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Where the BMW X5 meets mouthwash

They have both been designed here

31/03/2014 08:50 | Comments: 
You’ve just finished designing the BMW X5 and off you go to start the next project: designing a yacht, the bottle of a mouthwash, a pair of running shoes, a Nokia, or a new coffee machine for Starbucks.

Newbury Park lies 60 km North of Santa Monica. Santa Monica lies on the Northern shore of LA, so driving through Malibu I’ll be there in about an hour. The weather is cloudy, but I don’t mind. The sunshine can be so hot around here even in January that you feel you’re being baked at medium temperature in a huge blue oven. There are two residential areas in Newbury Park, namely Rancho Conejo Village and Dos Vientos Ranch, and I quite like what their names stand for: rabbit farm village and two wind ranch. But that’s not what makes Newbury Park interesting. The place was named after a landowner called Newbury who bought thousands of acres of land in Conejo Valley in the 1870’s. Originally he moved here with his wife due to medical reasons, and became the first mayor of the city in which a shopping mall has been erected where the old post office used to stand. I’m here to have a look at the industrial park.

Today, Newbury Park is home to telecommunications, airplane design, electronic and even biotechnology companies. It’s an airy small town with hardly a car driving by between 9 and 10 a.m. It’s almost perfectly quiet, although JD Power, a global market research company has an office in town as has Volkswagen. This is also the place where Chuck Pelly, known mostly for his seat designs opened his industrial design studio in 1972. His designs do not only grace BMWs, though. The seats of Disneyland’s trains are Pelly designs, too. The Disney Monorail launched in 1985, which is when Pelly contacted BMW to congratulate them on their superb cars and offered to design some decent seats to go with them. The collaboration resulted in the birth of the seats with integrated seat belts in the BMW 850i, and made BMW appreciate having a Californian partner company that may have further advantages.

Designworks currently employs 135, 100 of them right here. They also have a studio in Munich – naturally, it isn’t the big BMW design studio, but a small office with 20 employees, and they have an even smaller office in Shanghai. Besides the American designers they employ numerous German, Chinese, Thai and Swiss experts. It would be difficult to associate their products with any one nationality as industrial design has long since gone international. Raymond Loewy, the definitive designer of ‘60s USA has also designed a BMW 507 prototype for instance.

“What does California offer design-wise that other places don’t?” – I ask Jackie Jones, PR director of BMW Designworks, while we walk along a long wall decorated with pictures of the most famous Designworks products. “We have 360 sunshiny days a year, which is vital in this business: you can take the cars outside. Silicon Valley, the centre for technology is here, and there’s also a legendary car culture in California. The designers see Porsches, Bentleys, Rolls-Royces on the streets every day. And people in Southern California are not loyal to brands.” “Why is that good?” – I ask. “People drive many different kinds of cars. That’s also part of the car culture.”

That’s why so many car manufacturers have a design studio here. In fact, so many designers come here to work or to study that California inspires good designs. The cars of BMW used to be designed in Munich, but in 1995 the company acquired Designworks, one of the top 10 design firms in the world by then. After several collaborations the Series 3 (over here we call it “Derrick” as the headlights look like the bags under the eyes of the German TV-detective), going under the pseudonym E46, was designed here by Erik Goplen. It is possible then that it wasn’t modelled after Horst Tappert after all, but the Zeitgeist simply crossed the ocean. Goplen, who participated in designing the 2002 Z4 and the second generation of the X3 after the Derrick 3 is by now the director of Designworks (and the happy owner of a De Tomaso Mangusta).

We continue our walk along the demo wall. I see pictures of many pieces of work related to transport, like the 12-seat Embraer Legacy jet. OK, a car and a jet may not be that closely related, but a seat is a seat anyway. Intermarine, the yacht manufacturer is another client. The hydrodynamic design is of course done by partner companies while the mechanical engineering part of the design is done in collaboration with the clients. The main profile of the company is still car design. The exterior of the new X5 was designed here, still under the direction of Chapman, who left Isuzu to join Designworks, then in 2012 became the design director at Hyundai. Where exactly? In Irvine, Caifornia, of course. (Hyundai was rumoured to want Bangle originally but his yearly salary of $9 million was way over budget.)

