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BMW recently located its Designworks product design studio to the heart of Silicon Beach in Los Angeles. BMW recently opened the studio in Santa Monica, California, to the press to celebrate its 50 years of designing cars, media and other technology-based products.
Its mission from the BMW Group is not only to design the latest automobile concepts but also deliver cross-industry designs for external clients and stay at the forefront of innovation, design and sustainability. The BMW team talked about designs like the BMW i Vision Dee concept car that can change into 32 different colors on the fly, and it showed off its BMW M Hybrid V8 race car.
Adrian van Hooydonk, senior vice president of BMW Group Design, came from Munich, Germany for the occasion to show how design inspiration and user centricity should lead industries such as mobility, transportation, consumer electronics, charging infrastructure and interior spaces.
He joined Holger Hampf, head of the Designworks studio, for a group press Q&A during the event at the 16,500-square-feet studio.
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The studio has 150 people, in addition to other big teams in Shanghai and Munich, to work on designs for BMW as well as external clients with an “outside in” perspective. It completes around 300 designs a year and that helps it stay informed about the forefront of industry and see patterns across different markets. It’s a model, started by Chuck Pelly in Malibu in 1972, that has worked for decades.
Here’s an edited transcript of the press Q&A.
Question: For your outside companies that you work with and the products you work with, how do you take that knowledge and interaction with the materials you use for those things and translate it to automotive design for BMW?
Adrian van Hooydonk: Holger can talk more about that, but first of all, these companies need to know that what we do for them is provide designs to them. That’s the way it works, also from a contract point of view. What it does in any case is that it gives our designers a more complete view on the future. If we do work for other companies, typically that also has a development or lead time to production of about three years. A good idea, if you’re working on an electronic device or an airplane interior–those kinds of products will develop in three or four years’ time. That happens to be the lead time for our car design as well.
The designers typically do mood boards based on things they see today. We now have mood boards about the future. That, I think, is an incredible value. We can offer that to our outside clients as well. Our designers know how we think about mobility in three to four to even ten years’ time. That gives them an opportunity to check whether these things seem to line up. Some industries are far apart, so it’s just peripheral, let’s say. Sometimes it’s close, if they’re both in mobility. You can draw some parallels. But it works both ways in that sense, without ever having to show what we do for another company to the board of BMW. They never see it. But it gives us, as a design team, a more complete image or a more complete mood board about the future, if you will.
Holger Hampf: It doesn’t necessarily need to be–it usually never is a direct translation of what we do with external clients to BMW. But number one, I think, there’s a very subtle indirect translation, which is the knowledge of the market, the broader view that is translated to automotive design. Again, the expectations and the desires in a car are important, and they’re formed from other fields.
One very good example we like to use is air travel, traveling in first class or business class. You have a very personal space, I would say, in a cabin. You have a combination of different functions such as entertainment, ergonomics, seating comfort. During a long-distance flight you sleep, you eat, you read, you entertain, you work on your computer. We’ll never design a business class seat in a car, but when you travel in the second row of a 7-series, we inform ourselves about how people like to travel, what they like to do, how we can design certain features in the car. The latest 7-series, as you know, has a very sophisticated entertainment system, a very large screen. It’s very desirable for customers.
Again, it’s not a direct translation from air travel. However, we learn a lot about people wanting a nice screen size, the resolution, good audio. We inform our work this way.
Question: I’m a little confused around how much juggling you do. Three hundred designs a year, 130 people, but many of these take multiple years to do. That sounds like a design a day that’s coming out.
Hampf: There are different sizes of program, first of all. Not all of them are–some are smaller material programs within the number 300. Those are independent proposals. Half of them are for BMW and half of them are for the broader BMW group and external clients. Different size programs. A lot of programs are going on in parallel. Some are paused for a while because they go into a development phase.
