Entrepreneur, investor, environmentalist Jasper Smith is redefining luxury travel with his company Arksen’s curated eco marine adventurers. I catch up with him to see how his venture is developing in light of the coronavirus pandemic and growing concern over the environment. Here, Smith speaks candidly about his deep concerns over the climate crisis and tells me why he and other businesses need to be proactive when it comes to the environment. Read the interview here
‘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.’
This 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.’
He 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.
It’s not quite a fifteen minutes drive from Glasgow airport, but those six-odd miles east, takes you to a vast industrial complex, which seems completely incongruent with its beautiful rural setting.
These grey and soulless buildings should be a horrible blot on an otherwise idyllic landscape but they aren’t – they actually appear to be no more out of place than a huddle of huge modern agricultural buildings erected by a go-getting farmer. What’s more, the company that occupies the entire site is probably more in tune with its surroundings than many of the neighbouring farms and small holdings.
This is the headquarters to Bridge of Weir, one of the worlds leading suppliers of leather to the automotive industry. It is still privately owned and can trace its roots back to 1870, when Andrew Muirhead, a Glaswegian leather manufacturer, first purchased the tannery and so began its progress from cottage industry to what it is today.
Way back then, it mainly supplied pigskins and horse hides to the local saddleries. It wasn’t until the early part of the twentieth-century, and with the advent of the car, that it made the transition into producing upholstery – grade leathers to meet the demands of fledging motor trade.
In fact, it was probably the young American entrepreneur, Henry Ford, who really set BoW on its automotive course. In 1911, he gave the firm a commission for leather seat covers for his Model T, and rest, as they say, is history.
BoW still supplies to Ford, along with Volvo, Saab, Mercedes-Benz, Aston Martin, Renault, Honda, McLaren and nearly every other car manufacturer. But what makes this company different from most other leather producers is that it is one of the greenest in the business.
‘The biggest concern a new car buyer will give to a leather interior is deciding on the colour. They really don’t sweat over it much more than that. Not that they should, that’s our job,’ Dale Wallace tells me on a recent visit to the site.
He’s been working for BoW for over twenty years and is a pivotal link between client and company. ‘Look at that view’, he says pointing to the lush green vista from his office window. ‘Of course we work to EU and government environmental directives but as a company we adopted a zero waste policy many years ago.
‘From a commercial aspect it makes good business sense to recycle as much waste as possible but more importantly it would be criminal if we didn’t strive to do our bit for the environment.
‘Not just here, the local area to us, but through our global partners too (they currently have partners in China and the US). Our level of investment has been immense with our final goal to have 100% self-generated energy by the end of 2015; we’re ninety per-cent there already,’ says Wallace.
Implementing these strong ecological values has been a long and costly exercise – eight years and £6m at the last count. And that self-funding investment is clearly visible. Huge computer-controlled industrial machines stretch the length of the factory floor, making light work of the job that used to take teams of tanners many hours to complete.
Yet, despite the obvious industrialisation the fundamentals of the process – taking abattoir-fresh skins and turning them into supple-soft leather hides – has changed little over the centuries.
Quite literally, the skins arrive in a very raw state with muscle tissue and hair still attached. On average, each of these hide will weigh 40kg, but by the time they have been through the fifteen different stages, which necessitates the need of a whole gamut of rolling machines, dying booths, stretching presses and cutting benches, 90% of that original mass weight is lost as waste, and it is this waste which needs to be disposed of as cleanly and efficiently as possible.
‘When we initially put this program into motion our main objective was to best utilise the hundreds of tonnes of waste we were sending off to landfill sites,’ Wallace imparts. ‘Not only is there the obvious solid waste, there’s also the liquid effluent too.
‘We use over 200 million litres of water per annum and every drop of it is now heavily filtered through our own water treatment plant (one of the most advanced in the UK) to extract all particle matters before it is pumped back to be used again in our thermal energy plant.’
As for the ‘solid’ waste, that’s transported to the aforementioned thermal energy plant which represents the first stage of the BoW sustainability plan. This epic piece of plant has been specifically designed to convert what was once useless waste into recyclable resources, useable within the leather making process.
