the carmaker. ‘I admire Ed and Jay’s work for its clarity, simplicity, openness and I wanted to work with them for years,’ says Van Hooydonk. He invited the duo to Munich to see the process of car design and meet Vision Future Luxury, the company’s latest concept car that expresses the future design philosophy.

He says: ’We told them a car isn’t a static object; it is about expressing movement, reflecting its environment. We stayed up for hours talking and discussing ideas but then we left it open for their own interpretation. Working with them also helped us distil the core values of our design philosophy.’

BMW works with designers from outside the automotive world for their fresh interpretations. Van Hooydonk says the fact that the two are not rooted in car design allows them to work with their own semantics and references. Their architectural thinking also led to a new and dynamic exploration of an existing space.

Barber and Osgerby have long been inspired by cars, planes and boats; fascinated with movement, precision and speed.‘Growing up in the 70s, BMW was absolutely my favourite car due to its strong identity,’ says Barber enthusiastically.

From the start Osgerby felt that the project needed to be grand in scale. He says they wanted to create something which is ‘awesome in the old sense of the word, that it changes your perception of space and it does something very physical to you. ’They wanted to give something back to the Raphael Gallery to make it even more of a magical room.

The end result, they felt, needed to oppose our daily normal view of life – be something that turns it on its head. And for anyone who’s attempted a hand stand as an adult, there is nothing quite as liberating as seeing the world turn on its head. It is addictive.

You can tell Van Hooydonk is delighted with the final design. ‘I loved their idea which is about the fascination with movement; it is showing movement, precision, the poetry of cars reflecting life,’ he says as Barber adds: ‘Our architectural work is concerned with experience and how people behave in that space…this installation ignores all of that and just says it is what it is.’

Double Space for BMW – Precision and Poetry in Motion will remain on display beyond the London Design Festival, until 24 October.

Nargess Banks

Read highlights from previous London Design Festivals here.
Read our previous reports on BMW here.

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New cars: BMW 6 Series Gran Coupé

As consumers we are almost spoilt for choice when it comes to car buying – never in the history of the automobile has there been so many varieties on the market. Much of the new breed of models has been created with some of the new, and highly lucrative, markets in mind where customer needs and desires tend to be different to the more established ones.

This is where BMW’s new 6 Series Gran Coupé fits in – the marque’s first four-door coupé that sets out to combine the elegant and sporty appearance of a classic grand tourer with the added space and functionality offered by an executive saloon. This niche car will join the premium 6 Series family that currently includes the two-door Coupé and Convertible.

That Gran Coupé is based on Concept CS, shown to us at the Shanghai Motor Show in 2007. It was a handsome design that was promised as the 8 Series production car, plans for which were sadly axed in the economic recession. Keen to do something related to the CS, design director Adrian Van Hooydonk and his Munich team revisited the design years later concluding it as the Gran Coupé.

On the road this is a very handsome car, immediately capturing the main design cues of a classic grand tourer coupé – elongated bonnet and sweeping roofline. It is also a smooth operator as we were to discover when we drove the car from the BMW headquarters in Bracknell, to the heart of Champagne country, an overnight stop over at Reims, and up through glorious lush Alsace to Strasberg.

Suffering from a cold, I was impressed by how quite and comfortable the cabin was; the smooth chassis offering the steady ride of a grand tourer both on the motorway and through snaky mountain roads of Alsace.

It is also a practical car with a very spacious cabin that sits four adults comfortably. The wheelbase has been stretched so that it is 113mm longer than the 6 Series Coupé on which it is based. With the rear seats folded, the 460-litre luggage area expands to 1,265 litres. Even with four seats in use the boot will accommodate a couple of golf bags, while an optional through-loading hatch allows for a pairs of skis – for the impromptu sporting activity that is.

This being BMW, the car comes with a host of luxuries as standard, but you can also specify some extras such as a Bang & Olufsen sound system developed specially for the 6 Series. It creates a natural sound from 16 speakers distributed around the cabin. And put to the test, the sound quality is pretty outstanding.

The customer who requires even more personalisation can opt for BMW Individual, which is basically the equivalent of a personal shopper for your car so you can choose your own colour and trim combination in the cabin and mix up your own exterior paint. All this, off course, within limits.

The Gran Coupé is a niche car with BMW hoping to sell just 700 in the first year. Purists may frown but in the real world, and in the larger consumer market, some customers want to have the best of both worlds. Yet away from the marketing talk, there is genuinely something compelling in the idea of a coupé that marries this evocative, carefree sporty look with the practicalities of a larger car.

BMW isn’t alone in thinking up such a package. Audi’s A7 and Mercedes-Benz’s CLS, as well as Porsche’s Panamera and Aston Martin’s Rapide to some extent, also target the young-at-heart (and fairly well off) who’s lifestyle requires a more practical automobile layout – hence the four doors, roomy rear compartment and large boot.

This is something that no doubt customers in markets like China will be drawn to; but equally in Europe and especially in the US, the package will find admirers. After all this allows for a bit of frivolous fun, in an otherwise responsible adult.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

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