The BMW X series was made for California, Jackie tells me. She probably hasn’t seen the Xdrive commercials with snow and hailstorm that we’re shown on TV back home in Hungary. Because a day in California looks something like this: “We drive to the beach in the morning, then up to the mountains in the afternoon.” Boy, you have it hard, I think to myself, while Jackie leads me on. Then I spot something. Now, not many people would fall into a swoon at the sight of a simple red chair. But hell, I am a natural born snob with a deep respect for authority, plus a fan of Van Hooydonk, especially since he gave us a casual interview (Bullshit with the master). Yes, it’s a chair by Adrian Van Hooydonk. Let’s call it an early Hooydonk. The 1951 product, originally used in public institutions in the US, was found on eBay by a top manager at the Emeco chair factory. This is what Adrian had to redesign as a young designer at Designworks, making its lines and surfaces more dynamic while keeping the chair’s classic feel and character. Later Van Hooydonk performed a similar task designing the new Mini, proving practice does make perfect as the Mini turned out to be one of the biggest successes in the history of industrial design.

I gasp at the sight of a table full of retro cell phones. Designworks collaborated with Nokia for a whole decade, hired to unify the shapes of the phones in the beginning of the ‘90s. They are responsible for the design of the Communicator’s keyboard as well. Nokia’s American headquarters is 50 miles away, by the way. Jackie informs me that they’re behind the conception of the foldable phone, too. To be honest, it’s all getting a bit too much for me. I need a break at this point, so I go and have a look at the Formula BMW. 455 kg of kevlar/carbon composite with an in-line four, 1.2-litre engine from the BMW K 1200RS. The contours of the BMW kidneys recurring in the shape of the front wings is the pride of Designworks.

The portfolio of Designworks is truly impressive. But what to make of the toothbrush? And the Robocop style mouse made for gamers? A tablet interface for a power plant? And that’s not all. Here’s a bob designed for the US team, even if only one half of it, made of styrofoam. The machined block is not painted yet, but according to Jackie, the team will use a bob with a BMW logo at the Olympic Games in Sochi. (You can clearly see the Bavarian propeller on the bob in some of the pictures here.) The design is part of the sponsorship. The sportsmen do not only receive money, but design as well.

I am not allowed to take pictures in the office, not even of the designers. There are too many confidential projects going on. I’ll receive photos later, taken at the same place, but thoroughly inspected and free of any give-aways, I assume. Molly Evens quickly clarifies that it isn’t really the upholstery design that she is in charge of, rather the colours of the products. She’s a psychologist, and “colours are mostly about perception, which belongs to the field of psychology”. She had worked for Toyota for twenty years choosing the right materials, textiles and leather for use in the interiors and deciding on the shades of the exterior.

-Is it possible then that the deep red of my 1997 4Runner was your choice? – I ask.

-’97? And you still have it? Cool! It’s a great car. Yes, I was probably responsible for the colour scheme.

She’s hesitant to tell me what she’s working on at the moment, but as taking photographs is forbidden anyway, she gives in, although I’m told to stay on this side of the desk. She explains it’s a medical tool, a plastic tube the size of a thumb. An injection device. Again, she’s deciding on the right colour.

-Why, it’s going to be grey anyway, isn’t it?

-Not quite, as we need a relaxing shade.

-Light green then. This can’t be a huge professional challenge. And you’re really looking for the right shade on the Pantone palette?

-Who would have thought? Yes, I am.

-How’s the injection doing?

-We’re thinking about using some shade of light blue. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much more than that.

-I know – I sigh, or else I’ll have to be eliminated, which I would rather save for some more interesting piece of information.

-We’ve worked hard on the colour of a larger machine used in oncology. It had to look encouraging. I mean it had to look like something that’s capable of curing the patient, while not being threatening.

-In the past light green was said to be the most relaxing colour. Is it still the case, or have you discovered an even better shade?

-Light blue is on the rise, thanks to recent psychological research. More and more pastel colours are being used in the health care industry.

In order to stay awake in the midst of all these soothing pastel shades of green, the ladies are also working on the colour schemes of the BMWs. For Sandy McGill that’s the BMW series 7, the Individual Collection, which we’ll hear much about at the car launch presentations. They are testing different colour combinations which could be attractive to the North-American or the German market.

-Here’s the BMW Individual booklet, for example, with the colour range of the leather upholstery. This was the first collection designed by Karl Lagerfeld in 1992.

-Brown interiors seem to be huge in Asia. Are you considering any shades of brown?

-We work strictly for the US market.

-And what’s trendy here right now?

-Beige.

-So are you trying to invent new shades of beige?

-Exactly. Browns are becoming increasingly popular, actually, slowly taking over the place of black.

-Is brown the new black?

-It is.

-White exteriors were all the rage a few years ago. What’s cool today?

-White is still cool, but matte brown is getting there, too.

Gosh, how could I forget, BMW’s been pushing brown for ages! When was I at the Gran Coupé launch? Ok, not that long ago, in 2012. But which shade of matte brown is next?