It creates the heat for the tannery too, plus provides a crude bio-fuel for the on-site generators. Having both these treatment plants working in unison closes the loop to give a zero waste system which, in turn, results in less impact on the environment, lower running costs and an ethically sound product.
Wallace may be correct in his thinking – the majority of the buying public are not necessarily bothered where and how the parts for their new car are sourced. However, it is reassuring to know there are companies like this that show genuine concern for the environment and have gone into such lengths to implement sustainable solutions in their manufacturing process.
Everyday objects have little personality, their origins are vague, their narrative almost non-existent. In a world saturated with commoditised, bland and homogenised mass produced products, hand built objects naturally have added value.
We have almost come full circle, retuning to some of the ideology raised in the late nineteen, early twentieth-century before the commodity boom when thinkers, artists and designer used the art of craft to give objects the soul that was progressively being stripped away by mechanised industrial processes.
At Goodwood, the home of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, artisans virtually hand build cars to fulfil their elite customers’ wishes. In this idyllic spot, amongst the green rolling hills of the West Sussex English countryside, cars are being made to measure, painstakingly handcrafted and, crucially, not at all in a hurry. And, off course, the end products come at a seriously premium price.
‘Every car has to be bespoke and unique, and have the fingerprints of the customer,’ says Torsten Müller-Ötvös. ‘You could never achieve this with a fully automated factory. We always say there are 60 pairs of hands that work on each car from start to finish to make sure they are immaculate,’ notes the Rolls-Royce chief executive officer who joined the marque over a year ago.
We are here to visit the manufacturing site and meet these skilled crafts people. Designed by British architect Nicholas Grimshaw, the ecologically sympathetic site almost blends into its surrounding land, where Rolls-Royce has resided since 2003 when the marque was purchased by BMW and relocated from the former premise it shared with Bentley in Crew.
To understand the workings of Rolls-Royce is to grasp what the marque stands for. Long ago it decided to remove itself from the performance luxury car-making race. Now its mission is simply to make very niche, very bespoke and very, very luxurious cars.
The Phantom is the ultimate Rolls, the pinnacle of the marque, and around 85 percent are ordered highly bespoke. Customers – clients as they are referred to – travel from far and beyond to visit the Goodwood site, meet with the bespoke designers and specify their ultimate dream car. Some return to see it born, visiting the various workshops, perhaps revisiting months later to see the car roll off the production line.
Rolls-Royce cars have a narrative. The materials used inside the luxurious cabins, the abundance of wood and leather, even the sheepskin that adorns the floor is sourced individually, and as much as possible locally. The result is that the notes are almost perfect and there is an appreciation of the quality of light, proportion and material throughout these cars.
‘You need the passion of the people – this is what drives the quality in the end,’ says Müller-Ötvös. ‘Talk to the guys and you will see how they love the cars and care for the results. Some of them are passing on their unique skills to their children and we’re developing our own apprenticeship programme here.’
Having visited many fully automated car factories throughout the world, it is clear that the set-up at Goodwood is entirely different. Yes there is some automation but the bulk of work is predominantly carried out by hand.
Our first stop is the wood shop where skilled men and women – including a local boat maker and a cabinet maker – are busy at their stations working meticulously on creating the perfect wood veneers that have been specified by customers.
Forty or so solid wooden parts find their way into the interior of a Rolls and each part is hand finished. They are sourced from a variety of trees – walnut, oak, elm – and each tree is visited and inspected by specialists before it is purchased.
These veneers are made using a traditional technique called book-matching – cut from the same piece of wood, they are stitched together using a special glue so to match the grain, and each side is a mirror image of the other. Plus all parts in one car are unique to the family of wood. The Ghost gets some degree of modern manufacturing process.
However, what is most noticeable whilst witnessing the veneer-making process is the pace – it takes almost 60 minutes for a single cycle to complete here as opposed to seconds in other manufacturing sites.
