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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Responsible luxury: In talk with Henrik Fisker

Sometimes it is a question of good timing. In the case of Henrik Fisker it was a combination of this and possibly knowing the right people that won him substantial financial backing to set up his independent green car company Fisker Automotive in 2007.

Born in Denmark, Fisker on graduation joined BMW’s advanced design studio in Munich becoming president of the firm’s Californian studio DesignworksUSA. From there he went on to Ford to become design director at Aston Martin and later Ingeni, Ford’s London-based creative centre – a job he gave up to start his own luxury car company. And the gamble seems to have paid off.

So far his Californian company has produced its first car Karma at the Delaware factory , with the second Surf, an estate derivative, on its way and a smaller car called Nina promised for 2013. We caught up with Fisker in London to discuss Fisker design, clean mobility and ‘responsible luxury’.

Design Talks. You had a comfortable life working at Ford. What made you decide on starting your own green automotive company?

Henrik Fisker. I couldn’t imagine a world without cars. But then in 2006 when I saw Leonardo DiCaprio
go to the Oscars in a Toyota Prius I knew the world was changing. Either I could sit back and watch the world drive in their G-Wiz and Prius cars or create an alternative solution. I thought why do hybrid electric cars have to be so small, ugly and boring – why not create beautiful environmentally friendly cars.

From the start we knew we wanted to be environmentally conscious not only with our cars but in our production facilities and dealerships and this led to creating an environmentally friendly car company.

DT. Could you tell us of some of the examples of eco-initiatives?

HF. We got all our dealerships to get solar signs. The wood in the car is from the woods left from the Californian fires. Then off course we have the solar roof on the cars.

We had an Indian client who wanted to know if it is possible to have an animal free luxury car, which gave us the idea of making the top-of-the-line eco-chic with animal free interior.

DT. How would you define Fisker?

HF. For us it is almost about creating a lifestyle around us – if you buy a Fisker car it is about joining a certain lifestyle. It is about responsible luxury showing that you care but still want a beautiful car and a fast one.

DT. Does this mean the cars are highly personalised?

HF. No, we didn’t want to go down the Aston Martin route because we would end up making very expensive cars that nobody would buy. This would defeat our mission. These cars will sit in the garage and be driven a little whereas the problem comes from pollution caused when stuck in city traffic. So the Karma is a premium car but in a segment where you sell a reasonable number of vehicles. It is the same size and priced as the Porsche Panamera and sits in this class that also includes the Mercedes S-Class.

DT. How would you describe Fisker’s design DNA?

HF. It is about sporty, dramatic looking cars that stand out from the crowd and don’t blend in. It is about proportion – long wheelbase but also very sculptural. I think of what made me fall in love with cars – cars from the 50s and 60s, the Jaguar E-Type. So for me it was about giving a lot of real estate to the sculpture.

Then the DNA is about looking into harmonious graphics where every line has a purpose – we don’t let any line go on the car by default from engineering. We are a design-led company. All cars now start with engineering, but we start from an idea for a design and work closely with engineering, but they are there to solve the design not the other way around.

DT. Do you feel your Danish routes have impacted on the design?

HF. There is not a lot of clutter inside just like an iPad – very modern and clean which could come from my Danish background as we have very clean furniture design – timeless design. So yes a little Danish history of design has gone into the car with a pure exterior and interior design that is timeless. For me cars need to be timeless or get better with time like Danish design.

DT. How would you describe your customer profile?

HF. The customers so far are real car enthusiasts. They love the design. Today car technology has become so complicated that it alienates the general population. We’re appealing very much to the design enthusiast.

We also have a lot of women buyers. I’ve personally spoken to a lot of women who have bought the car and they come from two directions. For them it is about the design and the environment.

DT. Do you believe clean car design should have its own language?

HF. I think the difference comes from opportunities the new drivetrain [engine] allows you to do. But I don’t believe in creating weird design for the sake of being weird. We have followed to a certain degree the function of the vehicle – although I don’t like to say form follows function, as this is too vague. It took extra time to do this.

