TED2002

Chris Bangle: Great cars are great art

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American designer Chris Bangle explains his philosophy that car design is an art form in its own right, with an entertaining -- and ultimately moving -- account of the BMW Group's Deep Blue project, intended to create the SUV of the future.

- Car designer
Car design is a ubiquitous but often overlooked art form. As chief of design for the BMW Group, Chris Bangle has overseen cars that have been seen the world over, including BMW 7 Series and the Z4 roadster. Full bio

What I want to talk about is, as background,
00:26
is the idea that cars are art.
00:29
This is actually quite meaningful to me,
00:31
because car designers tend to be a little bit low on the totem pole --
00:34
we don't do coffee table books with just one lamp inside of it --
00:38
and cars are thought so much as a product
00:41
that it's a little bit difficult to get into the aesthetic side
00:44
under the same sort of terminology that one would discuss art.
00:47
And so cars, as art, brings it into an emotional plane -- if you accept that --
00:50
that you have to deal with on the same level you would with art with a capital A.
00:56
Now at this point you're going to see a picture of Michelangelo.
00:59
This is completely different than automobiles.
01:02
Automobiles are self-moving things, right? Elevators are automobiles.
01:05
And they're not very emotional; they solve a purpose;
01:11
and certainly automobiles have been around for 100 years
01:14
and have made our lives functionally a lot better in many ways;
01:17
they've also been a real pain in the ass,
01:20
because automobiles are really the thing we have to solve.
01:22
We have to solve the pollution, we have to solve the congestion --
01:26
but that's not what interests me in this speech.
01:29
What interests me in this speech is cars. Automobiles may be what you use,
01:32
but cars are what we are, in many ways.
01:37
And as long as we can solve the problems of automobiles,
01:40
and I believe we can, with fuel cells or hydrogen, like BMW is really hip on,
01:44
and lots of other things, then I think we can look past that
01:48
and try and understand why this hook is in many of us --
01:51
of this car-y-ness -- and what that means, what we can learn from it.
01:55
That's what I want to get to. Cars are not a suit of clothes;
01:59
cars are an avatar. Cars are an expansion of yourself:
02:02
they take your thoughts, your ideas, your emotions, and they multiply it --
02:06
your anger, whatever. It's an avatar.
02:10
It's a super-waldo that you happen to be inside of, and if you feel sexy,
02:13
the car is sexy. And if you're full of road rage,
02:16
you've got a "Chevy: Like a Rock," right?
02:18
Cars are a sculpture -- did you know this?
02:21
That every car you see out there is sculpted by hand.
02:24
Many people think, "Well, it's computers,
02:27
and it's done by machines and stuff like that."
02:29
Well, they reproduce it, but the originals are all done by hand.
02:31
It's done by men and women who believe a lot in their craft.
02:34
And they put that same kind of tension into the sculpting of a car
02:38
that you do in a great sculpture that you would go and look at in a museum.
02:42
That tension between the need to express, the need to discover,
02:45
then you put something new into it,
02:49
and at the same time you have bounds of craftsmanship.
02:51
Rules that say, this is how you handle surfaces;
02:54
this is what control is all about; this is how you show you're a master of your craft.
02:57
And that tension, that discovery, that push for something new --
03:01
and at the same time, that sense of obligation
03:04
to the regards of craftsmanship --
03:06
that's as strong in cars as it is in anything.
03:08
We work in clay, which hasn't changed much
03:10
since Michelangelo started screwing around with it,
03:12
and there's a very interesting analogy to that too.
03:15
Real quickly -- Michelangelo once said he's there to "discover the figure within," OK?
03:18
There we go, the automobile.
03:24
That was 100 years right there -- did you catch that?
03:26
Between that one there, and that one there, it changed a lot didn't it?
03:28
OK, it's not marketing; there's a very interesting car concept here,
03:31
but the marketing part is not what I want to talk about here.
03:35
I want to talk about this.
03:37
Why it means you have to wash a car, what is it, that sensuality
03:39
you have to touch about it? That's the sculpture that goes into it. That sensuality.
03:41
And it's done by men and women working just like this, making cars.
03:46
Now this little quote about sculpture from Henry Moore,
03:51
I believe that that "pressure within" that Moore's talking about --