Our next stop is the leather shop. All the leather that finds its way into a Rolls is of natural grain and from the bull, and not just any old bull but ones that are reared in Western Europe in closed environments – such as at German supplier Seton – to make sure the skin remains flawless.
The bull also offers a large expanse and it can take as many as 18 hides to make the seats, panels and consoles. Each piece of leather then undergoes detailed inspection to ensure it has absolutely no flaws before it goes anywhere near a Rolls.
Colour options are infinite as are embroidery and tattoo work for a truly personal touch. Some customers specify other skins namely alligator hide or silk blend mixes but as they are more delicate they are typically used in conjunction with leather.
For the 102EX trial electric trial car, launched recently to gauge customer reaction, the interior was designed using recycled leather and natural dyes, the stitching prominent to create a very unique interior ambiance for a very different message.
We sit down with Müller-Ötvös in the personalisation room following the tour. I put to him how far is he willing to expand the model range? ‘Our intention is not to go into Bentley production numbers,’ he says, adding passionately: ‘Rolls-Royce needs to remain highly, highly exclusive and we certainly don’t want see a Rolls-Royce at every single street corner. These cars are so rare that they are perceived as being very special.’
Nevertheless the carmaker has expanded its model range to include a smaller, more driver-orientated Ghost. Around 80 percent of Ghost buyers are new to the marque, and Rolls-Royce is looking into creating derivatives of this model.
Incidentally, we drove the car a little wile ago, in mid-winter as the country was covered in a thick layer of snow. The cabin proved to be the perfect refuge – beautifully presented, the dash a wink to the glamourous films of Cary Grant (think To Catch a Thief), the atmosphere cosy, the sheepskin rug underneath our feet soft and comforting.
In terms of attracting younger buyers Müller-Ötvös says: ‘We are working to speak with younger people through Facebook and iPhone apps such as our Phantom Configurator, not to attract them necessarily to the brand but to keep it relevant and to tell our story.’
This is clearly not the world dreamt up by William Morris & Co at the start of the last century. But nevertheless despite the lack of accessibility of these beautifully crafted objects, it is still a delight to see a car manufacturer working in this manner. On our tour we encountered younger technicians on apprenticeship programmes whose dream had been to make Rolls-Royce cars. This just added to the nostalgia of this journey.
Only around 2,700 new Rolls-Royces were sold last year which naturally adds to its exclusivity of the marque. Much like haute couture’s role in fashion, these are the ultimate in luxury and perhaps there will also always be a spot for cars like the Phantom in the world of the automobile.
Read my interview with Rolls-Royce’s chief executive officer Torsten Müller-Ötvös as published in Wallpaper*.
Luxury, bespoke, customised – overused words that run the risk of losing their true meaning. But what does it really mean to design a car in today’s saturated market that encapsulates all these words yet is relevant to our changing world? Aston Martin has created such a car – co-created is probably the more accurate definition given that the base is the work of Toyota.
In a nutshell the Cygnet is a very small commuter runaround designed ideally for urban mobility. To this end it isn’t very unusual. The Cygnet, though, is one of the only cars in this genre that can be customised, inside and out, for an almost personal product.
Once you have specified your desired look from the almost infinite number of body colour and interior trim options, there is very little to associate this car with the iQ from which it borrows the skeleton.
We drove various shades of Cygnets, including the most luxurious Launch Edition that comes in white or black, around London – the city’s traffic almost an ideal location to test the car. In the passenger seat sat Aston Martin’s design director Marek Reichman to discuss some of the challenges he faced designing a small Aston Martin.
Design Talks Aston Martin makes fast elegant sports cars – James Bond cars. What made you venture in this very different direction?
Marek Reichman There is this house in St John’s Wood [in London] that used to have a beautiful garden but has now turned into a tarmac driveway for the owner’s cars: a Bentley, Aston Martin, Range Rover, Porsche Cayenne, a Mercedes E Class or S Class, a Smart car and a G-Wiz.
There is a huge opportunity here. The Smart has only two seats and the G-Wiz is electric but quite shocking. So if you want something that has the same quality as the other cars that you have in your range then the Cygnet is perfect and you can get four people in it.
