Small sedans: Audi A3 Saloon

There is a new trend emerging on the automotive scene in the shape of compact saloons. The classic three-box silhouette may appear a little sensible, almost prudish, compared to some of the more lively ideas floating around car design departments, yet Europe’s loss of love for the safe saloon isn’t a sentiment shared globally. Young, bright, professional American and Chinese drivers, for instance, are extremely hungry for these so-called junior executive cars…. Read the full review here published in Wallpaper*.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Read more on Audi here.

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Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | | | Published by Banksthomas


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.

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | UK | | Bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

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Audi’s new design strategy

Audi has revealed its new design strategy – the thinking is expressed by the latest Crosslane Coupé concept car. Shown a couple of months ago at the Mondial de l’Automobile in Paris, this intriguing study car not only gives a taste of how the future models in the marque’s Q family will look, but shows how Audi design will enter a new phase. I visited the team in Munich to find out more. Read the full article in Wallpaper*.

Also read our previous interview with Wolfgang Egger head of Audi design here.

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | UK | | Bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

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Wolfgang Egger talks Audi design

Audi cars are meticulously designed, the sheet metal lovingly sculpted to near perfection – the notes almost perfect. This is at odds in a world where mass produced cars as such are increasingly bland, homogenised products. You could say Audi has taken the functional and turned it into the aesthetic.

Audi A6 sketch showing strong face design

Clearly the consumer thinks so. In the midst of the 2009/10 financial crisis, Audi continued to produce new models to replace the outdated, even inventing further market segments. Whilst others saw a noticeable dip in sales, the German marque saw sales rise in the UK and US, and in China reach 228,000 to become one of the most successful export brands in one of the most crucial markets.

There is, however, a small grey cloud hovering amidst this sunny scenario: the cars are beginning to look a little too similar. The strict design guideline that resulted in these handsome siblings, recognisable day and night as a close-knit Audi family, is beginning to restrict individuality, rebellion even. Off course there is the brave and brilliant R8 and the timeless TT but not arguably enough individuality within the mainstream models.

Audi R8

Audi is very much aware of this. Revealing the new A6 saloon last week in Sicily, Audi Group design director Wolfgang Egger told me that having spent many years honing Audi design to have this visual synergy, his job now is to give each and every one of his products their own individual visual identity.

He believes the marque has arrived at a place where it has enough confidence to create unique voices for all future models including the much-anticipated e-tron electric cars.

Egger is visibly excited when he explains his new task. His team showed us the rather evocative Quattro concept not to long ago at the Paris Motor Show that hints at this new, bolder direction in design.

Audi 2010 Quattro concept

He also talks of creating an even wider model spectrum – maybe even a two-wheeler range for urban mobility – yet stresses that whatever his team designs must stick to the Audi design code. ‘It is essential that we retain focus in our design, that we are strict with ourselves,’ he says.

‘The needs of our customers and the usage profiles of our cars are becoming increasingly varied,’ explains the designer acknowledging the challenges his firm face in the increasingly competitive car buying market.

‘This will make our model spectrum even wider, through to e-tron vehicles with electric drive. We want to hone the brand profile even more. The legacy of Audi is its emotionality and we will retain this and make it even stronger.’

The current range

Car designers are typically working a minimum of five years ahead of anything we’re likely to see, let alone drive on our roads.

Audi A7 Sportback

Audi produced the small and stylish A1 city car and the all-new A7 Sportback at the end of last year. The A1 was a much-needed entry-level car that hopes to attract younger customers into the brand. The A7 is Audi’s answer to a niche market segment that requires a bigger four-door saloon/sedan car, but one that retains a youthful appearance – hence the coupé styling.

The latest addition to join and complete the family is the A6 saloon replacement, and like the others it is a showcase for highly skilled vehicle design and advanced engineering.

Like the A7 and the A5 and A8 before that, the A6 is extremely well tailored. By shortening the length and height by a fraction, but slightly broadening the width and raising the beltline, plus shedding 80kg in weight, the car immediately appears more compact and sportier.

Audi A6 front design featuring special light design

The face carries the trademark singleframe Audi grille – tweaked on the A8 to appear more sculptural – and showcases the light design that is at the forefront of the current visual identity ensuring the cars are distinguished day and night. The all LED headlamps are also at the forefront of lighting technology, communicating with satellite navigation systems to adjust their operations according to driving conditions.

Inside the wraparound dashboard and lighter treatment of material point to the new interior design direction first seen on the A8. ‘The use of organic materials is certainly a trend of our time,’ explains Stefan Sielaff, head of Audi design. ‘Take for instance the naturally tanned leather that we offer in the Audi A8. For us it encapsulates luxury; it helps us to reach our premium customers. Simply touching the leather is a vividly tactile experience.

Audi A6 mixes high-tech and organic material

‘The theme of sensuality is a common thread running through every aspect of the car. It is also conspicuous in the open-pore laminated wood,’ he notes referring to the veneer of layered oak introduced to the marque on the A7 Sportback. It is cut from a single block in which extremely thin layers alternate between untreated and dark-stained wood.

Sielaff explains: ‘The wafer-thin oak veneers are elaborately bonded and worked. The complex manufacturing process also speaks volumes about attention to detail. When you touch the wood, you feel only its natural structure, not a varnished surface.’

There is something admittedly quite un-Germanic – perhaps even Scandinavian about this application but nevertheless it helps achieve the organic, homely feel anticipated for the cabin. Wolfgang Egger says its part of their scheme ‘towards hand finishing’. This mixed with the extremely high-tech display area points to where the marque is heading in interior design with the next generation of cars.

Audi Quattro concept interior points at future design

The 2010 Quattro concept takes this vision further. Inside is made of lightweight carbon and the treatment of the centre display points to future Audi design. ‘We have taken away the centre display so instead of a rigid driver oriented area, it is now very free indicated by the concentration of technology,’ says Egger. ‘Its more reduced, relaxed and driver oriented without being too obvious.’

He explains that with this concept a great deal of time was spent on simplifying the user interface, so that the driver can concentrate on driving. ‘The driver is not confronted with a multitude of switches, but a clearly organized workspace,’ he says. ‘The slender centre console contains only one control dial for the MMI (Multi Media Interface) system with the main menu switches being located at fingertip length, on the edges of the instrument binnacle.

‘The wrap-round architecture of the cockpit is typically Audi and is concentrated on the driver, the customisable instrument graphics are presented on a clear digital display and contain all the information required by the driver, including the navigation, entertainment and communication systems,’ says Egger, adding: ‘Everything has been reduced to the max.’

He says that most aspects shown in the Quattro concept are technically feasible and could find their way into Audi production cars over the next few years. ‘From integrated MMI systems through to carbonfibre,’ he concludes.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Read her review of the latest Audi A6 in Wallpaper* .

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | | Bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

All rights and labelled images are covered by ©