To your point about juggling, I can say that in the background – and it’s the same for BMW – when we started the year 2023, we looked at a very complex project landscape together. Right now I have to say that it seems like our world has gotten a bit more complex than it was in the last few years. The landscape has gotten a little more complex as well. That’s the art, I think, behind it. We talk about triangular relationships at Designworks. The creative is one part of the puzzle. But very good project management and organizing, the people who structure all of this, is equally important.
van Hooydonk: Worldwide we have 700 team members. Then we have the Designworks studio in Shanghai, this one here in Los Angeles, and the one in Munich. We have a design studio in Goodwood. Then we have several design studios in Munich. You can imagine the project workload. We do several hundred projects in a year. Like Holger said, the project landscape is quite daunting. Some projects get stopped and new ones come in, so you also have to calculate a certain flexibility.
But we have very good project management. Sometimes I feel that we have a creativity machine. For the designer, they have to feel free within a given project. If you feel pressure all day long, you can no longer be creative. The designer should be able to think about the project in terms of creativity. Someone else will take care of the budget and the timing issues. We also have a good team that enables the creative team to do just that.
It’s complex. We built it over many years. Thankfully we didn’t have to put it together in two weeks. We keep adjusting. We keep learning. We keep changing our processes as we go along. Each year we know that there are certain areas of our process that we have to review and change. Only in this way can we keep delivering this kind of creativity. I’m always impressed by how, at the end of the year, we’ve managed another year of all that. In the middle it sometimes feels quite stressful.
Question: Do you notice a different design aesthetic, different design requests depending on the area of the world, with respect to mobility? What are you getting from here versus Europe versus Shanghai?
van Hooydonk: We want to hear exactly that from the studios in the various locations. That local feel. They’re all working on BMWs or Minis or Rolls-Royces, but still, there are cultural differences. Society, in some cases, is changing fast. If you talk about China, in terms of the digital parts of life, they’re ahead of most other parts of the world. It happens much faster there. If you go to a restaurant in Shanghai and have dinner with a group of people, you never see a menu. Nobody pulls out a wallet. It all happens automatically. And my last experience was three years ago. I haven’t been there in quite some time. I’m going back later this year. Translating that to mobility is the task at hand. In China we have customers that are used to that level of digital comfort. They’ll expect that from our products. That gets filtered into the design.
Then you see electric mobility happening all over the world, but with various speeds of change. Here it’s very present. In China it’s very present. Europe is catching on. You see some local differences. You also see, or begin to see, luxury changing. It’s becoming more and more personal, more individual. Those are interesting things.
We always do a design competition between all of the studios. Specifically, we ask the studios to bring in everything that they learn and see in their local market. But in the end, we have to make one Mini for the world, one BMW for the whole world. We have to come to the right mixture of design that we feel will suit all the markets.
Question: Is that design competition just for vehicles, or is it any project that comes into Designworks?
Hampf: It’s for several aspects of the car. We talked earlier about new things such as sound or scent in a car. Other interior aspects like lighting. We’re well on our way to finding the common thread across all of these singular experiences. We’ve all had experiences with products that have very good styling. They look beautiful. But they don’t function very well. Or they have certain aspects that don’t work well. We’re frustrated and we say that the whole thing doesn’t work.
What we’re trying, and I think it’s working well, is to make sure that you have a holistic experience with a product like a car. It’s not only the styling that looks good. When you get in, the ergonomics of the cabin welcome you. The ease of connecting with the car. All of these things, these little things, need to be very well-connected in the future. The car can look as beautiful as we want it to. If the UI doesn’t work, the whole thing fails.
Question: It’s not just that one office says, “This is our winning design,” then? They might take the interior from one and the exterior design from another.
Hampf: Right. We’re looking at these different proposals. Sometimes we see that China has a leading interior concept for something. We take that forward and see if we can combine these things. The China interior proposal is really good and it fits well with what we’ve seen from the team in Munich, something like this.
It’s definitely changed a lot. Where we would associate an individual with a design, that was the past. Today it’s purely seen as a team effort. People don’t have any problems with their part becoming part of the bigger picture and solution. It’s working quite well, this BMW team effort. Also in regards to how Designworks integrates with the design team in Munich. These boundaries or this idea of “my design” are gone. We have one signature and it says BMW Design or Mini Design. That’s it. People have not only accepted this, but actually praise it nowadays.