-That we can’t tell you! They both laugh, then Sandy adds that the whole thing is quite cyclical. The bright colours of the ‘70s, which have long since disappeared from the streets, are making a comeback.

-Bright shades of yellow and green?

-Yes.

-But BMWs are less likely to be painted such colours than Minis, right?

-A very bright shade of orange has made it at BMW not long ago.

-Gosh, yes, I even wrote about that awful M6!

-The X6 in that vibrant orange does pretty well. Of course, cars still sell best in black, dark blue and white, that’s how it’s always been. But themed trends emerge every now and then. When a brand wants to release a very eco-friendly car, for example, they’ll probably go for light blue or pale green.

-Where do you collect the information you build on? Do you test focus groups to survey how people react to different shades?

The ladies like the question, but then we somehow change the subject and talk about why the West Coast has a thriving car culture and the East Coast doesn’t. Molly drives a 320d, Sally drives an X1, and it is honest curiosity that prompts me to ask her if she agrees that that car is anything but beautiful.

Molly screams with laughter, a clear sign of agreement. Sandy tells me she got it at a Mini garage as a replacement, and loves the driving experience it provides. I push it even further.

-What about the front and back lights?

-You should test it! It’s a great car to drive.

-I have, and the sound of the diesel was just awful!

Ok, it’s time for some car design live, featuring a Mini. Sandy is enthusiastic, she says she could drive it forever, and Molly seems to agree with her on the superb driving experience. But when Sandy mentions practicality, I take it as a white flag being held up by the expert of BMW Designworks. Practical. Sure. Jackie in the meantime proudly calls my attention to the carpet of the office, designed by Sandy, which is one of the five best-selling office carpets in the USA. While we walk to the machining workshop, I enquire about guns, as it would be really interesting to hear about the history of the Glock family from an industrial design point of view, but unfortunately they don’t deal in gun design here.

We pop into the workshop of Craig Eggly, who’s exactly the kind of friendly, grizzly character the producers of car reality shows go for. Craig, of course, has no one to yell at here, as there are no serious conflicts. The designers bring their digital designs to him to have the objects sculpted. Life-size, if need be. Craig isn’t exactly a chatterbox, but Jackie gives him an encouraging nod now and then, which is how I learn that he’s making the negative mould of the interior of a car. OK, the shape made with the help of the negative mould is going on board of an airplane, not a real one, but one put on display. It’s a business class side cover panel, a kind of demo to choose and order the real thing by. The milling tool is working away, the chippings collect in heaps at the back of the workshop. I can’t help but wonder at all the waste.

-Why don’t you do it the other way round and use a 3D printer instead?

-Those are still relatively small, no good for things of this size. They do 32 inches (81.3 cm) maximum. This airplane panel is 55 inches (144 cm) long.

Craig shows me a few materials. The high density fibre foam is so thick that I can hardly lift the BMW 02 with one hand. How long it takes to make the car models depends on the size. A small one like this is done in 45 minutes, while making a not overly detailed, life-size model of a car takes 30 hours. Carving every single moulding strip or detailed headlight adds hours to the process. The life-size car won’t be dense: a 25 mm thick shell to be put on wheels will be sculpted weighing about 1134 kg.

Jackie leads me to the clay model of a first generation Mini before disappearing to find a designer for me to talk to. I would never have guessed which generation Mini this was, especially as it’s made of clay. Designer Nick Gronenthal tells me the life-size model is already 13 years old. He and his sculptor, Patrick could easily turn it into a third generation Mini by tonight. But no BMW 3, as a life-size clay model is placed on a metal frame covered with chipboard first, then polystyrol foam is added to fill the space between the fixed points of the car.

Earlier, when I read ‘clay model’ somewhere, I’ve always thought it was merely a figurative term, because the material used to coat clay tennis courts also has little to do with clay. But as the sculptor goes to work it turns out that if this Mini was transported to Kapolcs, the army of potters could actually turn it into jugs in no time. While Patrick quickly sticks the clay snails onto the bonnet, Nick returns and starts the presentation.

It all starts with a bunch of sketches, some of which get selected for modelling locally, and some in Munich. The lines are strongly exaggerated at this point, like those of concept cars, but that’s how the designer can make what he had in mind perfectly clear to others. After choosing the most important lines it’s time to make a 2D model, at which point the sculptor, Patrick Karlsson, who’s been in the business for well over twenty years, joins in. He hands me two brown rolls looking like Christmas logs covered in cellophane and tells me to watch out as they’re hot, but only 65°C, no need to fret. As I touch the material it’s pleasantly grungy and of course leaves a greasy residue on my skin, which is why the designer sculptor is dressed like a Lannister from Game of Thrones imprisoned for life at the Starks.

