Interview: Virgil Abloh and Gorden Wagener imagine a new kind of luxury design

G-Class by Mercedes-Benz AG & Virgil Abloh

Project Geländewagen is a fictionalised G-Wagen/G-Class racecar, stripped of all clichés of opulence. This experimental project is the collaborative work of the Mercedes-Benz creative chief Gorden Wagener and Louis Vuitton’s menswear artistic director and founder of fashion label Off-White Virgil Abloh. The product they have imagined together is the antithesis of the polished and flawless world of luxury to offer an alternative approach.

Intrigued by the possibilities of injecting a little of the theatre of fashion to the more subdued world of motoring, I set up a remote interview with the two creative directors to see how the ideas expressed here could potentially entertain the future of Mercedes cars. I also asked what the lessons they may have learned from this pandemic and the approaching climate crisis.

Take a look at what they have to say here

All images © Daimler AG

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.

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

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

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