Question: You talked about the digital advancement in China. Were you able to identify aesthetics that were unique or common in the United States and in Europe?
van Hooydonk: We want to be careful not to generalize, to say that America is like this and China is like that. We’re also in a lucky situation where in terms of luxury brands – our brands are premium or luxury brands – the world’s tastes are not growing apart. They’re actually converging. If I look at what the Chinese market wants now, what our designers in Shanghai – who are mostly local – are doing, it’s not so different from what we would like to see. They have completely understood what BMW is all about. They’re tasked to bring that to the future.
Again, I would say there’s a converging. China used to have a bit more, let’s say, bling. I don’t see that anymore. It’s actually become quite refined in terms of tastes. The only difference that you might be able to see is that–to an American customer is a sporty vehicle, no matter how big it is. Even a 7-series is seen as a sporty car. In China, BMW is rather seen as a luxury object, no matter how small or big it is. I think it’s always been like that. In our design we make sure that our customer–the new 7-series is a great example. You can specify this with an M Sports pack. Big rims, everything matte black and all that. You can make it look very sporty, and of course it will drive like that. You can also specify it in lighter colors. We even have cashmere fabric in the interior of the 7-series, a very high-level material. You can also spec it in a way that’s purely modern luxury.
In the end that’s what’s happening around the world. Luxury, like I said, is getting more and more personal, more individual. There isn’t one formula anymore. Maybe 30 years ago, if you reached a certain level of success in life, you wanted to belong to that luxury segment. Then you were willing to buy into all that. But today people don’t care about that so much, especially if you become successful in your own right. You want your own kind of luxury or reward. It’s become far more individual. Through our offerings in body styles and color and materials, we can allow for that. We’re offering for that. That’s been part of our success.
Question: What kind of bets have you made on technology in the design process? There are things like Unreal Engine being used a lot more across industries, or the Omniverse tools from Nvidia. What’s changed for you there?
van Hooydonk: We talked about this yesterday a bit. For us, all the virtual tools–we use the ones I think you know. We use Blender a lot, and of course we have VR glasses and AR glasses that we use. We have good connectivity between the studios, where we can all look at the same object in a virtual space. Yesterday, after the talk, you asked about whether we’ll be able to collaborate completely in the virtual space. That’s something we’re looking into. Who knows where that will lead? Maybe a virtual office where people can contact us or collaborate with us who are not part of our organization. That could be an interesting experiment.
Of course AI now has gone through the roof online. That’s also something we’re looking at. But there, in our mind, it really completely depends on what you feed the system. If you feed it 100 years of BMW history and then you ask it to do a new BMW, it tends to look like a BMW that you think you know. That’s what we’ve seen online in the past few weeks. That, for us, will not be good enough. We probably have to feed the system, the AI, different things. A designer’s mind works quite differently. They have a mood board that contains a bottle opener, a coffee cup, and a picture of a hotel lobby. All of that gets worked into a new car design. We’re looking into that as well. We’re experimenting with it. We’ll see where that takes us.
Also, the tool chain is changing very quickly now. You see online designers that have their own websites, they already post their tool chain. Illustrator, Alias, ChatGPT. For them it’s normal that they use all of that. That’s their creativity. That’s going to be interesting in the next few years, how that is going to settle down.
Hampf: We’re experiencing what is almost this third wave. In the big picture, Aiden and I are coming from a piece of paper and Copic markers. We still draw on paper, but in the second stage, you see that the process of sketching and illustrating became digital. We worked with overlays. The same on the physical side, from a clay model and foam to data-based design. Now this third revolution is from the typical digital tools, the Adobe suite or something–we’re moving on to a tool chain that’s completely different. It’s data-based.
What is interesting is that we see this competency of using these tools with the designer. It’s one and the same person. A designer very often today is not going to a computer specialist and saying, “Can you translate my sketch?” They do it themselves to a very high level of sophistication. It means specialization to get the data completely right, but it’s amazing, this third stage, going from paper to digital tablets to data-driven software.
van Hooydonk: The last few years of COVID restrictions taught us a lot. Even I learned a lot in terms of how to use different tools. We used to have big design reviews, big screens. Somebody would present a computer model. I would do some hand movements – more like this, more like that. Two weeks later we would meet again and they would have done what I asked, or maybe not. Otherwise I would have to do more hand-waving.