03:53
at least when it comes to cars --
03:56
comes right back to this idea of the mean.
03:58
It's that will to live, that need to survive, to express itself,
04:01
that comes in a car, and takes over people like me.
04:04
And we tell other people, "Do this, do this, do this," until this thing comes alive.
04:06
We are completely infected. And beauty can be the result
04:10
of this infectiousness; it's quite wonderful.
04:14
This sculpture is, of course, at the heart of all of it,
04:16
and it's really what puts the craftsmanship into our cars.
04:19
And it's not a whole lot different, really, when they're working like this,
04:22
or when somebody works like this.
04:26
It's that same kind of commitment, that same kind of beauty.
04:28
Now, now I get to the point. I want to talk about cars as art.
04:31
Art, in the Platonic sense, is truth; it's beauty, and love.
04:34
Now this is really where designers in car business diverge from the engineers.
04:38
We don't really have a problem talking about love.
04:42
We don't have a problem talking about truth or beauty in that sense.
04:44
That's what we're searching for --
04:47
when we're working our craft, we are really trying to find that truth out there.
04:49
We're not trying to find vanity and beauty.
04:52
We're trying to find the beauty in the truth.
04:54
However, engineers tend to look at things a little bit more Newtonian,
04:56
instead of this quantum approach.
05:00
We're dealing with irrationalisms,
05:02
and we're dealing with paradoxes that we admit exist,
05:04
and the engineers tend to look things a little bit more like
05:06
two and two is four, and if you get 4.0 it's better, and 4.000 is even better.
05:08
And that sometimes leads to bit of a divergence
05:13
in why we're doing what we're doing.
05:17
We've pretty much accepted the fact, though,
05:19
that we are the women in the organization at BMW --
05:21
BMW is a very manly type business, -- men, men, men; it's engineers.
05:23
And we're kind of the female side to that. That's OK,
05:26
that's cool. You go off and be manly. We're going to be a little bit more female.
05:29
Because what we're interested in is finding form that's more than just a function.
05:32
We're interested in finding beauty that's more than just an aesthetic;
05:39
it's really a truth.
05:42
And I think this idea of soul, as being at the heart of great cars,
05:44
is very applicable. You all know it. You know a car when you've seen it,
05:47
with soul. You know how strong this is.
05:50
Well, this experience of love, and the experience of design, to me,
05:52
are interchangeable. And now I'm coming to my story.
05:56
I discovered something about love and design through a project called Deep Blue.
05:59
And first of all, you have to go with me for a second, and say,
06:04
you know, you could take the word "love" out of a lot of things in our society,
06:08
put the word "design" in, and it still works,
06:11
like this quote here, you know. It kind of works, you know?
06:13
You can understand that. It works in truisms.
06:16
"All is fair in design and war."
06:19
Certainly we live in a competitive society.
06:21
I think this one here, there's a pop song
06:23
that really describes Philippe Starck for me, you know, this is like
06:25
you know, this is like puppy love, you know, this is cool right?
06:29
Toothbrush, cool.
06:32
It really only gets serious when you look at something like this. OK?
06:34
(Laughter)
06:37
This is one substitution that I believe
06:39
all of us, in design management, are guilty of.
06:41
And this idea that there is more to love,
06:43
more to design, when it gets down to your neighbor, your other,
06:47
it can be physical like this, and maybe in the future it will be.
06:53
But right now it's in dealing with our own people,
06:56
our own teams who are doing the creating. So, to my story.
06:58
The idea of people-work is what we work with here,
07:03
and I have to make a bond with my designers when we're creating BMWs.
07:06
We have to have a shared intimacy, a shared vision --
07:10
that means we have to work as one family;
07:13
we have to understand ourselves that way.
07:15
There's good times; there's interesting times;
07:17
and there's some stress times too.
07:20
You want to do cars, you've got to go outside.
07:22
You've got to do cars in the rain; you've got to do cars in the snow.
07:24
That's, by the way, is a presentation we made to our board of directors.
07:27
We haul their butts out in the snow, too. You want to know cars outside?
07:30
Well, you've got to stand outside to do this.
07:33
And because these are artists, they have very artistic temperaments.
07:35
All right? Now one thing about art is, art is discovery,
07:40
and art is discovering yourself through your art. Right?
