Chris Bangle talks REDS, a completely new kind of automobile

I met Chris Bangle many many years ago at the start of my career as he gave a passionate speech at the Design Museum in London on car design and the future of transport. And it has been completely fascinating following his thoughts through our marathon conversations – seeing his projects at BMW come alive, and now witnessing his work and ideas develop further through his independent consultancy. He is one of a handful of contemporary car designers who has a broader, more avant-garde take on things.

In a candid interview with him this week, the maverick designer argues for the pressing need to break away from the conventional rules and formulas of car design, as he talks through his latest project REDS, an electric vehicle for Chinese megacities that offers an ‘intellectual discourse, not a collection of tired design dogmas’.

Read my article in Wallpaper* or take a look at the full interview in Forbes Life.

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BMW, MINI and Rolls-Royce navigate the future

Speculating the future of the car is pretty fascinating territory. The automobile has essentially remained the same, evolving technically rather than conceptually since its birth well over a century ago. Now, as the car moves closer and closer to becoming a personal gadget with multiple faces and functions, its next life is open to all sorts of interpretations. It certainly is an exciting time to be involved in the vehicle design world.

We’ve been in dialogues, or more accurately in marathon conversations (to borrow a phase from curator and art historian Hans-Ulrich Obrist), with a number of the more enlightened car designers (most notably the visionary Chris Bangle) for a number of years as they journey through this new phase. It is therefore extremely satisfying to see some of these ideas come alive.

To mark its centenary, earlier this year BMW unveiled the Vision Next 100 concept study. The futuristic shape-changing sporting saloon is an intriguing study into the BMW of the not-so-far future that runs on clean energy, moves autonomously, and is constructed through modern manufacturing methods.

Then last week we were shown BMW Group’s other two marques’ imaginative futures. Mini’s Vision Next 100 concerns itself with personalisation, working with artificial intelligence to create a transport hub that adapts itself to each and every user for an interesting shared urban transport concept

Whilst the Rolls-Royce concept 103EX offers the ultimate luxurious personal transportation portal for the future – it is the embodiment of bespoke automotive luxury, where the autonomous function allows for a supremely sumptuous cabin equipped with its very own virtual butler.

BMW’s head of design Karim Habib explains that exploring new and advanced manufacturing methods is at the heart of his Vision concept as it means bypassing the current outmoded forms of automotive manufacturing – conventional tools that are expensive, not very ecologically responsible and restrict design flexibility and freedom.

Advanced technologies like rapid manufacturing and 4D printing won’t necessarily produce components or objects but instead intelligent, networked materials for exciting possibilities in design and engineering, he says. In terms of material, the extensive use of lightweight and tough carbon (used in the i3, i8 and 7-Series production cars) is an indication of the changes to expect in the world of automotive materials.

With the BMW brand identity centred on being the ‘ultimate driving machine’, the team looked at how to contain or even enhance the emotive side of driving when the car is driverless. Here, the Vision concept can be driven or piloted – much like the i8 Spider revealed earlier this year. When not in autonomous mode, the augmented reality will guide the driver, projecting the ideal steering line and best speed onto the windscreen, and it will warn of dangers ahead, road obstacles and so on. In ‘ease mode’ when the car becomes driverless, the steering wheel slides away and the cabin transforms into a living room/work space.

For Mini, the focus is on the car as a personal, individual and adaptable gadget that also helps forms communities. At the heart of this concept is connected digital intelligence. This Vision 100 is a fully automated vehicle, wrapped in a discreet, silver blank canvas that alters according to the individual user, their mood and the situations they encounter.

Inside, the designers have worked primarily with fabrics made from recycled or renewable materials. The visible and non-visible carbon components, such as the side panels, are made from residues from normal carbon fibre production. Anders Warming, head of design, says in the future the choice of materials will become even more important throughout the design and production process.

Crucially, the marque takes the concept of shared living, explored in their inspired installation at Salone del Mobile, on the road by looking at how the vehicle can connect likeminded communities and help share their experiences. For instance, a user gets hold of some last-minute tickets to an exhibition preview as the car identifies another user who may also appreciate the show and coordinates a joint excursion.

For Rolls-Royce, the design team lead by Giles Taylor set out to envisage the ultimate expression of the future of super-luxury mobility – the haute couture of motoring, he muses. Here the team are delving deep into understanding the meaning of future luxury, of what constitutes modern luxury – a subject much at the heart of our marathon conversations with Taylor. For the marque it is a question of balancing craftsmanship, an individual spirit with high tech wizardry and seamless connectivity, delivered in the tranquil surroundings of the Rolls-Royce cabin.

