A group of high-profile designers have left BMW’s design studios over the past few years. Time to assess whose loss turned into whose gain.
This photo, taken in about 2006, depicts BMW Group design at the height of its creative powers. Unlike giants such as Ford, GM or VAG, BMW achieved the seemingly impossible in running each of the company’s core brands (BMW, Mini, Rolls-Royce) as a creatively self-sufficient unit. For that reason, a Mini didn’t come across like a de-contented BMW, nor did anybody mistake a Rolls-Royce for a tarted-up 7 series. Every BMW brand’s design possessed its own set of stylistic rules and values.
More than a decade later, none of the people depicted in the photo are in charge any more – apart of course from Adrian van Hooydonk, who’s been running BMW Group’s design fortunes for a decade this year.
The last two years of that reign have been somewhat overshadowed by an unprecedented creative drain though – unprecedented not just regarding BMW Group, but within the industry as a whole. With the Bavarians’ stylistic fortunes currently shrouded in controversy, it would appear to be the right time to take a look at what some of BMW design’s best and brightest chose over continuing their career within the German giant – and how their respective choices have served them.
The highest-profile fugitive, Karim Habib was in charge of the group’s BMW main brand before choosing to leave Germany for Japan and Nissan’s Infiniti brand in 2017.
Habib, whose breakthrough design was the BMW E60’s interior, had left BMW once before, for a brief stint at Mercedes-Benz, before swiftly returning to Munich. There he was promoted and eventually put in charge of BMW design in 2012. The BMW models recently unveiled to non-unanimous acclaim (X7, 7 series facelift, Z4, G20 3 series, 8 series) were developed under his watch.
On behalf of Infiniti, he most recently presented the QX Inspiration to the public, a run-of-the-mill luxury SUV concept car. How he intends to instil the insipid Infiniti brand’s design with genuine desirability remains unclear for the time being.
Renault-trained Benoît Jacob was in charge of the BMW i brand until 2016. The i3 and i8 models, which were and remain the Bavarian’s boldest stylistic statements since Chris Bangle’s departure in 2009, were designed under his supervision (their exterior designer, Richard Kim, has left BMW too).
Jacob’s new job isn’t too far removed from his duties at BMW i, as his new employer, Byton, is also intending to rewrite the automotive rulebook with an unorthodox product. Even certain graphic elements of the original i cars have reappeared on the Byton m-byte concept car.
A former Citroën and Jaguar designer, Giles Taylor spent his first few years as Rolls-Royce chief designer unveiling designs mostly created under his predecessor, Ian Cameron. Only the 103 EX concept car and the recently introduced Phantom and Cullinan models were designed in their entirety under Taylor’s watch. Which makes his surprise move to the Chinese FAW Group last summer all the more astounding – even to his former employer, who has yet (as of January 2019, more than six months after he’d announced his resignation) to appoint a replacement.
For the time being, Taylor’s plans at FAW remain as unclear as BMW’s plans regarding his replacement.
Being the designer responsible for some of the Bangle era’s most significant designs (BMW Z4, GINA, Mille Miglia Concept Coupé), Anders Warming appeared to be destined for great things within BMW Group. His appointment as Mini chief designer seemed to confirm this impression. Yet the Mini production models he oversaw failed to live up to that promise, despite two interesting concept cars (Superleggera, Vision Next 100) hinting at untapped potential.
His surprise move to reborn Borgward would cause quite a stir within the car design community – as did his first work at the Germany-based, Chinese-financed brand, the Isabella concept car unveiled at the 2017 Frankfurt Motor Show.
Since then, Borgward has had to endure a rather troublesome period, involving significant corporate reshuffling, which has seen first Warming lose executive status, before leaving Borgward entirely at the end of 2018.
For all the differences in their talents and style, what is striking is that three of these four designers have chosen to leave as established and reputed a company (and employer) as BMW behind, in favour of the relative uncertainty surrounding an upstart brand. Remuneration may have been one of the factors behind this decision, but it remains doubtful this was the primary motivation in each end every case – particularly given the risks involved.
No matter what the exact and detailed motives, what is beyond debate is that BMW lost a significant part of its creative competence within an astoundingly brief period of time. Coupled with the controversial reception of the most recent models’ design, one can only strongly suggest that those in charge at the Petuelring and Knorrstraße take a deep and thorough look at what went wrong these past few years.
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