Gorden Wagener had a tough challenge when he succeeded longtime Mercedes-Benz design head Peter Pfeiffer in 2008. Wagener, a 14-year veteran at the German luxury brand, was tasked with reinventing Mercedes' design to attract younger buyers, while retaining the brand's traditional values. Wagener, 42, explained his philosophy and goals to Automotive News Europe Editor-in-Chief Harald Hamprecht.
What have been the most important changes since you started your current job?
Since design is the instrument that orchestrates the brand, we have defined a new design philosophy that goes hand-in-hand with the core statement of our brand philosophy "The Best or Nothing."
What values does your design represent?
Mercedes-Benz Design – as we simply call our philosophy – always conveys our known values, such as safety and quality, status, perfection, responsibility and environmental sustainability. At the same time, we rely on innovation – so we link tradition and the future together.
What is the innovation?
More strongly than before, our new philosophy accentuates the theme of beauty and, going further, grandeur, as the highest form of the aesthetic. We are pursuing a classic ideal of beauty. We want to build the most beautiful, sensual and stylish cars. Mercedes-Benz style as a synonym for the certitude of style. That's why it's no accident that we orchestrate our brand with design, with sculpted objects, such as our aesthetics series. Brand and design are the best protection from copying that you will find in the industry.
How important the so-called "green luxury?"
In the future, there won't be luxury without green, without social and political correctness. You show responsibility, are more open, less confining, socially accepted. We have already demonstrated this with our Blue Zero concept car. And we are expressing it with contoured forms that are inspired by nature and that express themselves in aerodynamics and efficiency. But as the technology leader, our technology must also be visually convincing and it must be done in a high-tech way, so that it is recognizable in our headlights, for example. That is a symbiosis of technology and beauty that is also derived from the historic vehicles of our brand.
Will you dig out still more ideas from the past, such as the gullwing door?
Mercedes will never build retro models, at most a modern interpretation like the SLS. The G class is an example of an icon that you could carefully reinterpret, but I won't reveal more at this point.
The new A- and B-class family will undergo a major change. What can we expect there?
Our new generation of compact cars permits us to have many variations. The replacement for the A class alone will be a quantum leap in sportiness, with a surge in its sideline resembling a predatory animal, a typically expressive Mercedes grille, and a hood that should be the longest in the segment. We want to appeal to significantly younger customers with our new entry-level models and so we have moved ahead very boldly. The further we move up in the portfolio, the calmer we become.
VW head designer Walter de' Silva says that design is more important than marketing.
I can only underscore that. Design is the orchestration of all brand values. Design goes hand-in-hand with the brand philosophy. Our sales and marketing chief Joachim Schmidt is the protector of the brand, and that's the reason we work very well together as partners. We are pursuing the same interests.
How big is your worldwide design team?
About 430 in Sindelfingen, more than 100 in our four other car studios around the world – in Carlsbad, California; Lake Como, Italy; Yokohama, Japan; and Beijing, China. We also can't forget the 60 people working worldwide on design for the Mercedes truck group. Compared with the competition, we have the most employees in design.
Will the number increase?
We still certainly need a few people in the area of graphics development and implementation quality. In our COO, Wolfgang Bernhard, I have a strong ally who is driving quality to an unprecedented level. But we generally have efficiency goals and design as well. And it is a normal management task to continually optimize the budget. But we are not saving at the expense of the future. The best example: the China advanced design studio is already under construction.
Are two studios in Asia necessary?
Both Japan and China are important markets for Mercedes, and our work certainly isn't declining at all. In September, we will officially open our studio in China, which so far has merely been an office. We are looking for a full-sized studio that ought to be as large as our U.S. studio, meaning it would house 30 people. In Tokyo, we will keep our 20 people and perhaps give them other work. Interior and graphics design especially plays a major role there.
How are things proceeding at your U.S. studio?
We are very well positioned there. Since we moved from Irvine to Carlsbad in 2008 we have three times more space. This expansion was necessary, not least of all to soak up influences from our important U.S. market. We now employ 25 staff there, and that is a good figure.
Are there special influences from the U.S. market that have flowed into Mercedes design?
It's generally true that we have a global Mercedes design. And we don't want to permit any local variations. We're traditionally considered to be the ambassadors of German and European luxury. Our brand stands for style leadership. At most, I can imagine some special features in the interior. For example, we are working on a red silk interior, which certainly would go over well in China.
And now you are also working on helicopters.
Yes, that is the most recent example of our Mercedes-Benz Style project, our product design branch, for helicopters, boats, furniture and much more. We launched the business in May 2010 and want to expand it with select partners.
How is it that you lured Karim Habib from BMW to Mercedes, then he returned to BMW barely two years later with all the collected knowledge about your future?
It shows me how our competition is extremely interested in our design competency.