The Rolls 103EX is based on an advanced lightweight platform equipped with a high-performance electric drive to allow for the body design, its various specifications and equipment to be tailored specifically to suit the needs of the individual customer. Taylor says progress in composite materials and technologies will have a decisive influence on how production can be customised in the future so the marque can achieve its goal of producing the ultimate bespoke car.

The cabin is a peaceful oasis incorporating warm tone Macassar wood, a carpet of hand-twisted silk (very very expensive to produce, confides Taylor) and soft silk on the upholstery. Designed to ‘waft’ along, with the chauffeur obsolete, the driver’s seat, steering wheel and instruments are superfluous for a completely new sense of open space.

Virtual intelligence directs the car and fulfils the passenger’s every need, at times even predicting their wishes. This softly spoken virtual butler appears on the full-width transparent OLED display, and is named Eleanor after Eleanor Thornton the model who inspired sculptor Charles Robert Sykes’ iconic Rolls bonnet ornament.

The sculpture’s form and proportions are impressive too and a bold move for the brand with Taylor noting that in the future we should expect a more daring Rolls-Royce design. There is much theatre here with the roof and coach door dramatically opening to reveal the interior of the vehicle as passengers gracefully step out. We also love the tailored luggage, now stowed in the long bonnet with a simple mechanism opening a hatch in the side of the car to present the luggage to the waiting hands of the porter…

It is fascinating to see how three brands with such unique identities have chosen to respond to the second life of the automobile. And these Vision 100 Next vehicles are very different conceptual studies, each marque navigating an intelligent path through the competing demands on the role of the car in its next phase – in its new life.

Nargess Banks

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Car, body, fashion

I was 18 when I first read The Nude by Kenneth Clark. Published in 1956, it was a sort of Bible for young aspiring aesthetes. I was on my way to becoming one, so I hoped, having enrolled on a pre-grad foundation in art and design.

Many of Clark’s observations have been tirelessly quoted but the one that always resonates is this simple line: ‘The relation of head to body determines the standard by which we assess all other proportions in nature.’ Even abstract shapes like the square and the circle are male and female, he argues. Clark believed that the human eye is disturbed by bodily imperfections and therefore doesn’t judge the nude as a living organism, but as a design.

From all the objects I can think of – and perhaps this is due to my close relationship with this particular one – the car is shamelessly anthropomorphic. This is one of its strengths, a winning point as such in that we can critique it in much the same way as a person.

Cars can have taut athlete’s muscles, or be lean like a runner. They can be as skinny as a model on the runway, or voluptuously sexy in the Rubenesque manner (although somehow this doesn’t work too well with cars). We criticise a car for looking bloated and sneer at the ones with a big behind. You could argue that the car’s skeleton is draped in metal in much the same way our bodies are in cloth.

Chris Bangle understood this well with his 2008 GINA concept car. GINA – or Geometry and functions In ‘N’ Adaptations for the full title – had been a study vehicle kept behind iron doors at the design studios in California and Munich and used to explore ideas within the department. Bangle revealed GINA to the public in June 2008 not long before he took his leave from the BMW, incidentally taking the concept with him, but I had heard this interesting designer hint at the concept years ago at a lecture at the Design Museum in London.

Addressing a starry-eyed group of young designers, Bangle who really knows how to command a room, quoted Clark adding: ‘replace nude with car, and you will understand everything about cars.’ GINA took this notion of car as human to a different level with an outer skin made of cloth – the virtually seamless polyethylene-coated Lycra stretch fabric shielding a moveable substructure beneath.

If metal is clothing, then how closely do the frivolous world of fashion – where trends come and go literally by the season – and the more sedate world of the motorcar interact? It takes years for a car to evolve from concept to production, with the design having to stay fresh for another five years at least whereas fashion is fast moving and fickle.

Things are changing, albeit slowly. Cars are coming to market in a much quicker pace, and with such extensive personalisation programmes on offer (see picture of the Fiat 500 special edition), we are seeing a stronger dialogue developing between these two unlikely worlds.

In both worlds the most important aspect is the initial architecture, as there is a limit to what you can camouflage if the proportions are wrong. Nargess Gharani, fashion consultant co-founder of Gharani Strok, agrees that the initial concept needs to work before you even consider developing it further. She explains: ‘If an original design is beautiful and therefore flattering but that the trim used is badly positioned, or of poor quality, it will destroy the original design.’

This is very much the case with cars. For Audi this means following a clear genetic code, which involves having a very high shoulder line and a very condensed green house. ‘Our cars have to seem like they are laying down like a crocodile,’ notes Stefan Sielaff its former design director now in charge of Volkswagen. ‘Once the proportion is right, we add the details.’

