Driven designers

JAMES AUER

Driven designers

Two men with Wisconsin ties are putting their art into motion

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Upscale-car designers are the rock stars of the automotive world. They craft other people’s dreams, fuel their aspirations, provide motivation for maximum effort and reward high-level achievement.

Two of the European auto world’s most influential and highly regarded designers of high-performance cars are American-born with Wisconsin ties.

Christopher E. Bangle, who spent his teen years in Wausau, is director of BMW Group Design, supervising the design departments at BMW, Mini Cooper and Rolls-Royce.

Grant Larson, a graduate of Mequon’s Homestead High School and the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, is a top contributor to Porsche’s design team, leaving his signature on the topless Boxster and other sleek sports cars.

Journal Sentinel art critic — and auto buff — James Auer recently talked with Bangle and Larson about their work, their industry and their approaches to their distinctive art.

Finding beauty in BMWs

BMW designer thrives on challenges

By JAMES AUER Journal Sentinel art critic

“I’m never bored,” said Christopher E. Bangle, who at 47 is director of BMW Group Design in Germany.

“And yes, it is a job that is constantly challenging.”

Bangle, whose portfolio of responsibilities includes the look and aura of BMW, Mini Cooper and Rolls-Royce-brand motor vehicles, may be the most highly publicized — and most controversial — auto designer in the world.

He spent his growing-up years in Wausau, where his first job was delivering the Milwaukee Sentinel to subscribers before dawn on chilly Wisconsin mornings.

“I think he’s doing a great job,” Tom David, an auto industry veteran who holds the Brooks Stevens chair in industrial design at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, said of Bangle.

In a recent trans-Atlantic telephone conversation, Bangle said he considers himself very fortunate “to be in a company like BMW, that is very oriented in relation to its people. It’s a team that respects the difficulty of the jobs they give their employees to do. I’ve always felt very much at home here.”

A field rooted in the past

A 1975 graduate of Wausau West High School, Bangle has been an expatriate for most of his career as an automotive designer.

He went to Europe after graduating in 1981 from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., the same school Grant Larson attended. Before joining BMW in 1992, he was employed by car-makers Adam Opel and Fiat.

History is omnipresent at BMW, Bangle said. The specters of great cars of the past inevitably haunt the cars of tomorrow.

“Baseball is a game played by ghosts,” he said. “Car design is a lot like that, too. . . . At the same time, you have to keep on trying to achieve.”

Bangle said he and his fellow designers enjoy the challenge of maintaining BMW traditions while serving the company’s future technological and aesthetic needs.

For Bangle, a study of the work of the sculptor Constantin Brancusi has been of great help to him in achieving a basic understanding of form. The auto designer has traveled to Italy a number of times, twice with his wife and son, to carve marble at Pietra Santa, just south of Carrara.

One of the books Bangle has found fundamental to understanding car design is “The Nude,” by Kenneth Clark. His copy, Bangle said, is filled with notations as he has struggled to find an answer to complex design problems.

Another of his valued influences is BMW’s vaunted racing tradition.

An 8-foot-wide rendition of BMW’s 1999 victory at Le Mans, executed in colored foils, adorns his office in an octagonal building at the company’s vast office complex in Munich, where he heads a team of 300 people. One hundred more work in the United States.

The design team’s work, he said, is by no means isolated from that of BMW’s remaining 100,000 employees, of whom 6,500 are engineers.

Communication between the design and engineering departments is essential, said Bangle, especially when the designers are working with concave and convex surfaces, as on BMW’s Z4 roadster.

Redesigning a piece of history

This sort of ongoing experimentation with form and surface entails continuous research as BMW, like the rest of the industry, moves away from the basic boat shape that has dominated automobile design for the past 70 years.

Inevitably, the designers’ efforts to bring BMW into the 21st century have led to some animosity among BMW purists. Auto magazines and Internet sites have abounded with criticism of some designs — notably the capacious but extended deck of BMW’s new 7-series — and applause for others, such as the new 6-series coupe and convertible.

But sales figures, the ultimate arbiter, would seem to endorse the idea of gradual change.

The revised 7-series has enjoyed an extremely high record of repeat purchases among long-term owners, Bangle said. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that BMW was enjoying increased registrations in Germany — up 6.97% through May, year-to-date — while some rival prestige makes were experiencing declines.

Philip D. Elmore, a Crossville, Tenn., architect who has owned three BMWs, is a fan of Bangle’s work.

“I like what he’s doing,” said Elmore, a BMW Club of America member. “I think he’s had a winner with every one of his designs. . . .

“I think the 7-series that Chris has designed is probably the most bold 7-series ever put out. The older series were more stodgy- looking. This new 7-series has a lot of design impact. I think he’s got that thing nailed right on the head.”

Bangle tends to accept positive and negative feedback with a remarkable degree of equanimity. After all, he pointed out, he is by no means the sole instigator of change within the BMW universe.

Each new model is the result of the development of several parallel design projects, which are brought to fruition through the combined efforts of the firm’s governing board and the design and manufacturing staffs.

The process, Bangle said, takes about three years: “one year to figure out what you want to do, one year to figure out how to do it, and one year to control and check it.”

E-mail James Auer at jauer@journalsentinel.com.

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