DT. It is also interesting how you’ve created a special electric engine note as this is an ongoing discussion when it comes to electric cars.

HF. Yes it is a big discussion. I wonder if the first people who were used to parking a horse carriage and were confronted by a noisy engine thought this is so cool! It took generations to love it. Our inspiration is from the electric motor but we try to work it by using some Hollywood film people and from films like [Disney’s] Tron or Batman Returns that have futuristic vehicles that have more of a techno sound.

We wanted to create a techno sound that is more interesting. The new techno sound has to represent the new technology.

Originally the engine sound was created to warn pedestrians, then it became emotional and exciting. We won’t want people to download their own sound like on their phones as the car will lose its character and we don’t want to create noise pollution. We’ll have variations for people who like a sportier noise for their engine.

DT. What can you tell us about your next car Nina?

HF. The next car Nina will be smaller and priced at half the price of the Karma and eventually we will make one even cheaper. It will be in the same family as the Audi A6, Mercedes C-Class but will look dramatically different.

Karma will be our top end car. We took the approach of Apple – the first iPhone that came out was the most expensive on the market and off course as the technology evolves it became cheaper and cheaper. Car companies tend to take the opposite approach.

We had to show the Karma quite early on in the project as we were raising quite a lot of money for our project. The Nina has been signed off and production is due in 2013.

In the meantime we have three derivatives on the Karma. We will have derivatives on the Nina too as our philosophy is to have three variations on each model all with one powertrain, so as to spend money on the design.

DT. What are your sale forecasts?

HF. With the Karma we’re hoping to sell 50,000 cars a year and Nina 100,000 cars a year. Our biggest sales will be in the US and Europe, both around 40%, but we are going to sell in China as well as India and then Brazil. The Karma is only left hand drive but Nina will be right and left hand.

DT. Have you considered a city car?

HF. It is too early to talk about this but you can see that we are progressing towards a small car eventually.

DT. In Denmark you don’t exhibit luxury but in the US, where you live, wealth is somewhat flaunted. How have you married these two very different cultures?

HF. It is a combination of the two. On the one hand the exterior says you’ve made it but the interior is low key. Leonardo made the Prius cool by driving it to the Oscars – he led that revolution. He is very interested in environmentally friendly cars and came out to see the Karma and loved it.

DT. Do you see attitudes changing in terms of eco-responsibility?

HF. Attitudes in America have changed too and overnight they went from loving the Hummer to hating it. Attitudes there are like Europe now.

There are a lot of people now who are thinking of adapting a different lifestyle – and this is what I mean when I say responsible luxury. Everyone sees your car and it is a statement. Luxury for me is two things – on the one hand it is what it does for you and, on the other is the recognition and admiration from the outside. With the Karma this is where we think we work.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Watch this short video which explains some of the eco thinking behind Fisker Automotive

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Visions for 2020 hybrid McLaren

Premium marque McLaren Automotive has challenged third year transport design students at the Istituto Europeo di Design in Turin to pen their visions for a hybrid two-seater off-road McLaren for 2020.

Working closely with McLaren design director Frank Stephenson, and the engineering team at the headquarters in the UK, the students developed their concepts based on McLaren’s lightweight carbon fibre chassis ‘MonoCell’ – a feature central to the design and development of the firm’s first road car, the MP4-12C and its future cars.

The three shortlisted projects Holon, Torok and Bio Renovatio, best represent an evolution of McLaren design. The concept cars have since been produced in 1:4 scale models and are on show at the IED.

This is what the students had to say about their proposals:

Design team: Emanuele Mattia Nava, Federico Pischedda and Roberto Testolin

Holon by Emanuele Mattia Nava, Federico Pischedda and Roberto Testolin

Student proposal:

The year is 2020 AD. In this new eco-oriented world, nature mingles with technology in a mutually advantageous relationship. McLaren has once again introduced innovation into the automobile world with Holon: an extra-sporting sports utility vehicle with a low, aggressive volume and the promise of high levels of performance in all situations.

