Mercedes design chief Gorden Wagener on how he plans to take the brand into the sustainable era

Daimler chief design officer Gorden Wagener with Vision AVTR at CES 2020
Daimler chief design officer Gorden Wagener with Vision AVTR at CES 2020

As chief design officer for Daimler AG, Gorden Wagener has the complex task of directing the design for Mercedes, Smart, AMG, Maybach cars, among other brands within the group. Lately, he has been consumed with the new EQ electric sub-brand and with such experimental cars as the Vision AVTR. Here he explains his mission to me.

What is luxury? Mercedes-Benz design director discusses

The concept of luxury has evolved to include a much more complex set of values. Time, authenticity, legacy, access, resource, journey, skills and memory – these are just some of the concepts joining the more classic terms associated with luxury. And going forward, when the car becomes essentially a high-tech gadget in the age of autonomous driving, what will define true luxury?

In the fifth of our interviews with some of the leading creatives, Gorden Wagener, director of Daimler AG design and responsible for Mercedes-Benz offers his thoughts.

Design Talks. How do you see Mercedes-Benz car design responding to the concept of modern luxury?

Gorden Wagener. Sensual Purity as the expression of modern luxury – that is the design philosophy of Mercedes-Benz. Our aim is to create clear forms and smooth surfaces that act as a stage for the high tech while arousing emotions.

People are after something genuine, experiences that are both emotive and authentic. The interior in particular is a living space that is characterised by sensuality and luxury at Mercedes. Purity is modernity while sensuality is the very opulence, beauty and pleasure inherent in beautiful forms and high-quality materials such as soft leather.

DT. How will this be unique to the marque?

GW. The uniqueness of Mercedes-Benz design lies in the combination of sensuality and purity, of luxury and purism. Although seemingly a contradiction in terms, these opposites are also deeply rooted in our DNA.

Our design philosophy perfectly encapsulates this fundamental aspect of the brand – the bipolarity of intelligence and emotion. Rationale forms one half of the brand essence, of which Carl Benz is symbolic, with the other half influenced by Gottlieb Daimler and the era of the early racing cars and classic cars. This is why excitement, desire and pleasure are essential to the brand.

DT. Your recent series of concept cars, in particular the F 015 Luxury in Motion, is an intriguing study into the possibilities of car design in the age of autonomous driving. How do you see the future of car design in the context of driverless cars?

GW. The aim of autonomous driving is to ease the burden on the driver in many situations, for example in heavy motorway traffic. And when the car can drive itself, the interior above all takes on a whole new meaning. It becomes a space in which you can do many of those things that you are currently forbidden from doing while driving or that you simply cannot do because you have to drive the car.

The car becomes the ‘third place’ where you can work, relax or invite your friends into the car via video conferencing. This provides wonderful inspirations for the designers because the car of the future offers both possibilities: a lounge-like atmosphere as well an automotive experience.

DT. How will it impact on exterior design?

GW. The exterior design will also change. The looks should emphasise and possibly even indicate autonomous driving. Through the use of technology and design elements we can raise the awareness and looks of autonomous cars.

On the F 015 Luxury in Motion, for example, the LEDs on the front and rear interact with the surroundings so others see the car is driving autonomously. And it has no edges, lending it the sensually pure form that is a Mercedes-Benz hallmark.

Nargess Banks

Read our previous interview on the subject of modern luxury and car design with Bentley design director Stefan Sielaff, and Jaguar’s creative lead Ian Callum here.

Read more about the F015 Luxury in Motion and Mercedes-Benz design here.

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Gorden Wagener on Mercedes design

Gorden Wagener would like to introduce a more focused design philosophy to Mercedes-Benz cars. He wants the cars to have more sculpture, more personality and ultimately resonate aesthetically with a more contemporary customer. Since becoming vice president of design 2009, Wagener has worked hard to introduce a stronger brand identity through a Mercedes aesthetic rooted in heritage but with the contemporary twist.

The process is well underway. ‘We want to have one single overall design language that takes from tradition but also introduces new values,’ he told me at the September Paris Motor Show. ‘This way we can transform this brand into the future as an innovative one.’

We’ve been in a small dark room, tucked away in a corner of the buzzing exhibition stand, watching the latest Mercedes sculptures come alive. Aesthetic S is a projection display whereby the observer sees the car come alive in three acts.

Internally what this and the three sculptures before have done is to simply inspire the team. For us bystanders they hint at the marque’s design direction for upcoming cars, in the case of Aesthetic S evoking the spirit of the upcoming executive S-Class.

