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Mercedes-Benz Chief Design Officer Gorden Wagener: "We create the extraordinary"
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How does a designer with a global reputation stage new trends while constantly being confronted with the buzz of the “editorial society”? How does he continuously develop the design of a world-renowned brand like Mercedes-Benz? Gorden Wagener, Chief Design Officer of the Daimler Group, sees social networks not only as a source of inspiration, but above all, as a helpful tool to measure the degree of irritation caused by the style of the brand’s projects. If you want to create something truly new in design and define the luxury of tomorrow, you have to consciously set yourself apart from the mainstream. This is an exclusive Ping! interview about collaborations, Karl Lagerfeld's claim and the question what German design tradition is lacking.
Ping!: Mr. Wagener, in the Editorial Society everyone is a sender and everyone is a receiver. To what extent does the opinion of networks influence the development of design?
Gorden Wagener: Of course, as a creative person you look for inspiration everywhere, including on the Internet, but with every new design process we first look inwards, drawing from ourselves. What we create is luxury. But what is luxury? The decisive term for us is "extraordinary". So we look for the extraordinary. We create the extraordinary.
The extraordinary polarizes people. Is that what you want?
Not everyone has to like it! Otherwise it would not be extra-ordinary, but mainstream. We want to and must stand out as luxury designers from mainstream designers. Take our current collaboration with Virgil Abloh...
... the artist and fashion designer...
... with whom we created the artwork "Project Geländewagen" together. We're receiving thrilled reactions throughout networks, especially from the fashion corner. And then there are the hardcore G-Class fans who think it's terrible. That's okay too! The opinions expressed on the web are a good indicator of what we trigger with our design. If we were to orient ourselves to the mainstream, we as Mercedes-Benz could never create anything really new. And the further you go as a designer, the more provocative and disturbing it becomes for people who are only in the here and now.
The Editorial Society allows you to have a real-time measurement of the irritation which you have created?
Whereby the reactions on the net are often expressed very impulsively; so you don't have to listen to every comment. Nevertheless, we at Mercedes continue to develop our design concept of "Sensual Purity" like an operating system, from version 2.0 to versions 3.0 and 4.0 - and thus shape the style of the company over time. Our claim is that this can be compared to designers in other industries who have also shaped style, such as Karl Lagerfeld.
Karl Lagerfeld once said: Design can never be democratic.
Did he really say that? That's what I say, and I heard it for the first time from a former chief designer of the Volkswagen Group: "We are democratic, up to a certain point. (laughs) If too many people have a say, a design dilutes. I need a clear opinion. A clear vision.
Lagerfeld said in his last interviews that he has a problem with the fast pace of our time. How do you approach the speed at which we find our lives taking place in?
Our design must be durable, especially as a luxury brand. Longlife design is a German virtue. If you buy luxury products, you spend more money, but you are looking for the lasting value. This is reflected in Sensual Purity in the aspect of Purity. We are taking up a German tradition that was founded by Bauhaus and later continued by the Ulm School. I find the reduction to the essentials to be something great. This approach is deeply rooted in German design tradition, it creates depth and longevity. This is what the "form follows function" discussion was based on, the intellectual foundation of design.
The concept that you don't just intuitively choose a design but specifically know why you choose to do it.
But the reason can only be beauty, and here "sensuality" is crucial: sensuality, the triggering of desire, sex appeal. I am a "True Believer in Beauty". By combining beauty and simplicity, we at Mercedes-Benz take design to a completely new level. In this respect you could say: in an un-German way.
What exactly do you mean by that?
Germany is the land of poets and thinkers, of intellectuals. Here, you always need a reason why things are the way they are. That's the rational side of design, which takes place in the brain. But the other side is missing, the heart, the emotion, which must not be neglected. For me, beauty is often the first driving force, beauty in the purely aesthetic, timeless sense. Per se, beautiful forms are soft and full, play with convex or concave shapes, often use materials like wood. But this builds upon the German design philosophy. The result is something completely new and unique.
Social megatrends such as sustainability are massively demanded on the Internet, and Daimler AG has declared this to be its corporate policy. To what extent do trends influence you as a designer?
As designers we stage trends. But trends per se are not tangible or visible for the time being. That's why we are initially concerned with questions: What is the staging of sustainability at Mercedes-Benz? Is it the material - Ocean Waste Plastic - that I use to make seat covers? The car of the future is a supercomputer on wheels. What must this supercomputer look like? As beautiful as a classic car? Or more techy? The answers to these questions are part of our concept of luxury for the future. Luxury has always included rarity, generates desire, and at the same time the concept of luxury is in a constant state of flux. The demanding thing for us designers is: We define tomorrow's luxury by deciding today what we will present to the public in the year 2025. So we have a lead time of between 5 and 10 years. It’s like architecture.
What type of longing are you aiming for in people?
Their longing for beauty and desire. That can also be seen on social media channels like Instagram. You rarely encounter non-aesthetic images there. Most of the time, thanks to Photoshop, everyone presents himself or herself as perfectly as he or she can. It is a perfect illusory world, perfectly filtered. The desire for beauty is also reflected - for example - in the number of followers on our channels, which of course focus on luxurious car design.
Throughout the Corona pandemic, the car proved to be a protected space. Does this change your view as a designer?
The car as a capsule that protects me from the outside world: All of this existed before. This concept is now being perfected. As early as 2015, we presented the F015, which went exactly into this direction: a car as a "rolling lounge". Today, this vision is not that far from the new reality, which is that cars will become a "third place", next to the workplace and the home. Cars will become life capsules. The UX interior will become the defining element of a car brand, where the supercomputer can be experienced by the customer. However, the old design principles also apply here.
"Simplicity of use" is a very important aspect: intuitive operation. Every pixel line on the screens that I can keep free of content is a good line. We design all elements sensually and clearly, in the style of the brand. Even if we deliberately incorporate extravagant breaks here and there.
To the person
Gorden Wagener has led the globally active design division of Daimler AG since mid-2008. For him, design shapes the brand and a holistic design approach is essential, since both the products and the brands of Daimler Group must be perfectly staged. Therefore, his internationally positioned team designs all of the company's brands and products - from automobiles to the holistic corporate design of all group brands. The focus of his work is the main brand Mercedes-Benz, for which the design philosophy of Sensual Purity, which defines modern luxury, was created under his leadership in 2009. It embodies the two characteristics of "hot" and "cool" and thus brings an essential aspect of the Mercedes-Benz brand - the bipolarity of emotion and intelligence - right to the point.