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Bangle's designs bring attention to BMW

November 01, 2004|by JASON STEIN/Wheelbase Communications

Imagine being Chris Bangle.

Imagine being the head of BMW design, the automotive artist who sketches the look of the future and casts the die for generations to come.

Imagine being unpopular.

Don't believe it? Just ask him.

"I'm a cottage industry," Bangle recently told The Car Connection, an auto enthusiast website. "Without me, a lot of . . . folks wouldn't have anyone to write about."

Without Bangle, today's most controversial figure in the world of auto design, an industry would indeed have less to say.

There wouldn't be the criticism over his edgy redesign of BMW's flagship sedan, the 2002 7-Series, with the bulbous rear end. There wouldn't be the complaints over the tall X3 sport-utility vehicle or the daring, shark-like gills of the Z4 convertible.

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There wouldn't be the petitions (some 10,000 online signatures seeking his firing), conspiracy theories (some have suggested he's a Mercedes-Benz infiltrator who is trying to sabotage BMW) or websites created with one purpose: to get Bangle fired.

"Can you believe the enormous back end on that 7-Series?" one online petitioner recently wrote on the "Stop Chris Bangle" website.

"Crucify him!" replied another anti-Bangle post.

"Stop polluting the streets," said yet another.

How does Chris Bangle deal with the constant criticism? How does BMW's design czar cope with the constant jabs about his new-style design and the non-traditional changes at the traditional automaker.

It doesn't bother him one bit.

"I figure I have two generations left here to make an impact," he once said. "Just two shots."

If anything, Bangle, 47, has made BMW a conversation piece with its edgy design, a mandate that came from the company's board of directors who were looking for an image that moved BMW forward. And, like it or not, BMW is on everyone's tongue.

And he's not even German.

Born in rural Wisconsin, Bangle had an eye for art early in life. After attending the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., Bangle spent most of his career in Europe, including the last dozen at BMW.

From an early age, Bangle was confident and masterfully talented. Inspiration came from everything in life.

"Architecture, airplanes, boats, botany, cathedrals, domes - just go through the alphabet," Bangle once said.

After moving into BMW's design studio, Bangle sketched his way up the ranks, inspiring new forms of design and, eventually, some dramatic changes.

But the 2002 redesign of the 7-Series brought out all of the critics in full force.

"Some of the criticism," Bangle told The Car Connection, "is beyond ridiculous."

Listen to Bangle and it's easy to understand his frustration.

To an artist, any criticism is an insult. To Bangle, car designers are like sculptors.

"Paraphrasing Michelangleo," he once said, "we try to reveal the figure within the stone."

What can't be debated is BMW's success story, and the success story of the design studio.

When Bangle began at BMW, the automaker employed 150 people in the design center. Now there are 300. Since his arrival, the design center budget has been quadrupled.

Bangle is quick to point out that the automaker has never enjoyed the sales success it has seen these last few years. BMW sales hit a record high last year - with Mini's sales adding to its profitability.

And, complaints or praise, Bangle is still moving up the ladder.

Earlier this year, BMW announced Bangle would be the automaker's chief of design in the Development Division of BMW AG in Munich.

He is now responsible for overseeing every aspect of BMW Group's design globally, including BMW cars, sport-utility vehicles, motorcycles, motorsports, Mini cars, Rolls-Royce prototypes and lifestyle accessories.

In the new position, Bangle will cede day-to-day duties to Adrian Van Hooydonk, a 40-year-old Dutchman who was running DesignworksUSA, BMW Group's California design studio, since 2001 and is a direct Bangle disciple.

As for the critics, Bangle says it's never easy biting his tongue.

"You've got to resist the urge to take the quick shot," he said. "If you do anything, it's to give people a sense of calmness, coolness under fire."

He's keeping it calm and designing provocative product after provocative product.

More will come. More will be said. Just imagine being Chris Bangle.

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.

Copyright 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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