Walter de’Silva's greatest hits, CAR+ January 2016

Published: 04 January 2016

► VW's design chief Walter de'Silva retires
► We look back at his 43-year career
► A back catalogue of landmark cars

1) The Man

Walter Maria de’Silva, 64, was born in Lecco, Italy. His architect father wanted Walter to follow in his footsteps, but he switched to car design, starting at Fiat in 1972. After running design at Alfa Romeo, Seat and Audi, he became head of VW Group design in 2007, leading to responsibility for eight brands and, by 2014, the look, feel and function of ten million new cars a year. He also topped CAR’s ‘Design Power’ list back in 2010.  

Alfa 156's hidden rear door handle a stroke of genius

2) The Breakthrough car

De’Silva transformed Alfa Romeo in the ’90s with the 156 (1997). Clean lines, uninterrupted by a rear-door handle ‘hidden’ in the window frame made every saloon look like a sporty coupe and the 156 a hit. VW Group soon courted his services.   

Cars were not the boundary for Walter, he also designed a camera

3) Cameras and chairs too…

With more than a decade’s experience in industrial and interior design from the mid-’70s to mid-’80s, de’Silva has always had a soft spot for design beyond cars. Check out his cool M9 Titanium camera for Leica and comfy Luft armchair for Poltrona Frau for evidence.

Please do take a seat - also designed by Walter

4) His Philosophy

Likening car design to architecture, de’Silva well understood that proportions are paramount. ‘You feel when a door on a house is too big or a window too small. If you have good proportions you’ve done 70% of the work. Sometimes people forget that a car is 3D. One centimetre in 3D is different to 1cm in 2D. It’s mathematics. If you move a roof by 1cm in 3D it is a ca-tas-trophe.’ 

Audi A5 Walt's personal favourite

5) His masterpiece

He has overseen many (156, Mk2 TT, Mk1 R8, Up!) but the Audi A5,  with its gently undulating side feature line, personifies his understated style best. On the road especially, it just gets better every time you drive by one. It’s de’Silva’s personal favourite too.    

6) What his peers said

Giorgetto Giugiaro (pictured) – the 20th Century’s Greatest Car DesignerTM – is a fan, and not just because de’Silva became Giugiaro’s boss when his Italdesign business was bought by VW in 2010. ‘He’s so intuitive and insightful. He’ll see a small flaw in a model right away. We have the same vision, it’s a flawless collaboration.’ Not anymore mind, both left VW suddenly in 2015, as did possible successor (and ex-Bentley design boss) Luc Donckerwolke. Unhappy campers all? 

Giorgetto Giugiaro's a fan

7) His Nadir

That could be right now. After late-cancelled engagements in October, his official November 30th retirement date was made public on November 6th. Rumours swirled that threats to his design budget and in-house management disagreements were to blame; VW refused to comment. Some 14 days later VW Group announced cuts to pay for its emissions scandal-related liabilities, including the stalling of a new €100m Wolfsburg design centre.  

8) What next?

According to VW, de’Silva will be kept on in an ‘advisory capacity’. No successor has been announced though, which suggests a hasty exit, rather than a calm hand-over, especially given the role’s massive importance in keeping so many brands on track and avoiding overlap. Not helpful when only Porsche design in the group seems to be set fair on a vibrant and convincing course. 

By Guy Bird

Contributor, cultural curator, design commentator

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