Now we’re online. We have the designer, the modeler, and myself all in a Teams call. We’re looking at a computer model. I took a screenshot and drew two lines on it, so I didn’t have to do any hand-waving. I just drew on it and shared it with the team. They said, “Okay, I see what you mean.” The modeler started doing what I asked, all in the same call. That process has sped up tremendously, whether we like it or not. We can travel again, so we don’t have to be in our home offices anymore. But that speed is not going to go away. It’s still there. We learned a lot over the last few years in that sense.
Question: I wanted to find out a few more details about how art is integrated into this Designworks studio. Have you anything planned along the lines where you’re teasing an upcoming specific model that you’re about to put on sale or whatever, and you’re finding a way through contemporary art to be able to introduce that and allude to the design rather than just unveiling it?
van Hooydonk: The art car series is continuing, but we’re not doing one each year. Sometimes there’s a gap of two or three years. One project is in progress right now. I think later this year we will communicate about which artist is doing that with us. But it’s happening as we speak. We definitely want to continue that. For us, it’s always interesting and inspiring, just like the work we did with Thomas Girst–that was special. It was based on, let’s say, our personal relationship somewhat. For the most part we’re still in contact with all the artists who have done art cars.
Last year, with the launch of the new 7-series, the i7, we introduced something that we call Art Mode. I don’t know if you’re aware, but the 7-series has this curved screen. Digital art, of course, is an up and coming thing. Cao Fei is a digital artist with whom we did an art car. We asked her to be the first artist to create something inside the car for this Art Mode. Now, in the 7-series, you can select Art Mode. You’ll see the screen change into a design that she did.
That’s a first step. We feel that with the technology we have in the cars, the screens that we have, we could actually do more. Probably what we’re going to do in the future, when we do other art cars, we’ll ask those artists to also do something inside the car. We can do a lot more, but you have to be a bit careful, of course. In a driving environment, can you have moving things? There are limits to that.
Here at Designworks we’ve also been talking to people like Refik Anadol, who we find very interesting as an artist. In the realm of digital art we could do a lot more. We could imagine a lot more collaborations. It just has to make sense to both parties. There has to be a match. Refik has visited the studio here. He has a studio in Los Angeles. He seems to be quite busy as he is. That’s the thing. But there are possibilities that are now just opening up to us. We just have to find the time for it and make it meaningful for all parties. Of course you can imagine that we could do a lot of wallpapers in a car, but that’s maybe not good enough, if you think about where we’re coming from in terms of art cars.
Hampf: It’s maybe also not only art, even though that was the center of your question. We very regularly talk to other creative fields like architecture. We had a very good workshop a while ago with Rem Koolhaas at BMW. We’re equally inspired by people like him in terms of their architecture and so on.
We’re talking about the car, and we put out things like the vision circular from a couple of years ago. The word “vision” is loaded, obviously, but to us it really is something that’s pointing toward the future, where we’re putting a stake in. What is visionary architecture? What does our corporate architecture look like? We have some things in Munich that BMW built, the museum and so on. I’m currently very interested in this relationship between mobility and architecture. I talk to architects. There are companies like TeamLab that we look at.
It’s almost, if you will–it’s not so specific to art or artistry. It’s almost a blend of architecture, art, and design. This, I think, becomes really interesting for us. We can find ourselves in this area where we move away from designing a car. We’re designing an object and an experience, mixing all these influences into our work. That becomes interesting.
