I was asked my opinions on some current leaders in the world of car design. I actually checked up a little of each designers background, and decided to repeat my thoughts here for this blog. Mostly my educated guess about each person, with some anecdotal evidence. I also know a little more than I am allowed to share regarding some of the names, and I could ask for inside info on others- but I won’t because they have extremely demanding public images to uphold. They all thoroughly deserve their status of course, because none of these people made it to this level without enormous dedication and hard work. I can only imagine how all-consuming some of their careers have been.
1. Jean-Pierre Ploué (PSA)
Ploué made his name in the industry with the first Renault Twingo. A landmark car of characterful but functional design. A truly French car from a truly French thinking designer- and this was exactly what Citroen needed after nearly 20 years of a Brit, then an American in charge. For the new millennium it was time to bring back French thinking. Jean-Pierre Ploué immediately hired some young talent from around the world, and nurtured that talent with a very relaxed attitude to creativity. A friend of mine worked there as a designer, and hadn’t done any work for weeks. Worried- he finally admitted this to Jean-Pierre, who shrugged and said “that’s ok, maybe inspiration will come soon”. A great creative team manager, his people skills have enabled all PSA brands to continue to positively rejuvenate in design terms.
2. Franz Von Holzhausen (Tesla)
Musk grabbed Von Holzhausen from Mazda, when he became unhappy with Henrik Fisker’s outside consultancy design work. Franz was given the task of setting up an internal design studio and fixing what would become one of the 21st Centuries most important car designs, the Model S. Franz and his team (mostly poached from Mazda) decided to play it safe with the styling. Musk was a demanding boss and referenced his own Porsches as the standard to work towards. The foundation of Tesla was a familiar looking sedan, with groundbreaking technology. The recent Cybertruck is another PR masterstroke by Franz. This time there was no revolution in tech, so instead a completely unexpected and brutal design language got the truck noticed. The ripples from the Cybertruck will be seen in car styling for the next 20 years.
REDACTED. Luc Donckerwolke (Hyundai, Genesis)
Luc Donckerwolke is the definitive car designer. Dual nationality, speaking an astonishing array of languages his diversity of culture makes him a perfect recipe for global car design. Famous for re-establishing multiple brands for the VW group. A real darling of the VW board and a pioneering design manager, who established multiple internal design teams at Skoda and Lamborghini, ditching traditional techniques for modern digital methods. After taking over at Bentley there was a surprise desertion of the VW Group, to join Peter Schreyer in his mission to destroy the German dominance of the car industry on behalf of Korea. Luc uses his modernist digital design techniques to devastating effect, now rapidly overtaking the Germans in progressive quality design. His recent Hyundai Prophecy concept car was a very cheeky nod to past Germanic design themes (911 shaped!) but brilliantly moved into the 21st Century.
3. Gorden Wagener (Mercedes Benz)
A company man with 23 years at Mercedes design and the result is total trust by the board. Some might say this trust is his downfall. Wagener often receives ridicule by other designers (not publicly, as that is dangerous to careers). His hyperbole speeches and grandiose influences are cliched and vague. As far as we know, Wagener has never actually designed any cars- but nurturing other talented designers he developed his “sensual purity” design language as a universal styling look, applied to every Mercedes at every price, and every segment – even commercial vehicles. Criticised for shallow, skin/deep only styling- but the sensual part is undeniable and Mercedes is now a strongly customer-led company. Buyers get exactly what they wish for, including strip-club like interiors, and the sales figures prove the methodology. He could be the designer at the helm when the ship sinks… and like the captain of the Titanic he will never abandon his ship.
4. Klaus Bischoff (VW)
Bischoff is another German company man who, like Wagener, has dedicated his life to one company: VW. Since 1989 he has designed only for VW group, and has had many management roles and mostly worked as an interior designer. His name was not widely known, so we can assume this is a modest designer perhaps. A true inside man. VW clearly have huge faith in Bischoff and the quality in the design language of VW brand in particular is mostly thanks to Klaus. VW generally manage to avoid fashion, or extreme design trends, but recently have become a little formulaic. Klaus and the VW board really believe in this formula, but corporate scandal has made things tough for the brand. Design must be even more conservative in order for customers to trust them again.
5. Adrian van Hooydonk (BMW)
Once again we see the loyalty to German brands, but a Dutch designer this time who has been with BMW since 1992. Adrian made his mark with BMW in California, working for and eventually becoming president of DesignworksUSA. Thanks to his advanced work at Designworks, Von Hooydonk became the protege, and successor of Chris Bangle. Bangle revolutionised the very traditional BMW, and in turn shook up the entire car design business. Hooydunk was the driving force behind the design and styling ideas that Bangle made famous. Designworks laid a lot of the groundwork for BMW design as it is today. Unfortunately since Bangle’s departure, the strategic management of BMW has been messy and design has suffered. Bangle dealt with this aspect well, Adrian does not. A true artist like Adrian just wants to create. Currently his handling of the BMW grille design, insisting Chinese customers demand it, seems lacking in vision.
