Think nerdy, not sexy
By Christian Seiersen

Many BMW fans will rejoice at the sight of a 7,500kg chunk of marble sitting on the front lawn of controversial car designer Christopher Bangle’s home in Italy.

It was a gift from his colleagues when he resigned as BMW’s chief of design in February, for him to carve into whatever he wishes.

The people who hated his designs, and there are quite a few of those, will not be holding their breath for a masterpiece such as Michelangelo’s statue of David.

Bangle has not decided what he would do with it. But if he were to sculpt it into a car, it might just be nerdy-looking like an enviromentally friendly hybrid.

‘A hybrid explains its look in a nerdy fashion. In the future, it may not be sex appeal that makes a car identifiable.

‘The decisions facing car designers in the future will be how you make them and what they mean to us,’ says the 52-year-old American, who was in town recently to lecture on ’emotional mobility’ at the Singapore Polytechnic.

Ironically, it may be his ideas on car designs in the future that denied him a future at BMW. According to reports on the Internet, he could have resigned over an internal disagreement about the German carmaker’s Project i.

The project was revealed in a press conference last year and aims to develop sustainable and simple minicars to tackle transportation issues in the biggest cities in the world such as Mumbai, India.

Bangle downplays the circumstances of his departure from a company where he was design boss for 17 years.

‘I had a wonderful time. It was a great brand with great people. I will do something else, let another generation have their say,’ he says without a hint of rancour.

So diplomatic is he, he is not even tempted to get back at his critics. Time magazine named the 2002 BMW 7-series he helped design among the top 50 worst cars of all time, while car enthusiasts have turned his name into a word synonymous with ‘bungle’.

‘When you are that high up, you enjoy the view but you also have to be prepared to act as a lightning rod for the company,’ he says.

Moreover, he adds, ‘a brand needs to redefine itself to stay fresh in people’s minds. Leaders take it where you don’t want to go’.

One gets the impression that here is a guy who has honed his skills at talking to the press to a fine art. He is careful not to ally himself with a school of thought that will appear too controversial.

He describes his style as one of ‘dismantling dogmas’ and ‘innovation with courage’.

‘Designers come up to me and say my style is combining the soft and the hard; a general flow, then a tension of hardness.’

On his approach to car design, he says: ‘The proportions of the car are considered the main factor. It is about being honest and communicating technology.’

The more than 14,000 people who signed an online petition to stop him from designing more Beemers after the 2002 7-series would beg to differ.

Those people hated, among other things, the extra layer of metal Bangle and his team added on the boot of the luxury car. The feature, which some BMW owners thought was ugly, became known as the ‘bangle butt’.

How did he deal with all that intense criticism, if not hatred?

‘My son Derek, who is an architect, and I would sit at the dinner table and talk about it. This forged our relationship,’ he says.

‘This car is a big dog, it has its own personality.’
Bangle on the BMW X6 model (above), with the
controversial high trunk line, which he drives

It must have helped that the much- hated 7-series became the best-selling 7-series of all time, according to BMW. Never mind that experts say its success was largely because of its size. With a generous boot for golf bags, it appealed to many buyers in Asia, especially China.

Also, in 2006, BMW surpassed Mercedes-Benz for the first time ever in premium car sales, selling 889,345 vehicles compared with 818,200 units for Mercedes Car Group.

Bangle has come a long way from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena where he studied under a scholarship paid for by car company Ford.

After receiving a master’s degree in industrial design in 1981, he was with German automaker Opel for four years before hopping over to Italian carmaker Fiat. There he became head of design for the Fiat Coupe but was not present to see its commercial release in 1994 because BMW came a-knocking on his door.

The design he is proudest of during his BMW tenure is the GINA concept model, which his team unveiled last year. The car’s man-made fabric skin gives its surface ‘shape-shifting’ capabilities. The concept sparked a discussion in the industry about the dynamics of surfacing because of its body’s ability to change shape to suit the external conditions and speed.

Although it has been coined only as a visionary model, Bangle sees the concept as the future of design.

He says: ‘The future will see the sculptural car form superseded by other technologies of surface.’

With his departure from the German auto group, his former right-hand man, Dutchman Adrian van Hooydonk, is in charge of design, while he will be pursuing opportunities outside the auto industry with his Italy-based design consultancy, Chris Bangle Associates.

He also intends to spend more time at home, 65km south of Torino in a ‘wine area’, with his wife of 25 years as well as keep an eye on their 22-year-old son’s career as an architect.

Some people may see him cruising the Italian roads in his BMW X6.

His favourite car of all time, however, might be the 1968 Javelin AMC 343 he drove in his hometown of Ohio in the 1970s. He said he loved the iconic American muscle car so much that he drove it until he ‘melted the pistons’.

Although BMW will use his design cues only until next year, he hopes his influence on car design will last longer.

‘I hope people found it inspiring and it encouraged them to accept new things and understand them.’