07:45
And one thing about cars is we're all a little bit like Pygmalion,
07:48
we are completely in love with our own creations.
07:52
This is one of my favorite paintings, it really describes our relationship with cars.
07:55
This is sick beyond belief.
08:00
(Laughter)
08:02
But because of this, the intimacy with which we work together as a team
08:04
takes on a new dimension, a new meaning.
08:08
We have a shared center; we have a shared focus --
08:12
that car stays at the middle of all our relationships.
08:15
And it's my job, in the competitive process, to narrow this down.
08:19
I heard today about Joseph's death genes
08:24
that have to go in and kill cell reproduction.
08:28
You know, that's what I have to do sometimes.
08:31
We start out with 10 cars; we narrow it down to five cars,
08:34
down to three cars, down to two cars, down to one car,
08:37
and I'm in the middle of that killing, basically.
08:40
Someone's love, someone's baby.
08:44
This is very difficult, and you have to have a bond with your team
08:46
that permits you to do this, because their life is wrapped up in that too.
08:49
They've got that gene infected in them as well,
08:53
and they want that to live, more than anything else.
08:56
Well, this project, Deep Blue, put me in contact with my team
09:00
in a way that I never expected, and I want to pass it on to you,
09:03
because I want you to reflect on this, perhaps in your own relationships.
09:06
We wanted to a do a car which was a complete leap of faith for BMW.
09:08
We wanted to do a team which was so removed from the way we'd done it,
09:13
that I only had a phone number that connected me to them.
09:17
So, what we did was: instead of having a staff of artists that are just your wrist,
09:20
we decided to free up a team of creative designers and engineers
09:25
to find out what's the successor to the SUV phenomenon in America.
09:29
This is 1996 we did this project. And so we sent them off with this team name,
09:33
Deep Blue. Now many people know Deep Blue from IBM --
09:39
we actually stole it from them because we figured
09:41
if anybody read our faxes they'd think we're talking about computers.
09:43
It turned out it was quite clever because Deep Blue,
09:46
in a company like BMW, has a hook -- "Deep Blue," wow, cool name.
09:48
So people get wrapped up in it. And we took a team of designers,
09:52
and we sent them off to America. And we gave them a budget,
09:55
what we thought was a set of deliverables,
09:58
a timetable, and nothing else.
10:00
Like I said, I just had a phone number that connected me to them.
10:02
And a group of engineers worked in Germany,
10:04
and the idea was they would work separately
10:07
on this problem of what's the successor to the SUV.
10:09
They would come together, compare notes. Then they would work apart,
10:12
come together, and they would produce together
10:15
a monumental set of diverse opinions that didn't pollute each other's ideas --
10:17
but at the same time came together and resolved the problems.
10:21
Hopefully, really understand the customer at its heart,
10:24
where the customer is, live with them in America. So -- sent the team off,
10:27
and actually something different happened. They went other places.
10:33
(Laughter)
10:37
They disappeared, quite honestly, and all I got was postcards.
10:40
Now, I got some postcards of these guys in Las Vegas,
10:47
and I got some postcards of these guys in the Grand Canyon,
10:50
and I got these postcards of Niagara Falls,
10:52
and pretty soon they're in New York, and I don't know where else.
10:54
And I'm telling myself, "This is going to be a great car,
10:57
they're doing research that I've never even thought about before."
11:01
Right? And they decided that instead of, like, having a studio,
11:06
and six or seven apartments,
11:13
it was cheaper to rent Elizabeth Taylor's ex-house in Malibu.
11:16
And -- at least they told me it was her house,
11:20
I guess it was at one time, she had a party there or something.
11:23
But anyway, this was the house, and they all lived there.
11:26
Now this is 24/7 living, half-a-dozen people who'd left their --
11:31
some had left their wives behind and families behind,
11:36
and they literally lived in this house
11:39
for the entire six months the project was in America,
11:41
but the first three months were the most intensive.
11:44
And one of the young women in the project,
11:47
she was a fantastic lady, she actually built her room in the bathroom.
11:49
The bathroom was so big, she built the bed over the bathtub --
11:53
it's quite fascinating.
11:56
On the other hand, I didn't know anything about this. OK?
11:58
Nothing. This is all going on, and all I'm getting is postcards
12:02
of these guys in Las Vegas, or whatever,
