Virtual butlers and stone veneers – Bentley’s next design moves

Published: 18 March 2016

► Bentley brainstorms its design future
► Virtual butlers and 3D printing
► Stone veneers and organic LEDs

Bentley is synonymous with the time-honoured signifiers of luxury: flawless timber, melt-in-your-mouth leather, carpets so deep sunlight can’t penetrate their shaggy strata. But how to meld the tradition and heritage for which Bentley’s famous with the progressive design and technologies its next-generation clients will demand? Design boss Stefan Sielaff reckons artfully blending apparent contradictions is the very essence of British-ness, and the Bavarian-born Anglophile should know…

Here’s how he plans to maintain the marque’s essential Bentley-ness in an era of piloted drive, carbonfibre and hard-to-please generation Z buyers.  

Bentley stone veneer

1. Stone and tweed – the new wood and leather

‘You think Bentley and you think of leather, wood and polished alloy,’ says Sielaff. ‘On the Speed 6 concept we pushed that, with copper. Now we are pushing that further. We’re seeing a move towards a vegan, more sustainable lifestyle. For these buyers an interior of cowhides is unacceptable, so we’re looking at alternatives; synthetic protein leather, tweed and canvas. This is a chance to re-invent ourselves. And whatever we use it’ll be Bentley in how we treat it; the fine stitching, the smell, that craftsmanship.’

Bentley is also set to offer a stone veneer, which looks less ridiculous than it sounds. The veneer’s so thin – just a tenth of a millimetre – it can be laid onto compound curves and wrapped around radiused edges. ‘We are looking at slate and quartzite,’ says Bentley interiors designer Romulus Rost. ‘Like timber there’s a unique grain and texture to each piece, and it’s so thin that when you back-light it the stone becomes semi-translucent and looks amazing.’

Click here to read more about Bentley's new stone veneer trim

Speed 6’s distinctive ‘whiskey glass’ headlights will stay for the production car, due 2020: ‘This kind of thing is a perfect fit for us; a little romance added to the technology,’ says Sielaff.

Bentley Speed 6 interior

2. Bendy screens

Bentley is excited about flexible OLED (organic light-emitting diode) screens: high-resolution, touch-enabled flexible display surfaces. ‘This technology offers huge potential for new ideas in how we use screens in the car, and in the shapes we can design,’ explains Rost. ‘When people saw the screen in the Speed 6 concept they said it wasn’t feasible but it is with this technology. It can be fitted within a curving element, and the hardware behind it is very compact.’

3. Wilder shapes, carbonfibre

‘Certain rules, the rules of prestige proportions, will remain, as will deep, powerful bodies, high belt-lines and the combination of a short front and long rear overhang,’ explains Sielaff. ‘The sculpting of our fuselage bodies is really important, with more dramatic changes in section in the future. You must be able to feel the human touch in the sexiness of these surfaces – we design in data but the shape is always milled out in a clay model and finished by hand. That will remain the case. Carbonfibre interests me because with it can do something more extreme in three dimensions. With sheet metal there are limitations.’  

‘Carbonfibre is an option for us,’ confirms board member for engineering Rolf Frech. ‘Not only for the surface but for the structure. It would suit us, in terms of our manufacturing strategy as a small-volume manufacturer.’

3D-printed titanium hinges

4. 3D printed details

The Speed 6 was festooned with delicious detailing, much of it made possible by 3D printing. Bentley is particularly proud of the car’s door hinges; brutally handsome little sculptures that incorporate an abstract Union Jack. ‘The technology allows us overcome production issues that held us back in the past,’ says Sielaff. ‘We can do details that you could not mill or cast. It will be used on our future grille designs, especially where we might have movable parts to let air in for cooling or block it to reduce drag.’

Bentley 'future of luxury' interior, complete with virtual butler

5. The driver-less lounge 

‘At Bentley we have had autonomous cars for a long, long time; the chauffeur!’ laughs Frech. ‘It could be part of the future of our luxury cars. The first step is autonomous parking, with the technologies that are necessary for autonomous driving onboard. But driving a Bentley gives you emotions and we cannot lose this. We are investigating, to be prepared if the customer demand is there.’

Sielaff’s been riffing on what the inside of a self-driving Bentley might look like: essentially a couple of couches, a coffee table and a hologrammatic butler. ‘This would be a very Bentley thing, a real person you can talk to rather than a system you interact with. The flat floor you get with hybrid or electric power gives more freedom, more possibilities. We could have a lounge feeling in our big luxury cars. But for the performance cars you wouldn’t want this – it is nicer to fit the car snugly, like a nice sports shoe.’

By Ben Miller

The editor of CAR magazine, story-teller, average wheel count of three

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