6. Thomas Ingenlath (Polestar)
Volvo regrouped itself after Geely investment, and decided to take stock of what it wanted to be and what it didn’t want to be. Ingenlath is a great example of what can happen when taking a risk and changing company. A German designer, who worked for VW for 20 years and ranked very highly- he joined Volvo and eventually brought some of his VW friends along too. Volvo spent time to work on strategic design and research of their brand (from outside consultants) and this foundation work has been spectacular in its success. Ingenlath was allowed, as an outsider, to distill Swedish design principles and core Volvo corporate values such as safety and quality into a pure aesthetic depiction in 3D form and materials. This is high operating level, holistic vehicle design which only very few companies achieve. So far Volvo design strategy has been perfect. Now Ingenlath is concentrating on the EV and performance brand Polestar, which perhaps gives us a clue to his own thinking about the future of automotive transportation.
7. Gerry McGovern (Land Rover)
A very interesting and eccentric character… Gerry is an enigma of his own creation. Fantastically talented, but from a working class background in Coventry, it all seems so unlikely. Apparently his learning curve never ends, constantly intent on self-improvement, he now presides over a kingdom of his own creation. Famously blunt and sharp with employees, but ruthless in his passion for design. He only left Coventry briefly, in the late 90s, to show Lincoln exactly what they should be doing- then returned to continue his life’s work in Coventry. Along with Volvo design, Land Rover are leaders in consistent brand identity. Gerry became obsessed with mid century design during his time at Lincoln, and continues to pursue a minimalist and timeless aesthetic. There are aspects to McGoverns plutocratic management style that I cannot repeat, shared with me in confidence by insiders, but his troops are loyal and you can be sure of one thing: that he will always push for absolutely the best quality of design in every detail.
8. Ikuo Maeda (Mazda)
The designer’s designer. Respected as an artist, and responsible for renaissance of beautiful emotional design. A strategy he implemented by returning to traditional artisan routes, using hand sculpted clay extensively again, just as other studios are abandoning it. The seeds of KODO design language began with Franz Von Holzhausen and his preceding Nagare design aesthetic, but Maeda has steered Mazda design to be more than surface styling. His aim was to bring life to industrial products, and he has succeeded in the ultimate vision of emotional automotive design. A stark contrast to functional product design which gives humble Mazda’s a value beyond their price. Who could’ve predicted 20 years ago that a Japanese company would be the one to keep the heart and soul of beautiful car design alive? Alfa Romeo and Mercedes design departments wish they could achieve this level of sensual design.
9. Flavio Manzoni (Ferrari)
An Italian car designer who interestingly worked for VW rather a lot, at a very high level running advanced creative design teams. The combination of his long experience in Italy for Lancia and Fiat, combined with extensive experience in the dominant VW group means that Manzoni was uniquely placed to bring Ferrari design into the 21st century by setting up an internal dedicated design team. Manzoni proved his abilities by developing the stunning La Ferrari production car. The sensational design, and more importantly the delicate design process that produced it, has let Ferrari controversially abandon its relationship with Pininfarina. Critics have argued that Ferrari in-house designs are unrefined- but the pace at which they are now being produced is the reason perhaps. The relentless product updates and modern sales tactics at Ferrari are generating profits, with cars that are exciting and dramatic in styling. In response to critics, Ferrari have even created a less flamboyant design with the new Roma model. Design strategy and future thinking is a core skill of Manzoni and we can be sure that his tactics have been well thought through.
10. Laurens Van den Acker
edit: Luc Donckerwolke abruptly left Hyundai/Genesis in 2020, so this addition was drafted to replace him in the printed article.
Laurens Van den Acker is one of the world’s leading experts of advanced vehicle design. Laurens’ career took him from Europe to America and back. His experiences were transatlantic and international. Incredibly he has worked in Italy, Germany, USA and France. This global experience meant he became uniquely placed to understand a vast majority of the car buying planet, excepting perhaps Asia- but his long tenure at Mazda must have filled that gap quite well also. This moulded him into the global visionary he is now (despite working for a seemingly very French and European brand), and his time spent with J Mays at Ford clearly helped his genius to shine. Van den Acker came to fame with an astonishing series of concept cars, while working with J Mays. The Ford 24/7, 427, Model U and the Ford GloCar. These were all so ahead of their time in ideas concept and user sentiment, that any car company wishing to be successful in future clearly had to hunt down Laurens for their own good. That is exactly what Mazda and then Renault did. There is a connection here with Franz Von Holzhausen – for they both worked on the Nagare design language at Mazda, but those visionary Ford concepts were what caught the industry’s eye. The Ford 24/7 from 2000 was the key to Acker’s success. This car predicted the customisable App grid interface, 7 years before iPhone, and predicted user’s wishes for connectivity and configurable dashboard/screens that we see on every concept and future production car 20 years later. Van den Acker set the user template that the entire industry is working to now.
Thanks to Hans Dierckx of Auto Wereld magazine, Belgium, for asking my opinion on 10 current car design leaders.