Gorden Wagener is Chief Design Officer at Mercedes-Benz and all the brands from Daimler AG based in Stuttgart, Germany. Wagener has been leading the company’s design team since 2008.
“You can’t design an icon by saying ‘let’s see where we end’. I always compare this with the Olympic Games. You can’t run a world record with a morning run approach. Same goes for design – do it with passion and be focused.”
Please tell your background, how did you start automotive design and join Daimler AG/Mercedes-Benz? and how long it’s been leading the group’s design team now?
(Gorden Wagener) I would say that I started designing cars within my time at school. I know that’s not complimentary for my teachers, but I used to get bored very quickly those days. So I started drawing, of course cars. Unfortunately I scribbled them everywhere, also on desks, which wasn’t so delighting my teachers (laughs) Since then I knew I want to be a car designer. My parents drove Mercedes, I grew up with a star on the hood, and here we are – within Mercedes-Benz design. I’m with Mercedes for more than 20 years now and since 2008 I’m responsible for all designs for all Daimler brands, so no excuses anymore.
Many automotive brands are repositioning themselves as a lifestyle brand and Mercedes-Benz has been successfully repositioned as a luxury lifestyle brand. How does this affect design process differently?
(GW) For me Mercedes-Benz was a luxury brand from the start at the beginning of the 20th century and is one more than ever. We in the design department always treated the three-pointed star as a luxury icon. The difference is that we just shaped our brand. Analysts, media and customers actually recognize that more and more brands try to act like a luxury brand, but talking is one thing, acting and delivering is something completely different. Thats what we do, delivering for more than 130 years now.
“I can feel and see perfect proportions. Proportion is everything in design. You could calculate the golden ratio and more, but that special feeling of perfect balanced proportions is really everything.”
What are the some of the factors that you didn’t consider when you first designing a car but now you do?
(GW) My first scribbles were definitely not game-changing (big laughs) but when I started my studies I experienced what you could call “I was struck by a design lightning”. We had lessons about classic sculpturing, painting and of course we were talking about what is successful and sustainable design. I definitely have one talent (Wagener looks to the ceiling like a prayer) that I can feel and see perfect proportions. And I immediately knew that this key, proportion is everything in design. You could calculate the golden ratio and more, but that special feeling of perfect balanced proportions is really everything. I am thankful for this, you can learn it to a certain extinct, of course, but I really can feel it. In a nutshell that’s what I do, bring all lines and shapes into balance, the perfect proportions. So now you know my secret of success.
Concept of ‘The New Luxury’ is actively being discussed these days. On our previous interview with Jeff Carvalho, co-founder of Highsnobiety, quotes “Old luxury, in the sense that the old rules of the closed door on Madison Avenue stores just doesn’t work anymore because accessibility and being part of the conversation are now really what new luxury is.” What is your opinion on luxury automotive brand like Mercedes-Benz being accessible?
(GW) Jeff is right, accessibility is definitely important for brands, also for luxury brands. I remember the quote “never judge a book by its cover”. This is not new, but more actual than ever. At Mercedes we open up doors for everyone. If you’re a fan of the brand, come in! If you want get into detail with our products, you’re welcome. And if we set you on fire for the star, take it for a ride. That’s one reason why we, in design team, are responsible for designing every touchpoint of the brand for our customers. We take you on a brand journey, an experience you’ll never forget. And once we made you a fan, we take care your love lasts forever.
What were the synergies from recent collaboration with Virgil Abloh?
(GW) We had a connection to each other from the very start, we laughed a lot and immediately started spinning our thoughts around what we could do. It took us just a short time to sum it all up in the G wagon. The following days, weeks and months then were intense, as we both are perfectionists. Our creative co-work was amazing and inspired the complete team that was awesome. I think this will last for a long while and we proved that a more than 130 year old luxury brand and very young creative team could join forces and create an unseen art pierce nobody would have expected.
How are Maybach, AMG, Mercedes, EQ — brands from Daimler Group — offer different values? and what are remained the same?
(GW) Each brand has its distinctive brand and design expression. When we invented Sensual Purity, our design philosophy, we worked on every sub-brand getting its own brand expression. You could immediately recognize which car belongs to each brand. Every brand has its own expression of its specific luxury, that’s unique in our business, and beyond! We have five different grills, we call them “faces” of our brand Mercedes, and each is connected to the three-pointed star. All brands are united under the star pattern and our love to detail. We are true believers in beauty, we rework our visions until they’re perfect, that’s or promise to our customers.
How is designing different cars put you in the different moods or feelings?
(GW) I just know one mood when I do my designs. It’s full throttle and concentration on my work. You can’t design an icon by just saying “let’s see where we end” or “I just do a little bit design exercise”. It’s all in and being focused on what you do. It is a kind of creative tunnel I’m in when I shape a proportion. I always compare this with the Olympic Games. You can’t run a world record with a morning run approach. Same goes for design – do it with passion and be focused.
What are your current favourite cars and why?
(GW) My favourite car is the new S-Class we presented just recently. The new one is my third S-Class I did within my 20 years at Mercedes. You can’t imagine how much work it is to always raise the bar, especially when your last S-Class was named “the best car in the world”. Designing a three-box-limousine is the hardest in car design. It all starts with proportion, and if you fail the complete design is scrap. So, pressure is high and the challenge bigger than ever. But I love this competition, and I’m sure every designer knows what I’m talking about. Every designer wants to create icons, that’s what we’re living for.
And what are your every day cars?
(GW) I love driving my AMG GT, which is pure emotion, Bavarians would say sheer driving pleasure that keeps me alive and kicking. I could take an S-Class when I get mature and serious (laughs).
“We present show cars to give the audience a glimpse of our future – the tomorrow.”
Show car Vision AVTR in collaboration with James Cameron’s Avatar movie team was beyond impressive. What were the inspiration designing this car and what are the messages of AVTR communicating?
(GW) The AVTR is a showcar of the day after tomorrow. Normally we present showcars to give the audience a glimpse of our future – the “tomorrow”. When we got together with light storm, James Cameron‘s creative team, we wanted to work on a much longer perspective, a common perspective we have as a luxury brand and he has as a visionary movie maker. We were taking about responsibility and giving back, to our customers, to society and the world. We came up with the idea that a in the year 2157 a mobility device is companion and it approaches you as passenger, your mobile device will be very service and senses oriented. We took inspiration of our 130 year history and the visionary world of Avatar and the result is the Vision AVTR.
“Designs, being mobile or not, have to be responsible, sustainable and giving back to society.
You as a customer or a resident will face an environment that serves your needs, and is adapting to your preferences.”