Slimming in fashion is directly related to sleekness in the car. Vertical lines create a longer, leaner figure in the same way horizontal ones form visual length on the car. Gharani notes that on a garment it is more effective to work with seaming, which is a more subtle way of creating the same visual impact.

The BMW way is to sculpt its lines. They have to be authentic intersections of surfaces and only applied when two surfaces happen to intersect – much like seaming in tailoring.

Other tricks of the trade include elongating the DLO (day light opening), blending the hood for a slimmer visage, or using light and shade on the surface to create the feeling of slimness.

Gharani also suggests shading the inside of a dress to make it appear slimmer. ‘Use a darker colour on the back and sides of a dress, but keep a slim silhouette in a light colour. This way the eye will only see the light colour as the silhouette.’

Then there is the power of accessorising. ‘Heals make you look slimmer and give better posture,’ says Gharani. Similarly, the positioning of buttons and the size can completely alter the impression of a garment. Wheels, headlights, the grille and other graphic elements on the car can work in a similar way to hide flaws or direct the eye to selected area.

Lighting especially is increasingly manipulated to highlight design and brand identity. Front lights can also enhance the car’s face adding to the human association. One aspect of Audi’s philosophy of Vorsprung Durch Technik (advancement through technology) is to have a clear light design strategy to define the brand and the product line day and night.

I ask Gharani what contemporary car excites her. She mentions the Nissan Cube, saying she admires the fresh feel of the 60s inspired cabin with its clean lines and use of colour. She says she appreciates the clever manipulation of material that pushes boundaries yet maintains functionality. ‘This I believe is very important in both fashion and car design as you have to be fresh and push boundaries but never keep your eyes off what is commercially viable.’

It is tough for cars to truly represent immediate trends be it in fashion, furniture or product and electronic gadget design. With the outer fabric body exchangeable, and the car transformable into various shape to suite the desire and needs of its occupants, Bangle’s GINA has conceptually come pretty close.

‘We are going to have to find new ways to adapt to how the world sees cars,’ Bangle said at the Design Museum. ‘We have to offer a product that is more about lifestyle and personalisation statements. We need to get some of the individuality of the consumer as well as the producer into the product.’

Here Chris Bangle talks about GINA a little while before the car was unveiled to the public.

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Chris Bangle competition: Illustrate the Future

‘I have written a fiction book about car design and the prologue takes place 25 years in the future,’ says Chris Bangle. ‘It contains some concepts I have been working on, and this contest is to see what you would make of them.’

One of the most influential and controversial car designers of our time, Bangle is asking design students to submit original illustrations based on his e-book Peter Teuful: A Tale of Car Design.

Bangle is critical about the current culture of car design and the book, a fictional tale based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens to be published in three parts on his site, reflects some of his concerns.

The international competition is open to students of all disciplines. The winner can either spend a week in Italy at Bangle’s design consultancy Chris Bangle Associates or pick up the €2000 prize.

Deadline is 30 March 2012. For more visit CBA.

Read more about the controversial designer in our interview with Chris Bangle when he first left BMW in 2010.

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In talk with Chris Bangle

Chris Bangle has kept a rather low profile since he abruptly left his position at BMW where he became one of the world’s most influential car designers. He has given few interviews since, but we caught up with the controversial designer at his self-built house and consultancy outside Turin to see what he has been up to since departing from the Bavarian marque last March.

Bangle does not shy sway from the truth. He knows that he has set a pretty unbeatable standard to which current car designers, especially those working in the luxury sector, have to stick to. And rightfully or not he feels that he can critique the profession.

Chris Bangle and Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

This is what he told me about the current generation of car designers running the show:

‘I grew up in a transitional generation of car designers, between the ones who had almost no brand affinity, and therefore felt free to create anything, and the generation after me who were schooled from day one to have enormous brand respect,’ he says.

‘They became so timid that all many could do was to regurgitate the past.’

Bangle is critical of some current designers who feel it is enough to do what came before them plus a little bit extra just to put their fingerprint on it.

‘You can always argue that the generation before didn’t have the constraints that we have,’ he says adding: ‘but that’s crap. The worst thing you can do is to think a rolling wheel is fixed on a track and you can’t move it left or right.’

Interestingly enough Bangle believes that the new generation of designers, the ones coming out of design schools, are creating the freshest work. ‘They are not afraid to look outside the envelope and are willing to understand the vehicle under very different terms,’ he notes.

Chris Bangle and Nargess Shahmanesh Banks at the BMW Tech Centre

‘The one’s I’ve spoken to are full of energy to do the right thing, with huge amounts of passion and love and a sense of beauty. And this is really what car design always has been about. The ‘spirit of endeavour’ is a fantastic muse and we have to get it back into car design.’

Read the full interview published in Car Design News and CAR.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

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