12:05
saying, "Don't worry Chris, this is really going to be good." OK?
12:07
So my concept of what a design studio was probably --
12:10
I wasn't up to speed on where these guys were.
12:13
However, the engineers back in Munich
12:16
had taken on this kind of Newtonian solution,
12:19
and they were trying to find how many cup holders
12:23
can dance on the head of a pin, and, you know,
12:25
these really serious questions that are confronting the modern consumer.
12:27
And one was hoping that these two teams would get together,
12:32
and this collusion of incredible creativity,
12:35
under these incredible surroundings,
12:37
and these incredibly stressed-out engineers,
12:39
would create some incredible solutions.
12:42
Well, what I didn't know was, and what we found out was --
12:45
these guys, they can't even like talk to each other under those conditions.
12:48
You get a divergence of Newtonian and quantum thinking at that point,
12:53
you have a split in your dialog that is so deep, and so far,
12:57
that they cannot bring this together at all.
13:03
And so we had our first meeting, after three months, in Tiburon,
13:07
which is just up the road from here -- you know Tiburon?
13:11
And the idea was after the first three months of this independent research
13:14
they would present it all to Dr. Goschel --
13:17
who is now my boss, and at that time he was co-mentor on the project --
13:19
and they would present their results.
13:22
We would see where we were going,
13:24
we would see the first indication of what could be
13:26
the successive phenomenon to the SUV in America.
13:28
And so I had these ideas in my head, that this is going to be great.
13:32
I mean, I'm going to see so much work, it's so intense --
13:35
I know probably Las Vegas meant a lot about it,
13:37
and I'm not really sure where the Grand Canyon came in either --
13:40
but somehow all this is going to come together,
13:42
and I'm going to see some really great product.
13:45
So we went to Tiburon, after three months,
13:47
and the team had gotten together the week before,
13:49
many days ahead of time.
13:52
The engineers flew over, and designers got together with them,
13:55
and they put their presentation together.
13:59
Well, it turns out that the engineers hadn't done anything.
14:02
And they hadn't done anything because --
14:08
kind of, like in car business, engineers are there to solve problems,
14:11
and we were asking them to create a problem.
14:16
And the engineers were waiting for the designers to say,
14:19
"This is the problem that we've created, now help us solve it."
14:22
And they couldn't talk about it. So what happened was,
14:26
the engineers showed up with nothing.
14:30
And the engineers told the designers,
14:33
"If you go in with all your stuff, we'll walk out,
14:35
we'll walk right out of the project."
14:39
So I didn't know any of this,
14:42
and we got a presentation that had an agenda, looked like this.
14:44
There was a whole lot of dialog.
14:46
We spent four hours being told all about vocabulary
14:49
that needs to be built between engineers and designers.
14:52
And here I'm expecting at any moment, "OK, they're going to turn the page,
14:56
and I'm going to see the cars, I'm going to see the sketches,
14:59
I'm going to see maybe some idea of where it's going."
15:01
Dialog kept on going, with mental maps of words, and pretty soon
15:04
it was becoming obvious that instead of being dazzled with brilliance,
15:09
I was seriously being baffled with bullshit.
15:12
And if you can imagine what this is like,
15:16
to have these months of postcard indication of how great this team is working,
15:18
and they're out there spending all this money, and they're learning,
15:22
and they're doing all this stuff.
15:24
I went fucking ballistic, right? I went nuts.
15:27
You can probably remember Tiburon, it used to look like this.
15:33
After four hours of this, I stood up, and I took this team apart.
15:38
I screamed at them, I yelled at them, "What the hell are you doing?
15:43
You're letting me down, you're my designers,
15:47
you're supposed to be the creative ones,
15:49
what the hell is going on around here?"
15:51
It was probably one of my better tirades, I have some good ones,
15:53
but this was probably one of my better ones. And I went into these people;
15:56
how could they take BMW's money,
15:59
how could they have a holiday for three months and produce nothing, nothing?
16:01
Because of course they didn't tell us that they had three station wagons
16:07
full of drawings, model concepts, pictures -- everything I wanted,
16:12
they'd locked up in the cars, because they had shown solidarity with the engineers --
16:19
and they'd decided not to show me anything,
16:24
