Chris Bangle knows about breaking new ground. In 1992, he became the first American chief of design at BMW, where he was responsible for refreshing the designs of BMW, Mini and Rolls-Royce with a modern-day meaning.
More than a quarter century later, Bangle is still pushing boundaries. After 17 years with BMW, he heads his own design consultancy. One of the firm's primary projects is a vehicle called Reds, which upends decades of thinking about the design and purpose of a vehicle.
Made for a new Chinese car company formed by China Hi-Tech Group, Reds is an electric vehicle designed principally with the needs of vehicle occupants in mind rather than the usual primacy of the automobile itself or autonomous technology. What exactly does that mean? Bangle, 62, answered some questions from Staff Reporter Edward Niedermeyer to explain.
Q: REDS seems to be almost designed from the inside out. Why was the interior so important to this design?
A: You are very right in saying that the interior is so important that it was designed from the inside out: We spent two years just making seating bucks to find the right package.
To begin with, this is an all-electric vehicle for the mega cities of China and elsewhere, a place where vehicles are not moving 90 percent of their lifetime. A mega city is a place where fast Nürburgring lap times don't mean much, but the ability to change a diaper on the go might.
How do you live in an interior of a "normal" car? Can you speak easily to the person behind you? Can you get into the back seat from the front — or even into the trunk zone — without opening the doors? What do you do when you arrive home and your baby is sleeping in her car seat? Often, parents just sit there and let the child sleep. They are stuck in a crouch behind the steering wheel in a "normal" car. Maybe they would like a car that allows them to get more comfortable.
With Reds, we are offering a clear alternative: the second car in the family for young mothers; a first ecologically friendly car for young guys and girls who would rather hang with their gang and play video games in their own space than just have wheels to go from coffee shop to coffee shop; entrepreneurs who need an office on the move.
Is interior-centric design just about anticipating self-driving cars, or are there other reasons to move in that direction?
The discussion of "interior first" for car design has been around since before I was in school in the '70s, but rarely is there a project that allows the designers to break free of so many canons of brand-driven design and really explore the consequences, as was the case with Reds.
Certainly, Reds will be a great self-driving car someday, and maybe many will try to imitate it for that reason. But recently, I was watching the public react to a video of a young woman getting in and out of Reds — please recall that in our car, she sits with her eyes at the level of a driver of an SUV — and see how even a petite person does not get the back of their pants dirty. They applauded! Such reactions tell me that there is a lot of pent- up frustration about how cars are designed that would invite new design thinking into the direction of Reds even without the self- driving feature.
How is the process of creating a sculptural presence, such as a car's exterior, different from creating an interior space with ambiance?
You said it with the words "sculptural presence." I assume you mean a holistic form with no abrupt changes, very predictable, symmetrical and meaningful as a pretty sculpture in and of itself.
Many interior designs of cars have tried to mimic that approach; making beautiful sculptural dashboards, middle consoles and doors that appear to be as sculpted by the wind flowing past as the exterior was. This is how car designers are trained to think.
Such a process may be the industry standard, but there is no claim that is the only way to convey the positive aspects of a space, a volume or "ambiance."