The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

The BMW brand has a new chief designer. Again. 

Jozef Kabaň – former newly-appointed BMW chief designer, photo (c) BMW Group

Two years and one month isn’t a long time by the standards of the automotive industry. Creating a car from scratch within such a period of time would be extremely difficult. Truly changing a marque’s design ethos would be utterly impossible.

Two years and one month is exactly how long the tenure of Jozef Kabaň as BMW chief designer turned out to last. During that period, the Bavarians unveiled an onslaught of new models, which left more than one commentator baffled (new 3 series) or even shocked (X7, 7 series facelift). Obviously, none of these cars were designed under Kabaň’s watch.

So for two years and one month, the Slovakian’s appointment had served as a silver lining on the sky above Munich Milbertshofen to anyone invested in the BMW brand and its design. After all, Kabaň came with the best of recommendations, courtesy of those who had previously worked with him, describing him as ‘his own man’, a ‘designer’s designer’, a ‘fighter’ – and, above all else, someone whose ambitions are centred around his craft, rather than corporate politics.

In the small world of car design, not many people are known for being in possession of competence and willpower in equal measure – which is exactly what would be needed to right a ship as dramatically off course as BMW design today.

However, over the course of these 25 months, the same people who had poached him from Škoda in the first place appear to have changed their minds, either about Kabaň or, more to the point, what they want in a brand chief designer.

Apparently, a ‘maverick’ isn’t what the BMW brand needs after all. Which means the era of Jozef Kabaň as BMW chief designer has come to a somewhat premature end – without even as much as a single concept car or a truly in-depth interview to showcase what he had set out to achieve at Milbertshofen.

Instead, he has been reassigned. So, after having remained vacant for almost a year, the post of Rolls-Royce chief designer is now Kabaň’s. A promotion this quite obviously isn’t.

Domagoj Đukec, newly-appointed BMW chief designer. Photo (c) BMW Group

Someone who has unquestionably been promoted though is Domagoj Đukec, formerly chief designer for BMW i & M-Divisions. Unlike his immediate predecessor, Đukec represents an in-house solution, what with him having joined BMW in 2010, initially as chief exterior designer for the core BMW brand, prior to being put in charge of the (by that point semi-dormant) i sub-brand. Hence the BMW iX3 and i Next concept cars ought to be considered his calling cards.

With all due respect to the highly professional, highly paid executives in charge at the Vierzylinder high-rise and elsewhere, the reasoning behind the hiring of Kabaň, the strong-willed outsider (which also would have involved expenditure on a scale most would consider considerable), only to neutralise him before he had shown his cards in public appears rather odd. 

Like every new appointee, Domagoj Đukec obviously deserves the benefit of the doubt. Yet the circumstances of this most recent round of musical chairs at BMW Group design leaves a rather unpleasant aftertaste. 

Given these circumstances, it also remains to be seen whether Jozef Kabaň’s tenure at Rolls-Royce will eventually exceed 25 months. For one might be tempted to suggest that these recent developments have done less harm to his personal reputation than to that of his employer.


The author of this piece runs his own motoring website, which you are welcome to visit at



Author: Christopher Butt

car design critic // runs // contributes to The Road Rat magazine // writes a column for Octane France //

7 thoughts on “The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same”

  1. I was similarly a mix of disappointment and curious when I read of this news. As you write, there is no way the outgoing newly-appointed man can have influenced much during his tenure at BMW. It might be fun to eventually see what he makes of RR, but my guess is also that he won’t be there long enough either for us to find out. At the moment, everyone is a loser as more recent Skoda efforts suggest that his influence is being missed there without us having seen the benefit of the same influence at BMW and now the hiatus looks only to be extending.

    1. Despite the fact that it hasn’t happened in a vacuum, it is only now truly becoming apparent how utterly changed a company BMW has become. The designs have become bizarre fairground mirror distortions of time-honoured Veirzylinder cues, the cars themselves (the neu-Drei’s reported dynamism notwithstanding) distinctly ordinary in technical, build and overall fitness for purpose terms. The senior management, it would appear, a collection of race to the bottom feeders; worryingly adrift and in thrall to the product strategists and locked into a futile and ultimately self-defeating battle for supremacy with their Sindelfingen rivals.

      I spotted what was for me, the first new-generation 3-Series at the weekend. A relatively high-spec model in that shade of deep metallic blue which featured on the launch photos. It was so stupefying inept, I almost laughed out loud. How this confection of Jackson Pollock-esque body creases, swage lines, vents and scoops co-existing in uneasy truce was signed off with a straight face lies far beyond my comprehension.

      Jozef Kabaň’s appointment for a time did seem to mark a chink of blue sky in a distinctly overcast firmament above the Petuelring, although I do recall saying at the time that it would only be successful if he was allowed the freedom to express himself. This has clearly not been forthcoming. That is a failure of management.

      BMW deserves better board-level stewardship than this.

    2. Likewise, Eóin, I saw the new 3-Series in the metal for thd first time when we dropped our Mini in for a service at Cooper Norwich, a BMW/Mini joint dealership. It is every bit as awful as I had feared. The treatment of the formerly sacrosanct “Hoffmeister Kink” is risible and seems to be modelled on a 50p coin, likewise the ugly front grille frame. The slashes and creases randomly overlaid on an undistinguished silhouette to add “emotion” are an absolute mess.

      It is beyond depressing to compare this with the sublime E39 5-Series and lovely E46 3-Series, never mind earlier sophisticated and elegant BMWs.

  2. Oh dear, this is not good news. BMW desperately needs a clean break from its current stale and overwrought design theme, and bringing in an outsider to lead this would seem to be a wholly rational move. One might infer from Kaban’s early demotion that either his masters didn’t like what he was proposing, or he simply wasn’t up to the task. Fair enough, but then to promote an insider associated with the current regime seems perverse, or indicative of a crisis of confidence within the company.

    Dukec’s calling cards are not encouraging: the iX3 is a very mild reworking of current mainstream BMW design tropes, while the iNext is like an XXL version of the i3, itself an interesting but polarizing design.

    One might wistfully recall the Bangle era, but he had only one unqualified saloon car success, the E60 5-series, which still looks more modern and current than the present model. The E90 3-series was a sad, dumpy thing with poor detailing (those Mitsubishi Carisma tail lights!) particularly after the sublime E46. The E65 7-Series, with its clamshell boot lid, strange head light arrangement, and a body side crease that stopped awkwardly as it touched the trailing shut line of the rear door, was just a bit weird in this most conservative of market segments.

    I genuinely wish Herr Dukec the best of luck, but I wouldn’t get the farm on a successful reinvention of BMW design anytime soon.

    1. Daniel, I put it to you that the E92 is up there as one of the top three BMW coupe designs. An underrated classic, in my view.

      I had no problem with Bangle’s exterior design revolution. He expanded BMW’s visual palette while still holding onto the thread that ran through every car they had made since the 1960s. It is not his fault that his legacy was squandered.

      The cabins, though – oh dear. They really were very poor compared with what had gone before.

    2. Hi Jacamo. Well, IMHO it’s better than the E90, certainly, but still a bit “fat” to my eyes. I’ll take the E46 coupé instead, if I may.

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