Chris Bangle (link) was born in Ravenna, Ohio, USA in 1956. After attending the University of Wisconsin and graduating from Art Center College of Design (Pasadena, California), Chris Bangle began his career at Opel in 1981. He then moved on to Fiat in 1985, where he designed the brazen Coupé Fiat. In 1992 Chris Bangle was named the first American Chief of Design at BMW, where he was responsible for bringing the designs of BMW, Mini, and Rolls Royce into the twenty-first century. After resigning from BMW in 2009, Chris Bangle moved to Clavesana (near Turin, Italy), where he founded Chris Bangle Associates, a design consultancy and management company, together with his wife Catherine.
Questions for Chris Bangle:
When did you know you wanted to be automobile designer?
Chris Bangle: When I was a kid I liked to draw cars and airplanes and other things (ships were kind of hard to draw in perspective) and I built my share of model cars. But at that time no one had ever heard of the idea of having a job to be paid to invent car design. “Designers” were people who did the First Ladies wardrobe or your Aunt’s hair-do. I only really learned about the career path when I was almost in college and had a chance to visit Art Center College of Design in Pasadena California, where I eventually would be getting my degree. Having said all that, the type of childhood I had, surrounded by a “maker” family; going to an apprenticeship-oriented high school, all that helped configure my destination as being a creative one.
Biggest challenges to being an automobile designer?
Chris Bangle: Probably, like in any job of passions, the biggest challenge is “learning to let go.” As a young designer you must learn to let your sketch go into the hands of modelers who must interpret it in 3 dimensions; as the selected designer on a project you must accept the changes imposed on your ideas by others; if you are fortunate enough to have your design go into production you must entrust the whole “birthing process of your baby” to an army of unknown engineers and technicians; as a young manager-designer you have to put your ego behind you and allow the other designers in your team to take the lead on an idea; as a studio manager you must know how not to interfere and encourage your own designers to do the work; as a Brand Chief you must work through your Studio Chiefs and acknowledge their contribution; and finally as a Group Design Director one needs to recognize and accept the responsibility that each of your Brand Chiefs has as the Voice of their particular Marque. And above all, as an outgoing Director, you must help the company find and groom your replacement instead of clinging to your desk until the inevitable becomes a bitter end, and believe me the industry is full of more bad examples of this than good. All this time you must maintain your self-respect as a creative person by honing and tuning your design insights and skills and satisfactions to the REAL issues at hand. A car’s character is shaped and its design achieved only partially through the pencil and the clay tool. To this end the proudest achievement I had at BMW was in co-creating their design culture.
Setbacks: What have you overcome? What did you learn from setbacks?
Chris Bangle: Accepting the dualistic nature of critique and praise is no easy thing; both are coins of two or more, if you can imagine that, sides. What I learned is that it really is as they say, that life is only understandable looking backwards but must be lived forward. There is no better example of the perplexity, anguish, joy, and insecurity inherent in that statement than in car design.
What is your personal highlight/proudest moment?
Chris Bangle: Certainly maintaining a 30+ year marriage with the woman I love is something I am proud to have achieved, easily matched by the birth and maturity into adulthood of our son. Along the way I made great friends, did some cars, built a cool house, and, as I said before, made some contributions to a fantastic design culture in 3 automotive OEMs and now with a bunch of our CBA clients!
Advice for those who dream of starting or following in your footsteps?
Chris Bangle: I had more than my share of luck no doubt, but luck is also, in the words of that great car designer Vince Lombardi, “When preparation meets opportunity”. So perhaps I did contribute a bit to that luck, but still many persons are to thank for the accomplishments I was associated with. If you are thinking of following anyone’s footsteps reflect on that concept; what preparation can you undertake and what sort of opportunities are likely to come your way. Many talented young designers think they can realize their dreams in an autodidact manner and that with the internet all sorts of networking contacts are easy, but in reality it is not so; the great design schools also exist to provide a time-tested forum for opportunity, meeting the design chiefs of the car companies.
What is the art of the automobile? Why do people love cars? What makes them special?