in order to give the chance for problem solving a chance to start,
16:27
because they hadn't realized, of course,
16:30
that they couldn't do problem creating.
16:32
So we went to lunch --
16:34
(Laughter)
16:36
And I've got to tell you, this was one seriously quiet lunch.
16:41
The engineers all sat at one end of the table,
16:44
the designers and I sat at the other end of the table, really quiet.
16:46
And I was just fucking furious, furious. OK?
16:49
Probably because they had all the fun and I didn't, you know.
16:56
That's what you get furious about right?
16:58
And somebody asked me about Catherine, my wife, you know,
17:00
did she fly out with me or something?
17:02
I said, "No," and it triggered a set of thoughts about my wife.
17:04
And I recalled that when Catherine and I were married,
17:08
the priest gave a very nice sermon, and he said something very important.
17:12
He said, "Love is not selfish," he said,
17:17
"Love does not mean counting how many times I say, 'I love you.'
17:20
It doesn't mean you had sex this many times this month,
17:24
and it's two times less than last month,
17:27
so that means you don't love me as much.
17:29
Love is not selfish." And I thought about this, and I thought,
17:31
"You know, I'm not showing love here. I'm seriously not showing love.
17:36
I'm in the air, I'm in the air without trust.
17:44
This cannot be. This cannot be that I'm expecting a certain number of sketches,
17:48
and to me that's my quantification method for qualifying a team.
17:53
This cannot be."
17:58
So I told them this story. I said, "Guys, I'm thinking about something here,
18:00
this isn't right. I can't have a relationship with you guys
18:03
based on a premise that is a quantifiable one.
18:07
Based on a dictate premise that says, 'I'm a boss, you do what I say, without trust.'"
18:10
I said "This can't be."
18:18
Actually, we all broke down into tears, to be quite honest about it,
18:20
because they still could not tell me how much frustration they had built up
18:26
inside of them, not being able to show me what I wanted,
18:31
and merely having to ask me to trust them that it would come.
18:35
And I think we felt much closer that day,
18:40
we cut a lot of strings that didn't need to be there,
18:43
and we forged the concept for what real team and creativity is all about.
18:46
We put the car back at the center of our thoughts, and we put love,
18:51
I think, truly back into the center of the process.
18:55
By the way, that team went on to create six different concepts
18:59
for the next model of what would be the proposal
19:02
for the next generation after SUVs in America.
19:05
One of those was the idea of a crossover coupes --
19:08
you see it downstairs, the X Coupe -- they had a lot of fun with that.
19:12
It was the rendition of our motorcycle,
19:17
the GS, as Carl Magnusson says, "brute-iful,"
19:20
as the idea of what could be a motorcycle, if you add two more wheels.
19:24
And so, in conclusion, my lesson that I wanted to pass on to you,
19:29
was this one here. I'm also going to steal a little quote out of "Little Prince."
19:33
There's a lot to be said about trust and love,
19:37
if you know that those two words are synonymous for design.
19:40
I had a very, very meaningful relationship with my team that day,
19:43
and it's stayed that way ever since.
19:47
And I hope that you too find that there's more to design,
19:49
and more towards the art of the design, than doing it yourself.
19:53
It's true that the trust and the love, that makes it worthwhile.
19:57
Thanks so much.
20:01
(Applause)
20:03
Translated by Jenny Zurawell

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About the Speaker:

Chris Bangle - Car designer
Car design is a ubiquitous but often overlooked art form. As chief of design for the BMW Group, Chris Bangle has overseen cars that have been seen the world over, including BMW 7 Series and the Z4 roadster.

Why you should listen

American designer Chris Bangle understands that it can be difficult to see a car in terms of Art with a capital A. As such, he separates his work into issues of "automobiles" (unemotional products, causing problems such as pollution and congestion) and "car-iness" (an expansion of the human, and ultimately a truly artistic expression). Satisfying the tensions between these problems -- and the tensions between engineers and designers -- is, for him, the essence of his work.

Offering radical forms and ideas, Bangle has been a polarizing figure within the industry; he has overseen all of the brands within the BMW family, including Mini and Rolls-Royce. In 2009, Bangle left BMW to pursue his own personal design interests and develop his consulting firm, Chris Bangle Associates.

More profile about the speaker
Chris Bangle | Speaker | TED.com