DT Driving it around London’s congested roads, it seems the ideal fit.
MR The Cygnet is a perfect product for the city that meets the needs from a luxury perspective for an Aston Martin owner. If we attract some other customers along the way then that is great too.
DT Are you then predominantly hoping to attract your own loyal customers – this is after all a car that comes with a rather premium price tag?
MR Some of our customers will be people who have the assets to buy an Aston Martin, but don’t necessarily aspire to drive a sports car – and believe me there are plenty of people like that. They love the brand but we don’t provide anything but a sports car. I believe it will also bring people from outside the brand.
DT This car feels almost like a household product especially in the version you collaborated with designer Tom Dixon. Was this your intention?
MR Yes this is about thinking differently about luxury. I had product design and accessories in mind when designing this. The interior is almost like a woman’s luxury handbag.
Tom Dixon is a brand, a design icon that thinks differently and works on a global scale. We are also a lifestyle brand and we feel a connection here. Working with him encouraged us to think differently. We enjoy collaborating with the likes of him on projects outside the automotive world.
DT There is some brilliant design ideas inside the Cygnet such as the glove compartment that doubles as a portable bag. What inspired you for the interior?
MR Inside much of it has been influenced by some of the things we saw at the Milan Furniture Fair in terms of materials and colours. We also looked at what’s the most important thing in this car – the steering wheel, centre console and your entrance and exit points as this is a small car.
There is real stitching and we’ve added a little bit of drama to the stitch lines. There will be more accessories on offer such as a dog basket, for a small dog naturally, so you can carry your pet out of the car.
DT Leather is the dominant material inside. Did you consider working with more high-tech material?
MR I always approach the interior with the material and find the one that becomes most synonymous with the brand. For us it is leather. There is a reason why leather has remained a success in the luxury industry and not just with cars. It is such a fabulous material that has a sense of longevity. With leather you get this feeling you can keep repairing it, keep polishing it and it only gets better.
DT It is much easier to create an elegant car when you have room to stretch the vehicle, and play around with horizontal lines to create visual length. This is hugely more challenging in a car of Cygnet’s size. How did you approach this car?
MR It had to be an instantly likeable product with an instantly likeable face. ‘Oh that is a cute car, what is it?’ reaction. Therefore it has a cute face, has great proportions and doesn’t look silly. This is why we wanted to use this chassis because it is quite a serious proportion – very wide and you can forget that there is only half meter behind you.
DT You’ve faced some harsh criticism from some of the British motoring press since announcing this car. Why have the predominantly male press felt such anger?
MR When we had the Cygnet launch party in Italy all the guys were all over the cars. The mentality, however, is completely different here – British men don’t like small cars.
You see the Italians and the French, in Paris in particular, have been living with small cars for years. In Paris the parking situation is so that you often have to drive up the curb to park you car. So most sports cars are either kept in private garages, at dealerships or outside the city.
DT How will this car impact on the Aston Martin brand?
MR The whole evolutionary concept has to apply to cars as well. As Darwin said if you don’t develop and adopt you will disappear and if you don’t collaborate you’ll also disappear.
Space in the world is at a premium because the populations are growing and economies despite recessions are in growth, with people’s lives getting better in the next 10-15 years. We are just supporting this need.
DT [Chief executive] Dr Ulrich Bez has talked about expanding the Aston Martin range with two to three new models that include a sporty crossover to be born out of the Lagonda project. How far can you expand the product range and would you consider designing a two or three-wheel alternative city runaround?
MR I don’t see why not. It really is endless as the brand has so much potential. In the last five years our profit has been incredible and the investment is amazing. The only constraint is that we are an independent company so everything has to be profitable.
DT You recently opened a dealership in Mumbai. What are your thoughts on markets such as India, China, Brazil?
MR Yes we’ve just launched ourselves in India with this new dealership in Mumbai with New Delhi next on the agenda. In China they absolutely loved the Cygnet. I was at the Shanghai Motor Show recently and we showed the car to our dealers there. The reaction was great. There is huge potential in these countries.