Chris Bangle is a hard act to follow, even for Chris Bangle. Like him or loath him, the former BMW design director is one of the most famous car designers of our times, recognised for shaking the established status quo with his ‘flame surfacing’ and his radical take on car design.
Then in March 2009, after 16 solid years, Bangle announced his retirement from the Bavarian brand and – seemingly – car design. He packed suitcase and moved to an abandoned farmhouse in the Piemonte hills which he has been busy transforming into a home, a studio to house his design consultancy Chris Bangle Associates, and a vineyard at the back that will produce local dolcetto wine.
Surely Bangle must be up to more than making wine in Italy!
To find out, CAR Online caught up with Bangle to find out what he’s been up to since quitting BMW.
‘I’ve been drinkin’ some wine, eatin’ some cheese, catchin’ some rays,’ he says, echoing Kelly’s Heroes. Bangle remains active on the design scene but since he is a ‘silent’ BMW employee until March 2010, he has been unable to do any car-related projects that conflict with his former employer. Instead, he’s been busy lecturing and running workshops around the world, dissecting car design and finding solutions for future mobility.
So far he has rejected approaches by other car companies, feeling that his recent expertise is better suited to working as a consultant. But he does admit: ‘At least that’s what I’ve been approached to do so far.’
Bangle has also been designing products for unnamed clients through Chris Bangle Associates. The ‘associates’ are freelancers. ‘My ideal would be to have interns working here – young designers with fresh ideas.’
What does Bangle think of current car design?
Bangle is critical of this generation of car designers and their fear of challenging ‘brand holiness’, as he calls it. He laments that too many car companies just repeat what’s been done before. ‘You can always argue that the generation before didn’t have the constraints that we have, but that’s crap. The worst thing you can do is to think design is a rolling wheel fixed on a track of inevitability and you can’t move it left or right.’
He goes on to mention the Modulo, created at a time when a consultant like Pininfarina could simply say to Ferrari: this is the next Ferrari. ‘Can you imagine them doing that today? After all, Ferrari is the number one brand behind Coca Cola. Who is going to come up to them and say this is exciting, what do you say to that?’
This is crucial to how he hopes to operate Chris Bangle Associates. ‘As a consultant you have the dilemma of having to keep the customer happy and indicate to them that unless they deal with their brand inertia, they have stopped their own future.’
Bangle’s take on design in the new decade
‘I feel incredibly motivated to find out how design can overturn this horror of a world,’ Bangle tells CAR. ‘Sustainability isn’t just defined by the physical property of the resources involved. It is about creating a different type of relationship between design, design’s outcome, the product and the people who use and enjoy it.’
Some of Bangle’s ideas are an extension of his last project at BMW – the weird cloth-covered car named Gina that transforms its shape according to customer need. ‘Given that by 2050 you will have 9.5 billion people on this planet, and a lot of them are going to be really old, how can you make a Ferrari so that it will also tuck you in bed at night?’
It may sound a little insane – a Bangle constant – but there is a logic to all this crazy posturing. It costs hundreds of millions to develop a car, and with a growing world population, Bangle proposes taking the role of the car to a new level.
Bangle’s vision is that the car is essentially made of three components: mobility (wheels/engine), environment (cabin/safety) and ‘carness’ (sculpture/personality). If we were to treat these as separate entities, then the car could theoretically come apart, and we could achieve a highly sophisticated modular product, he says. ‘You can rent out the motor by the hour when you don’t need it,’ he suggests, ‘and you take the bit that is carness with you’.
Bangle on BMW
Bangle refuses to be critical of BMW. ‘There are no deathbed revelations from me there. If anything, we showed how you can work with brand inertia and create newness,’ he says. Then he adds with a smile: ‘But of course each generation has to find its own way.’
Bangle had his first solo art exhibition in Munich in December 2009. He shows me a black and white acrylic painting completed in less than half an hour of a car speeding through the gates of a fantasy Italian setting. ‘It has much more of a sense of spontaneity than had I done this two years ago. I think it was a moment of letting go.’
A big chunk of marble, a parting gift from the team, sits outside his house waiting to be sculpted. ‘You would think all the titles I have are something along the lines of free at last,’ he says.
‘That is not good – I need another theme!’
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