Chris Bangle: If only people loved cars more! Cars are the greatest sculptures of our age, still considering every one you see was at some time in their development crafted by men and women using the tools of Michaelangelo’s age. But in reality they have the ability to work as “avatars, ourselves in another format, that make them appealing representations of our dreams and desires for self-image. Much has to do with their public nature; they are not hidden under your cuff like a showy watch and the fact that they have themselves personalities of power, grace, and a host of other gestural, spiritual, and functional “intentions”. However, as I intoned, it is not a “given” that this fascination with a ton-and-a-half of moving machine will remain so for future generations; already the desirability and engagement factor of the car is on the wane with young persons in the USA, Europe, and Japan. When cars become truly “self’driving” and are accepted for what they are, a cross between a horizontal elevator and a taxi, it will most likely be the death knell for car design (who ever heard of going to school to study “elevator design”?) and maybe even the automobile companies themselves (if you grow up in a household with a self-driving car I doubt you would be highly motivated to go get a driver’s license of your own, much less want to buy your own elevator…oops, I mean “auto-mo-bile”).
What is a happy memory in or of a car for you?
Chris Bangle: The feel of the bumps in the steering wheel against my head as my father turned the steering wheel in his Ford when he took us on a long drive. As a 5 or 6 year old I would go to sleep with my head on his lap as he drove and the steering wheel would brush against me, talk about safety conscious!! Also my sister and I would curl up in the foot-wells of the back seat and look at the stars going by through the side windows: we were just small enough to fit in there with our legs draped over the centre tunnel. The dull roar of the driveline and exhaust pipe and road going by underneath put us to sleep there too, but when our parents fished us out it must have been like trying to extract sleeping dogs from a bucket!
Which car (year/make) do you feel was/has been a beautiful/attractive/sexy car and why?
Chris Bangle: I was recently asked to compare the beauty factor of several cars and what I learned from my research was how many ways we perceive beauty in nature and in the forms of our fellow “human beans”. Sexiness is, of course, one aspect we prescribe to cars but on closer analysis it gets sort of weird, besides the “big round wheels” that have some sort of Freudian basis I suppose. If you look at the cars of the 30’s you see what one might call “tragic beauty”; a sort of un-achievableness that their style has that we can only appreciate for afar (you had to live back then to in fact use them). If any beauty was ever called “tragic”, then that would be it.
Describe cars in 1 word and explain why.
Chris Bangle: I find the description of doing “true” car design in one word much easier: “endeavour”. To go beyond limits, do your ultimate effort and achieve impossible dream or die in the attempt.
Causes and charities you believe in and why:
Chris Bangle: Actually we have started this year our own charity organization; the Big Bench Community Project. It came about because one of our “art” initiatives, we made a gigantic big red park bench here in our vineyard five years ago, has expanded into a real movement of big colorful benches popping up all over the place. They are made from steel and wood and are over 3 meters long, and a great joy to sit upon and appreciate the beautiful Langhe countryside here. You feel like a small kid again sitting up there! There are 8 already installed and about that many in some phase of planning or construction as I write. It is not a new idea, oversized furniture and benches like these have been around forever, but our design is a bit particular and the people really want to make theirs “just like ours”. Now we have decided to help them but also to make available to local artisans the designs for Big Bench related products they can make and sell. We have begun with beautiful silver “charm bracelet bench” that has the community name engraved in it and enameled with the specific colors of that bench. A part of the money the artisans make, we ask to be donated to our Big Bench Community Project and we will give all of that to the communities that host the benches. It is small and very local of course but also very much appreciated.
What’s next for you? What goals and dreams remain for you?
Chris Bangle: Our studio and home here in this Clavesana, Borgata will hopefully continue to be a magnet for talent and a great place to experiment in art and design. We want to be good citizens and neighbors here too; the more we can involve the local persons and create a bond between them and the world beyond through design the more we will be using our talents to a good end. And of course entwined in all of that is my car designer nature to use every creative opportunity to challenge, learn, and grow. And by that I mean myself in the first place!