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 these 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.