Holon has revisited the forms of nature and its dynamics in order to create an ‘eco-synergistic’ object that exploits environmental forces. It uses airbreaks to assist the vehicle’s dynamics and piezoelectric actuators to create clean energy.

Holon has a carbon fibre body protected by a shell in synthesised materials that enable fading between surfaces of different nature and the creation of seamless and natural transitions between the glass surfaces and the bodywork, and flexible areas for the movement of the apertures.

Inside, Holon exploits the augmented reality system (ARS) a technology system which can ensure a more intuitive and thrilling driving experience. This is the natural evolution of the sports utility vehicle.

Design team: Michel Di Marco, Andrea Invernizzi and Shariq Virani

Torok by Michel Di Marco, Andrea Invernizzi and Shariq Virani
Student proposal:

Imagine… choosing your car while being chosen
Imagine… deserving it as much as it deserves you
Imagine… the adrenaline as a fuel, not as a hormone
Imagine… the future as a gift made by your past

Torok by Michel Di Marco, Andrea Invernizzi and Shariq Virani

Imagine… not having five senses, but 50
Imagine… your car as a continuation of your body
Imagine… not having a way of transportation anymore, but becoming it
Imagine… being able to go out of a world and to enter in another one
Imagine… finding answers to questions you would never reach

Bio Renovatio
Design team: Salvatore Cutaia, Vasily Kurkov  and Jesus Adrian Solis Garcia

Bio Renovatio by Salvatore Cutaia, Vasily Kurkov and Jesus Adrian Solis Garcia

Student proposal:

Bio Renovatio is a two-seater sport sports utility vehicle. It has a 680hp, is mid-engined with two electric motor-wheels working on the Maglev (magnetic levitation) principle: the front wheels can be used separately as monocycles, the suspension is active and each wheel is a gyroscope with an AI CPU [meaning ‘artificial intelligence central processing unit’, the CPU being a single microchip].

The wheels communicate with each other and with the main processor of the vehicle. The AI of the suspension calculates the algorithm to keep the vehicle’s body on the same level in relation to the relief of the roadbed. Consequently the clearance varies from 3cm to 53cm.

Bio Renovatio by Salvatore Cutaia, Vasily Kurkov and Jesus Adrian Solis Garcia

The aerodynamic of the vehicle is adaptable. There is an aerodynamic tunnel that runs from the bottom of the vehicle along the length of the car – from the front to the roof. The system is made using a stretchable materials (GINA) [referring to the 2008 BMW GINA concept] so that the shape can be adapted to various styles of driving such as off-road, sport and mixed.

See more on Torok and Bio Renovatio here.


Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Also read our interview with McLaren Automotive design director Frank Stephenson who amongst other things talks about the firm’s first road car the 12C. And our visit to the Foster + Partners designed McLaren Production Centre where all future models will be visualised and made.


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Learning from manga

The former BMW design director Chris Bangle once told me he believes at times form needs to follow fantasy. ‘For the future of car design, function is the last refuge of the unimaginative,’ he concluded. The Japanese are masters of fantasy – reflected through their imaginative, virtual worlds of animation and comics, anime and manga. Bangle may have said this to ruffle the stiff collars of the automotive world, but can car design learn from this, and is it right to assume that with clean car design, it makes good sense to reference such a futuristic, fantasy world?

Felipe Roo Clefas seems to thinks it does. The Belgium designer, who works in London at Nissan Design Europe, has an almost visceral connection to the clean graphics, the intricately designed machinery and robots, and the narrative that makes anime almost believable.

When asked to lead the project team for the Terranaut concept, Roo Clefas almost gave the car a science fiction narrative. ‘The story is most important in anime and with this I created believable fantasy,’ he says. The 3D user interface in the car references the anime Ghost in the Shell. ‘I see more of this 3D interaction happening in the next five to six years,’ he adds.

François Bancon believes the young have a different sense of reality. ‘They interface with the world through the computer,’ says the general manager at Nissan and Infiniti’s Advanced Design studio in Japan. ‘They are no longer interested in products but in experiences.’