Question: The lines between architecture, design, and art, a lot of them are blurry lines anyway. Would Designworks ever consider collaborating with a high-profile artist and using the connections that BMW has to work on a project where–say an artist came in and designed a particular area of a product. You could use that as a sort of special edition. Has that ever become a part of the way that Designworks thinks?
van Hooydonk: I would say yes. There’s a very good example on our website. It’s a special 7-series. It’s not from this new generation, but the previous generation. It was done by our studio in China. At that time Annette Baumeister was in charge of the China studio. She’s now in charge of color and material for the BMW group. She’s a very experienced designer and artist. She helped to design this very special edition 7-series with artists in China. A lot of craftspeople who made details of the car. It’s wonderful. There’s a super nice video on our website. It’s a red car, and it’s very beautiful. It has embroidery, paint, special wood treatments. But yes, we’re very interested in these types of things.
Hampf: We did the Jeff Koons limited edition 8-series. That was really the first time. You see fashion brands of course doing this in a big way now, like Louis Vuitton and Yayoi Kusama. You could imagine doing that. But Jeff Koons, he really wanted to do this. He was bugging us for a long time. We were saying, “Jeff, are you sure? It’s not too commercial?” But he wanted to do a BMW. He actually wanted to do more cars than we dared to do. We always want to be respectful of our artists, to be careful that it doesn’t look like a quick marketing exercise. That seems to make sense. But for Jeff he wanted to do it, and he already asked if he could do another one. It depends, I guess, who the artist is. That was, I think, 99 cars?
van Hooydonk: Yes, 99 cars. It was quite expressive. Total Jeff Koons, I would say. But it’s not like it’s in all of our dealerships around the world. That’s what Louis Vuitton is doing now. You don’t have statues of Jeff Koons and Jeff Koons all over the place. It’s not a big exercise like that. For us it was a sort of toe in the water to see how it goes. They sold quite quickly. But still, for our sales organization, they said, “What?” It’s not what they’re used to selling.
That’s also part of our business. When we do a design we show it to our sales colleagues three years ahead of time. Then they have to gauge the volume. They have to make a statement, an argument. How many do they think they can sell? Imagine showing the Jeff Koons car to them and saying, “Okay, what do you think? How many can you sell, and for how much?” For them that was really difficult. Is it a car? Is it a piece of art? If you relate the price to Jeff Koons’s art, it’s nothing. It’s kind of common. But if you look at it as a car, a special edition 8-series, for a dealership it’s an expensive car. That was territory that was hard to explore. You just don’t know.
Of course what you don’t want is to do too many, and then they’re sitting around everywhere and the value goes down. That wouldn’t have been good for Jeff Koons either. We felt that an edition of 99 cars was a good venture. Then we’ll see whether we’ll do more.
Question: Do you see these kinds of artist collaborations becoming part of designing a car in the future?
van Hooydonk: It could be. What we’re looking at is that we think luxury is becoming more personal, like I said before. Whatever that means to people. A lot of our customers are interested in design and art, but then it gets even more personal. Some really love certain artists and really don’t like others. As I said, in the car we have experimented for the first time with Art Mode last year. We had the Jeff Koons limited edition. You can imagine that in the future, we can show a lot more inside the car and become more flexible in the design of the interior and the exterior. We might even be able to change the color of the exterior, like we showed at the Consumer Electronics Show. A car could become a complete canvas. People could express their own tastes or preferences through all of that. It could grow to include art as well. Technologically, though, there are still some things to figure out before we get there.
Hampf: It’s a super interesting time for a designer. Both of us come from an industrial design background. When we look at Dee, the car we introduced at CES, it’s basically–we took away many features that you usually find on cars. We created a very clean and pure exterior. And yet–we’ve been close to the car and walked around it, and it’s 100% a BMW. If you stand in front of it, there’s no doubt this is a BMW. The proportions, everything around it.
However, the car also lends itself to becoming this canvas, in a certain way. It’s clean. It’s a fresh start. It can almost take on your personality. That’s why this experiment with the healing surfaces worked so well on the car, I think. All of a sudden–it’s yours now. What would you do with it? Like the app we introduced yesterday. We really enjoy this time of–it’s a renewing process, I would say. And yet I think it’s 100% BMW. We looked at it just a week ago at our headquarters in Munich. It’s amazing how expressive it is as a BMW. And yet very, very clean. Many of the surfaces–it’s a very pure, clean design.
Disclosure: BMW paid my way to a Santa Monica event. Our coverage remains objective.
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