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Ex-BMW design wunderkind Bangle resurfaces and riffs on 'banality'

FRANKFURT — Chris Bangle is back!

Back at the Frankfurt auto show. Back in the car business. Back in the groove.

The famed former BMW boy wonder who talks really, really fast, but perhaps not as fast as he thinks, pointedly avoided automotive clients at Chris Bangle Associates, the consultancy he formed in 2009 after 17 years as BMW Group’s chief of design.

Operating in a small town in Italy, his team designed everything from liquor bottles to nursing homes. But as for cars, he says, “I stayed out.”

Indeed, there seems to have been an expectation by his former bosses in Munich that kept him out of the automotive limelight.

Now, eight years later, he is once again fully engrossed in cars. And the sight of Chris Bangle thinking, talking and gesticulating about automobile design is, well, something to behold.

Still boyish at 60, he is at work on a vehicle project about which he will say next to nothing. But there’s a lot he WILL say about the state of vehicle design.

Try this on for size.

After visiting the stand of a former competitor this week he came back dismayed.

“It’s a wonderful stand, it has a wonderful amount of technology they are showing,” said Bangle. “But as a designer I am used to a set of uniqueness and freshness and change. This will turn into a critique of [try to guess] and I really don’t want it to be published like that, but for the life of me I can’t find a new idea.

“I would love to and they have really good designers, but I’ve seen this all before in other places.”

His criticism is not really aimed at this particular company?, which is generally perceived to be getting it right these days, design-wise. Rather, it’s aimed at the entire industry.

“Companies like that are getting so good at putting a sheen on what you already know that they’ll convince everybody that it’s new.

“And the young designers don’t know their own history. There is very little understanding ? where the past came from for car designers today because they are worried so much about just learning the tools. They’re being asked to do little more than just ‘give me a little twist on what we just did.’

Thus, he says, the industry is in a terrible rut.

“If it’s left up to these hyper-conservative, hyper-terrified companies that are so huge, and where everything is resting on a bottom line that could go south at any minute … well, these are the last people to ask for the courage to go forward into the future. The LAST people.

?”They defend their brands like the virtue of Guinevere and they are doing it by putting a chastity belt around the girl and, sorry, that’s not how you make kids. That’s not how you make a future.”

Bangle says car brands have been put on a pedestal — undeservedly.

?”I was talking to a designer here today who has been in the business as long as I have and he said, ‘When I grew up, yeah there was a brand, and then I created the brand out of the design in my mind.’ Now we’re being fed… ‘it’s a brand, it’s a brand.'”

He says the brand-uber-alles consciousness is causing ideas to be endlessly recirculated.

“I know this stuff from the past,” says Bangle. “I know these graphics, I know th?ese surfaces, I know these proportions.

“But then there are these start-up companies, like the one we’re working for and some have the courage to ask significant questions. I think we’ve done something pretty interesting with the car we’re working on.”

What about other industry’s ?start-ups? Doesn’t Bangle see signs of originality he craves?

?”Not yet. Some come kinda close. They like to think they’re giving their designers freedom and you look at it again and you go, ‘about where we were in 1980, except much smoother. ‘”

Bangle was holding forth at the Exa Corp. stand in one of Frankfurt’s supplier halls. Exa is the visualization and software specialist that works with many of the industry’s leaders, worked with Bangle at BMW and is helping him with his current project.

So what about this project?

“I can’t tell you really anything about it,” says Bangle. “It’s an existing company that comes from a manufacturing point of view — not an automaker.

“They understand hardware and electric vehicles very well, but they’ve never forayed into the automotive world. They came to? us a couple of years ago and said, ‘we want to do a small car,’ and I said, ‘ why don’t you go up the street. Pininfarina is up the street. They’d love to do that for you’ and these guys said, ‘No we want to do it with you.'”

Bangle gave the company some free advice.

“‘If you are going to go about it in a normal way,’ he told them, ‘you are going to end up with the exact same kind of a piece that everyone else does and I really don’t want to do that.

“‘But if you want to look at it seriously and seriously pose questions and answer those questions with a lot of guts and courage then I’ll stick with you?.

“So we spent two years creating a concept? for them which had no real aesthetics until we understood the car from a functional point of view. Seriously, no aesthetics.

Now Bangle says he’s got something he likes.

?”I feel strongly enough about this that I would put my name on this,” he said.

?When will we see it?

“Much sooner than later. I just don’t want to get? into hype.”

Actually, Bangle can’t resist hyping it in his own way. He related a story about one of his designers, a veteran stylist who Bangle asked to do something quite radical. The designer told him, “every bone in my body refuses to do this.”

“He said, ‘I can’t do this’ and he got sick, literally sick. He came down with a bad flu and he spent three days in his hotel room, eating soup — and drawing what I had asked him to draw?. And when he came out he had created something no one had ever seen, and he said to me, ‘I am liberated.’

Talking about this, Bangle got choked up. He had to excuse himself, pull out a handkerchief and dab his suddenly red, watery eyes.

His voice cracked.

“This was extremely emotional,” he said. “I was able to get this designer to go past a mental barrier. When people ask me what is the problem with cars of the future, I say it is the mental barriers in the heads of designers. It is not the management’s fault or the customer’s fault or technology’s fault, it is these things in our heads. We’ve got to end the banality. We’ve got to get rid of the normal.”

So welcome back, Chris Bangle, the Ohio boy who was all of 36 when he took over as head of BMW design in 1992 after successfully battling banality at Opel and Fiat.

“When we got back into doing this project I found myself looking at cars again,” he said. “Sitting at a stoplight and you say, ‘look at that light going over this fender there’ or “did you see that graphic?’ You start making these little comments while you’re driving with your wife sitting next to you.

At a certain point Catherine said to me, “OK, you’re back.”

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