Bancon works with an international team in the Yokohama studio penning the next-generation of Nissan and Infiniti cars. He believes anime and manga’s stylised graphics and fascination with the virtual world is having a major impact on how the emerging generation of car designers are approaching the profession.

One of his team members Eunsun Yoo admits that depending on the given project, anime and manga have philosophically influenced her work. She recalls the Nissan Mixim scheme where its interior was conceptually rooted in computer games, and visually connected to anime and manga. ‘It was more of a philosophical than a physical influence. It was about having no boundaries between the real and the virtual world,’ says the Korean designer, adding that her generation – she is 29 – who were raised on computer games and Second Life see no margins between the virtual and the real worlds.

The Mixim cabin is blatantly futuristic and also influenced by Ghost in the Shell. ‘The Mixim like Ghost isn’t a utopian future, but a little bit dark,’ she explains. ‘This was a car aimed at a young future generation and therefore I worked on the idea of how to blur the boundaries. The centre-positioned driver seat is F1 and computer game inspired, as is the steering wheel, and the control panels.’

redefining beauty

Many of the new generation of car designers, especially those coming from Asia, have a different concept of beauty that isn’t necessarily rooted in classical proportions. ‘To them beauty isn’t just about looking like a Jaguar E-Type, but a sense of proportion multiplied by features,’ observes Victor Nacif who heads the multi-national Nissan design team in Europe. He admits that the fashion is predominantly led by Asian themes and Japanese designers who tend to have a different notion of beauty.

Kimberly Wu says she has always been inspired by traditional and contemporary illustration of anime and manga. A transport design graduate of the Art Centre College of Design in Pasadena, she now works at Honda’s California advanced design studio where they conceive future, mainly green cars.

‘To me, anime is an idealised fantasy version of reality,’ she explains. ‘With body parts pulled, stretched and exaggerated, these characters hardly resemble real men and women. Yet, one cannot deny a certain appeal in the doll-like figures. In some respect, car design follows in the same formula: we pull lines, stretch form and exaggerate wheels – all for the sake of a sexier proportion.’

Her former tutor Bumsuk Lim says that many younger car designers are exploring ways in which to translate the extreme emotional expression found in anime and manga to a real-world product like the car. Electric cars open the possibility to add expression to the front-end. With only minimum openings required to cool the engine, affectively you are left with a large blank canvas to project a new face for the car. This, and sophisticated lighting technology, creates endless possibilities for designers to create new expressions.

Lim agrees the connection between the two makes particular sense as we enter the second phase of the automobile. ‘This virtual reality world ties in with what car designers are doing with the green movement, creating their own fantasy world,’ he explains. With the mechanical part – as in the engine – no longer the sole fascination, the next generation of the automobile can affectively be any shape it chooses to be.

One of his students James Chung recently created a city car with a cute face visibly inspired by anime. ‘It proves that an electric car can be any shape. The concept of the automobile as a machine will change to the concept of automobile as a device. And a device can have any look,’ he says. ‘I tell my students this is the best time to be a designer.”

But is this all limited to Asian carmakers? On the whole yes but there are designers like Luc Donckerwolke who have always loved manga. ‘I came to car design from the cartoon world,’ says the Seat design director who previously headed Lamborghini design where he was responsible for such cars as the 2002 Murciélago, the 2004 Gallardo and helped pen the Miura show car.

Donckerwolke notes that the car to him is like a manga caricature in that you have to capture the essence of the person’s face with just three simple lines. ‘With my cars too when I close my eyes I want to have a clear architecture of how the eyebrows are, how the muscles are.’ Donckerwolke even leads a double life as a cartoonist. ‘I am a virtual chief designer in the comic and the real world,’ he muses.

According to Bancon this language has no national barriers anymore. ‘It may have originated from Japan but it’s now a global vocabulary.’

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

I originally wrote an article on a similar theme ‘Manga Cars’ for Esquire which appeared in the November 2010 edition.

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

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