Wagener says: ‘The sculpture is a more artistic approach that embodies our design philosophy rather than showing the new S-Class.’ Visibly elevated by the experience he explains that had he asked his team to sketch a new S-Class, they would refer too much to the outgoing model. Here they have complete freedom. ‘You see inspiration comes when you ask someone to do you some artwork.’

The sculpture series were his idea. In fact Wagener has had quite a weighty task of evolving the company’s design department. Here we have a marque that is steeped in history, one that has been at the forefront of innovation and at times creative thinking, yet a victim of its own success. Years of stable, but more conservative customer base have resulted in some, arguably, staid products.

The pavilion here gives a good insight into the emerging product portfolio. The new CLS Shooting Brake with its sleek lines and handsome proportions sits alongside the heavily sculpted SLS AMG, here shown for the first time as an electric. Bathed in ‘electric blue’ it is certainly attention grabbing.

Wagener explains that Mercedes-Benz Design is the term used to describe the philosophy for the cars. He notes that Mercedes-Benz Aesthetic defines the more art-based projects like the sculpture we’ve just seen, and Mercedes-Benz Style focuses on the product design sub-brand.

Launched two years ago, it delivers all sorts of premium products from helicopter interiors, to sofas and most recently a luxury yacht that was unveiled a few weeks ago in Monaco. Naturally, they impact on one another. In the cargo area of the CLS Shooting Brake’s boot, for instance, vertical slabs of cherry wood – sanded to a smooth finish and waterproofed – contrast beautifully with the simple smoked oak inlays and aluminium rails.

Mercedes-Benz Design execution will naturally depend on the size of the vehicle: ‘Our strategic approach was to make a chessboard out of the brand with different players.’ So cars like the A-Class and CLS, with a younger customer in mind, are designed to be sculptural and therefore very expressive, and others like the more sober S-Class, clean and timeless. Incidentally Wagener doesn’t think there should be a unique visual for electric mobility.

‘I think luxury has to be individual,’ he continues. ‘We want to create objects that are beautiful, luxurious and timeless. We want to elevate that almost to sublime-ness – the highest form of aesthetics. And that level of grandeur fits the S-Class.’ Will it be younger, more dynamic? ‘Yes the S-Class will be,’ he says, ‘This is what I mean about taking the brand into the future.’

By 2015 ‘the picture will be very obvious of what Mercedes is about’. Until then, the marque is in the difficult transition period with cars that don’t completely fit this new philosophy. ‘With every new car coming you will see where the journey is going and it will be very exciting.’

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Read my full report from the Paris Motor Show 2012

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Mercedes-Benz product design sub-brand

Mercedes-Benz has created Style, a new sub-brand dedicated to the design of luxury good outside automotive design. ‘We will create very selective luxury products in order to underline our image as a luxury maker and as a leading company in design,’ global design boss Gorden Wagener told us at the launch of Style.

The marque’s images has arguably suffered in recent years – no longer seen to be at the forefront of high-end design. Recent cars such as the SLS AMG which nods to the 50s iconic 300SL ‘Gullwing’, and the F800 Style and Shooting Break concept cars – the latter previews the anticipated CLS – are expressing a bolder, design-focused approach. The Style brand aims to get the message out even further.

 

Style will not be a stand-alone company at this stage. ‘When you make your own revenue, you have to take all jobs and this is exactly what we don’t want to do,’ said the designer.

Work will be carried out by the firm’s many satellite advanced design studios around the world, and product allocation will be geographically dependent. Style will function under the watchful eye of design director of the main advanced studio Steffen Köhl, but remains under the overall leadership of Wagener.

 

The selective clients will range from established manufactures of luxury goods to innovative, young companies and the occasional wealthy individual. The team will have strict control on whom they deal with and how their aesthetic input is interpreted.

Style will take on commissioned work, for which the rights to the styling service are sold to the product manufacturer, as well as the allocation of design licences where the manufacturer will be granted the right to use the styling, but all rights will remain with Mercedes.

‘We will work within a certain corridor which we will discuss with the client,’ stresses Wagener.

Depending on how complex the project is, the designers at Mercedes will work closely with more specialist designers and architects which is why the firm made the decision to name the new offshoot Style, rather than Design.

So far the team at Style have designed the interior of a helicopter, the exterior of a yacht and bespoke furniture. But to what degree is Mercedes willing to widen the sub-brand’s portfolio? ‘It almost depends on how special the project is,’ says Wagener.

Read our interview with Gorden Wagener published in Wallpaper*.

Car designers designing helicopters

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | UK | www.d-talks.com | Bookshop www.d-talks.com/bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

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