But why do you have to make a life-size model? According to Nick the monitor does not show the proportions properly. I can’t help but disagree. I’m not suggesting they make the models the size of a Matchbox carving away with a pocket knife, but seriously: why the need for life-size models?

-What else have you done so far? – I ask instead.

-I’ve participated in a few Rolls-Royce and Mini projects.

-What was it like? Which part of which Mini did you design?

-One phase of the design process takes place here, then the Munich team takes over, cross-checks the plans with the engineers, does computer simulations or conducts wind-tunnels tests sometimes, and so on. The project is then returned to us and we go to work on finishing the details.

In the meantime Patrick has built a nice bulge on top of the clay model’s bonnet, and Nick starts to explain the importance of life-size models by telling me the lights, for example, look totally different this way. I keep on trolling: actually, they don’t. What I mean is that once you’ve seen Brad Pitt in a movie, you will recognize him on the street anytime. Brad is Brad, isn’t he? The proportions, the lines are the same, as are the eyes, the nose, and the mouth.

The answer is a series of yeasty thoughts on why puppies are cute, and why fully grown dogs are less cute, then he drops the classic design bomb: the Barbie doll. It is sexy, but enlarged to life-size it becomes a frightening, UFO-like creature. The lines, the proportions stay the same, as do the eyes, the nose and the mouth, but it’s still ugly that way. That’s why there is a need for life-size models.

In the meantime the sculptor has created such a bulge that the bonnet could go straight to eBay, and Nick shows me the design process in practice. He tears off a bit from his masking tape and sticks it onto the clay a bit further away, even making a curve, and without losing a beat Patrick keeps on sculpting the material using his hand-held metal tool. I can imagine the sculptors murmuring nasty things in moments like these. While Bangle was instructing the sculpting of the 7, did Patrick ever moan, I wonder? Now he has to sculpt the bulge a bit further away, the curve itself will also be different, as will the light that falls upon it.

The clay model is tops, Nick keeps assuring me. Quick alterations can be made to it in 3D, in life-size. No other method compares to that. Sooner or later you get surfaces clean enough to be manufactured, the model looks much like a factory-made car. A few months after the introduction of the initial sketches you have an almost car-like thing. The finished clay model is then transported to a remote-controlled rotating stage behind a glass wall. The designers can turn it around and have a look at it from every angle in the comfort of their air-conditioned office to decide if it’s any good or if it’s merely the second coming of the first generation X3. In the end the machined model is made with the help of a laser scanner that looks a bit like a camera stand.

Nick says you can make as many alterations to it as you please. I look at Patrick from the corner of my eyes, but I wasn’t as careful as I intended to be as Nick and Jackie both start laughing. But this is what Patrick is paid for, not to mention that there is a lot at stake when developing a model. Nick thinks it’s important to be on good terms with the sculptor as he is the first to give feedback on the design. Teamwork is no bullshit here. Some designers work on the front of the car while others work on the side or the back, so communication is vital.

-Is the first X3 hideous on purpose?

-What makes you think that?

-Well, there’s no other explanation for the rear lights. Even I could draw nicer lights. Any other shape would be nicer, or at least less ugly.

-It’s a matter of taste, but the car was quite a success.

-Sure, the car is great, but it’s HIDEOUS!

-I don’t think we have ever made anything hideous on purpose.

At this point I tell them a bit about the Dacia Logan, and this is the first time Patrick joins in on the conversation.  

-Don’t suspect wilfulness in everything. Take General Motors, for example: they keep releasing ugly cars, but certainly not on purpose.

-Or take Pininfarina. It’s probably the most famous and most venerable Italian car design firm. They have done designs for Korean car manufacturers. Take the Hyundai Matrix for example. How could that design not be deliberately hideous?

-The designers get feedback from the client. And the designers do what the client expects them to do. That’s what we’re paid for. And I haven’t even mentioned the financial limits yet.

-Doesn’t drawing a nice car cost the same as drawing a hideous one?

-Sometimes it does. And sometimes it costs more to draw a beautiful one. A steeper windscreen is more expensive, as is a wider bumper placed in a better position. It always goes like this: we want bigger wheels, a longer wheel base, narrower windows… Then we have to comply with the platform strategy and the pedestrian protection regulations, and lots of other things. That’s why you don’t see concept cars on the roads.

-With what you’ve just said and what you told me about the Barbie doll earlier you have solved two of the biggest mysteries for me. Thank you!

-Welcome to California!

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