Genesis chief creative officer Luc Donckerwolke on building a new car brand

Luc Donckerwolke, Genesis chief creative officer
Luc Donckerwolke, Genesis chief creative officer

To make all this happen, Genesis has brought on-board Luc Donckerwolke who, as chief creative officer, will lead design now and into the future. This is a highly calculated move since in a career spanning some 30 years, the Belgian designer has been instrumental in re-shaping car brands such as Lamborghini, Audi, Bentley and more. He has a way of rethinking even the most conservative carmakers to be fresh and relevant.

Genesis Mint Concept is an all-electric city car concept

The Genesis story is about to get exciting. Declared independent from Hyundai only five years ago, this relatively new brand has ambitious plans to challenge the status quo with products that look to the future of mobility by basing design on progressive technology. Already present in the Asian and US markets, this summer Genesis entered Europe with five production cars to be followed later in the year with three electric models.

Intrigued to learn more about what Donckerwolke plans to do with Genesis — an almost blank canvas to draw up a vision for post-combustion times — I arranged a video call, me from London, he from Seoul.

Take a closer look here.

Introducing the new Bentley EXP 10 Speed 6 coupé

These are exciting times for Bentley – this is a radical marque in bourgeois disguise. Steering the creative energy is Luc Donckerwolke, the gifted design director who has been quietly, quietly making some fundamental changes here since he joined over two years ago.

Soon on his arrival Donckerwolke formed an entirely new team (the ‘dream team’ as he likes to call them) of established and emerging international designers. He put forward plans for a contemporary studio to replace the uninspiring post-war building that sits in the midst of the manufacturing plant in Crewe.

He then turned his gaze at the collection, firstly renewing old models, which we will be introduced to one by one, and creating brand new cars like the Bentayga SUV to be unveiled in the autumn. Secretly, he was also busy sketching a radical new concept – the EXP 10 Speed 6 coupé.

I was privileged to be one of the only journalists allowed access to the concept car months before its unveil here at the Geneva Motor Show today. Donckerwolke guided me through his ideas behind the car and, fundamentally, what it means to the future design and identity of Bentley.

This elegant two-seater sports car concept is the expression of his ideas – his vision for Bentley design going forward. It is radical for Bentley, the ‘bad boy of Bentley’ as the designer tells me, and yes, it may raise a few conservative eyebrows. Yet Donckerwolke is aware that the world is evolving and with it so must the luxury bubble in which Bentley resides.

‘This is a driver’s car – a more extrovert Bentley designed for the customer who is willing to explore this incredible performance car,’ explains Donckerwolke excitedly. ‘It is aiming at the emotional side, designed to complement the brand and not be a substitute for another product.’

The EXP 10 is a hybrid car. In other words this is a vision for a modern sports car that is efficient yet uncompromisingly powerful. The designer agrees that the technology is fitting for Bentley because of the silence and additional torque, ‘so it signals enjoying hybrid as a way to be sportier, for better performance.’

For Donckerwolke the process of designing this car was just as crucial as the finished product. He used this occasion to entice his team to re-imagine Bentley, to question their own prejudices as to what this marque is, to break down their preconceived notions. And it worked as he explains:

‘I wanted the team to be bold, experimental… for us to question every classic Bentley element. I wanted more emotion from the designers and I’ve never seen a team so motivated, so hungry to change things.’

The car had to be more sculptural so as to suggests agility, dynamics, athleticism, and as he insists be ‘bionic’. Donckerwolke warms to this notion saying the idea is to ‘almost wrap the components in a minimalist coverage unveiling the athletic side. It is clothing a technical skeleton’.

As we browse through his book of inspiration we come across a picture of actor Daniel Craig as James Bond. Donckerwolke is amused as he compares the car to the new 007 in how the Ian Fleming character has evolved to be darker, tougher, more sinister, and for sure more real.

His design too has to show a contrast to the modern environment. ‘This would be the car that Bond would be driving if he were to return to his origins,’ he smiles.

Many of Bentley’s classic cues have been challenged – the grille has been dropped to be much lower, the wheels are strongly sculptured to show movement, and the oval lights have been removed from their frame for a purer form.

The team observed the material, patterns and structures of architecture for the design details. Architectural meshing, for instance, informed the grille design so that the blades of metal now appear to be naturally fused together. For the light design, Donckerwolke replaced the chromed plastics in the construction with sculpted industrial crystal.

Bentley interiors are always rather special and the EXP 10 is no exception. Here the emphasis is on creating a feeling of lightness to express that this is a driver’s car, and that it is a sustainable sports car. Yet the marque’s craftsmanship has also been put to the test with some interesting design details such as the quilted wood door panels.

On the instrument panel, the team have intelligently balanced the analogue and digital so that it becomes a blend of the precision associated with technology and the romance of the nostalgia of the sports car.

The designer says he had ‘the new Bentley boy’ – or girl – in mind throughout this project. Someone, he notes, who wants to drive this car, an extravert, someone who is sporty and willing ‘to explore the incredible performance of this car’.

Donckerwolke is keen to note that he is not erasing Bentley’s history. This project is an exercise in evolving the marque’s design language for the future ‘without dogmas, without bias,’ he stresses. ‘We are weighing what is essential and what is no longer needed.’

He is adamant that the EXP 10 is not some ego-induced show car. ‘We wanted it to impact on the way we work. It had to be a message not only to the outside, but also to the inside, to Bentley, that our attitudes are changing.’

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Read our previous interviews with Luc Donckerwolke here.

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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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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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