Mercedes-Benz and parent company Daimler AG are going through an interesting transition. With such a rich heritage that spans over a century, in recent years this most traditional of carmakers has successfully repositioned itself as a luxury lifestyle brand with products as wide and varied as Smart city commuters, premium Mercedes cars, high-performance and technical AMGs and luxurious Maybachs.
Lately, the marque has been consumed with creating an all-electric family under the EQ banner. The EQA, EQB, EQC SUV and most recently the EQS – the names closely follow Mercedes-Benz’s A to S product line – are incredibly advanced cars with a unique and progressive design ethos. What’s more, Daimler has pledged to offer all its products with electric power by 2022.
In the midst of the coronavirus lockdown over a Skype call, I spoke with Gorden Wagener, the chief design officer for Daimler AG and Mercedes-Benz. I want to get a fuller understanding of how he orchestrates the design and development of so many products within the Daimler group and how he sees the brand evolving in the age of electrification and beyond.
Nargess Banks: These are clearly strange time for all of us. How are you managing your various teams and the global studios under these pandemic restrictions?
Gorden Wagener: As you know we have design networks across Europe, Asia and the US and although we had the digital tools in place, we didn’t use them. Now that we’ve put them to use, it is amazing to see what you can do with video conferencing, presenting cars virtually and sharing visual information in a secure environment. What I miss though are the physical creative sessions. But we have to cope with the new situation the best we can.
NB: As we move ever closer to electrification, large car companies like yours are juggling the mainstream products and newcomers – in your case the EQ electric cars. Do you have a common design theme in which to operate this complex web?
GW: Everything we do for EQ, Mercedes, AMG and Maybach is under the “Sensual Purity” headline – this is our design philosophy and our soul. It is really important for a luxury maker to have an overall philosophy. We treat this as an operating system with different interpretations of the theme for our various brands since each one stands for a very different kind of luxury. There is a big sustainability component to all of this too, as luxury has to show responsibility for the environment. This is really crucial for us.
NB: Can you define how you see the various brands?
GW: Maybach offers ultimate luxury, AMG is performance luxury, Mercedes is modern luxury and EQ is the progressive luxury of the future. Each brand has its own distinctive face expressed through the grille, with Mercedes having the sports and classic grille.
NB: How far can you interpret Sensual Purity within this context?
GW: We keep on pushing the concept. The extreme would be for AMG, which is more dramatic, sexy and extravagant. Then for EQ, Sensual Purity is highly reduced, simple and seamless – it is the integration of every element.
NB: So, you see the EQ as an independent sub-brand, or will elements of its design thinking filter to the mainstream family of cars?
GW: Eventually we would like to see this happen, but for now I see EQ as an independent brand taking on the whole (Mercedes product) family from A to S. It provides a great opportunity for us to explore each of these areas under the EQ badge.
NB: EQ offers a chance to forge a new chapter – the cars, especially the 2019 Vision EQS, make a bold statement for Mercedes design. How would you define the design language of this electric arm and how radically different is this from the mainstream family?
GW: The flagship of the sub-brand, Vision EQS, proposes a completely new design made possible through our electric platform. We are calling the design “one bow” – a super flush, super integrated design which makes the car look sporty and progressive. With its aerodynamic elegance, the EQS looks very different to anything else we’ve ever created.
NB: Show cars allow for much more creative freedom. How closely will the EQ production cars be to these innovative concept studies?
GW: Our Vision cars are around 80% reality, so you will see much of what is on the concept cars in our production EQs. This will include the face, which seamlessly blends the headlights and grille into one panel surface.
NB: Electric cars make little sound and most car companies are finding a voice to express their brand in the electric age. How do you envisage the sonic side of EQ?
GW: It’s an interesting subject. The electric car’s sound goes beyond driving. With cars becoming more and more intelligent and smarter, they will communicate over sound. Currently we’re working with our UX (user experience) people and sound engineers to see how a car can communicate with you over sound without being annoying.
NB: The EQ cars express premium transport for a new era. In the past you have expressed your desire to work with sustainable fabrics and find materials that express progressive luxury.
GW: Yes, we are always exploring new material ideas and looking at how best to bring these into production. I strongly believe that the sustainability aspect, being responsible, will be a crucial one in redefining future luxury.
NB: The shape-shifting and highly interactive Vision AVTR show car at this year’s CES, the consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, certainly took this theme on with some really interesting idea.
GW: For the concept car we worked with James Cameron’s “Avatar” movie team, who are very much into protecting the planet. We looked at ecological ideas such as Karuun wood (a stable rattan sourced from Indonesia) for the floor area, vegan microfiber leather and ocean recycled fabrics. It was a fascinating experience.
NB: How clean and sustainable will the EQ production cycle be?
GW: It isn’t only about how much energy the cars consume. Rather we look at the whole energy chain, the whole cycle, starting from production until the recycling.
NB: With vehicles becoming more and more intelligent, modern car design is an increasingly complex speciality. What skills do you look for?
GW: You’re absolutely right. In car design everything and every skill comes together. We have exterior stylists, sculptors, interior designers, product designers, fashion designers for color and trim, specialists for operational elements, steering wheels and buttons, product designers making the luxury accessories. Then there are coders and digital designers creating the user experience, the systems we see on and beyond the screens. We even work with our marketing colleagues on advertising campaigns. It works a bit like an orchestra with all these elements coming together.
NB: How involved are you personally with all the various steps? Equally how excited are you as a designer, as a creative, to be working on products that take vehicle design to a whole new level?
GW: As chief design officer I get involved in every aspect and every detail personally. It is my responsibility to look at each and every details of the company and all aspects of the brands. And it makes my job really exciting!
NB: The current global pandemic has highlighted the urgency to rethink how we live, work, travel in a much more holistic way. I’m interested to know your thoughts on how this moment in history is impacting on your design thinking.
GW: This is a difficult question and I don’t know the answer yet, but it will definitely change the world. It will be interesting to see how this will come across in terms of design – what role design will play in finding solutions for a better future. I am interested to see how whole cities will evolve following the pandemic.
NB: Talking of which, I recall a few years ago you did set out to visualize futuristic cities in your “Sensual Purity” brand book.
GW: Yes, we built an entire city in the book – an over-exaggerated dream world expressing how big our imagination can be. The role of a designer is to bring solutions to the table. We think 360-degrees at all aspect of design, cultural, societal, technical – everything comes together in design.
NB: Do these grand visions help position your work when you’re designing cars? I mean do you envisage the EQ cars in these fantastical future worlds.
GW: Yes, we always have the full picture on the radar. We do look back at what we have done, but with design you’re really sitting on a high-speed train constantly imagining new ideas. Our visionary concepts look ten to twenty years into the future and so my own views are constantly changing. You are progressing so much in your mind that you are thinking every moment, every day a new inspiration may come up and change things. The constant for us is the Sensual Purity philosophy. But then I also believe that sometimes you need to break away and do something crazy.
NB: Completely step back and then return for more clarity?
NB: Taking in all we’ve discussed how would you define your company in the modern age and into the future?
GW: I don’t see us as an automotive company so much but more of a lifestyle and luxury brand as our work goes way beyond cars. We already feature in the list of the most influential lifestyle brands and our vision, for the next ten years, is to make Mercedes the most loved luxury brand. We know we have the potential and to do so will come from design, from creating emotion. This doesn’t just come from the products, but the ecosystem around it.
Read more about the Mercedes EQS at the IAA Show; see Mercedes Vision 6 for a Maybach ultra luxurious electric car; see competitor Audi’s electric vision; and find out what happens when Mercedes, Bertone and GM designers take on the piano