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BMW's Chris Bangle Designs His Own Exit

Posted by: David Kiley on February 3, 2009


Chris Bangle, the head of design for the BMW Group since 1992 and one of the most controversial and well-known designers in the auto industry, resigned his post on Monday, according to the company.

His exit, say people familiar with the company, was not forced. Rather, said the same executives, the designer had been laying groundwork for an exit for many months.

Bangle achieved infamy as well as fame in 2001 when he introduced the BMW 7 Series at the Frankfurt Motor Show to catcalls over a high squared off trunk lid that came to be known as the “Bangle butt,” as well as a new console mounted computer-mouse-like knob that was designed to control most of the electronic functions of the car, called iDrive.

But to pin down Bangle’s career as merely controversial is unfair. “It’s difficult to find a designer in the auto business who thoroughly dominated discussion in a given decade and Chris Bangle did it in two decades,” says Jim Hall of 2953 Analytics, Birmingham MI, who has worked with several automakers on design and product planning.

When Bangle was hired at BMW, the company was embarking on a mission to shake up its design footprint. “We were making sausages at different lengths, and management at that time, especially chairman Eberhard von Kuenheim and technical director Wolfgang Reitzle, felt we needed to break away and chart a new course for the company and the brand…we were going to be introducing SUVs and new sports cars and we needed a design language in which to do it,” Bangle said in an interview with me for a book I wrote in 2004, “Driven: Inside BMW, The Most Admired Car Company in the World.”

Bangle oversaw the design of numerous breakout and brand changing designs for the BMW brand and BMW as a company including the 2001 and 2009 7 Series, three generations of 3 Series and 5 Series, BMW’s foray into SUVs, including the X5, X3 and X6, as well as the 1 Series, and the comeback of the 6 Series. He also oversaw the design of BMW’s recent re-do of the MINI Cooper, as well as the MINI Clubman, more so than the design of the original 2000 MINI. And he led the design of the Rolls Royce Phantom after BMW acquired the iconic British brand.

Automotive journalists have been harsh on several of Bangle’s designs when they have been introduced. But in just about every case, such as the 2001 7 Series and Z4, criticism tempered after a year or two as it became clear that rivals like Toyota, including its Lexus division and Mercedes, were adopting some of Bangle’s design cues and principals to their cars and SUVs.

“We aren’t copying anyone else’s design language, not even our own, and I think that makes some people uncomfortable,” said Bangle in a previous interview with me.

Because BMWs are so loved by their buyers, and by the media, anyone who is head of design is going to be much scrutinized. Bangle has been a lightning rod not only because of the risks he has taken, but because of where he has taken them.

There is a reason why risky avante garde plays seldom debut or even end up on Broadway, and why the New York stage is most often filled with crowd pleasing revivals like “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Damn Yankees.” Few companies and few creative talents are comfortable airing out their riskiest ideas in front of the masses. That was Bangle’s assignment, and history will probably treat him better than the present day media has.

Bangle also pushed BMW to acquire Designworks, the California design studio that had been doing some contract work for BMW in the early 1990s. Bangle’s idea was that having a design studio that did work in a variety of industries and categories would not only inform BMW’s design studio, but it would also give the company’s designers a steady outlet of work outside of cars and SUVs that would keep the talent fresh and energized. Still, the only automaker to own an independent design studio, it has proven to be a useful recruiting tool, and training ground, as well.

Bangle’s most recent high profile design is of the Gina, an experimental concept car that seeks to replace the vehicle’s static metal or fiberglass skin with a one of cloth that can change the shape and aerodynamics of the car The idea is that a car could be made to be as safe as current cars, but that the shape can be flexible. It is an idea that Bangle had as far back as design school in the early 1980s.

This is a video featuring bangle talking about the philosophy around Gina.

Bangle has been restoring a home in Tuscany Italy where he figures to spend most of his time. And in private conversations, he has talked of making wine and perhaps opening a Grapparia. We’ll check in with him later this week and ask what he plans.

Bangle’s role as BMW Group design chief is being assumed by Adrian van Hooydonk, who has been in charge of the BMW brand designs for the last couple of years.

Hooydonk, who previously was director of Designworks, has led the designs of several influential BMW designs such as the 2009 7 Series, X Coupe concept, X5 and 3 Series.

There has been a much whispering over the past several years about who is the more talented designer, Hooydonk or Bangle. Who deserves more credit for successes? Who was more responsible for the X5 and Z4? In the automotive design arena, there is always backbiting, credit grabbing and the like. Though I have never heard it uttered by either man.

My observation of any car company is that designers are usually as successful as their bosses allow them to be. Up until now, Bangle has been over Hooydonk, so it has been Bangle’s leadership that has steered BMW’s sometimes risky design endeavors during what has also been its most financially successful period of time. Bangle has been in charge of hiring, assigning designers to their respective projects, directing internal competitions, teaching, leading, inspiring.

Hooydonk is extremely talented. But he will have a tough act to follow.

Reader Comments


February 3, 2009 3:29 PM

Bangle's design language has indeed been controversial, but few can argue with the success of his designs. None of the cars he penned have been failures, and BMW is likely a stronger and more recognizable brand thanks to his influence. However I believe the newest BMW designs, which appear to have a toned-down Bangle aesthetic (7 Series and Z4), are better looking and more cohesive than their predecessors.


February 3, 2009 4:43 PM

I guess is to get off the high or prancing horse when the crowds are still cheering, who desn't wanna to get off the Titanic when the Iceberg is in the full view. Next few yrs is going to be very challenging to sell more Beamers. Or even holding the same position, being the numero uno designer he has a lot to answer to the Quandt family. Is not bad timing to say Quando , Quando, Quando.


February 3, 2009 5:11 PM

Goodbye. Don't let the door hit you on the way out. Maybe BMW can now get back to classic looking, timeless designs that work!


February 3, 2009 6:03 PM

I liked Bangle's cars and thought their designs complex, exciting, interesting and delightfully advanced. Like many great designs, (music, opera, fashion), they were controversial. I guess the Neanderthal's and the Luddites will have to find something else to kvetch about.

raffi Minasian

February 3, 2009 6:05 PM

Design is never a single personal expression. Leadership in design is like conducting an orchestra, sometimes there are soloists (Hooydonk certainly being one) to the symphony and sometimes there are not. But it is the experience of the performance and the arousal of brilliant musicianship that makes for great symphonic music. Bangle, although often seen as someone who pushed design language too far for the average taste brought new expression into the traditional symphony. Few will ever do what he has done, and like a great conductor, he will bow only AFTER his performers have received their applause.


February 3, 2009 6:14 PM

i think the indusrty needs more people like him - more now then ever- people who question the concepts that seam obvious and rethink them dont come often - one of my personal favourites in the industry

Ed Purinton

February 3, 2009 6:38 PM

Chris Bangle has set the stage for car design to come in the GINA concept. Think fabric that could be woven from carbon fiber or solar cell fiber. Or perhaps fabric woven which could change from a soft to hard configuration with electric sensors or cars as structures for overnight stays. He has looked outside the box of design and we are better for it.He may someday have as big an impact as Raymond Loewy on transportation.


February 3, 2009 7:48 PM

Seriously. Hooydonk? Find someone who knows when to let go of ancient themes that aren't working anymore. Like the grand old name "Hooydonk".

Abubakar Chaudhary

February 4, 2009 2:38 AM

Mr.Bangle has desighned one of the most beatiful and technologically advanced car of the decade,he surelly deserves to be appriciated.
Abubakar Chaudhary

carolyn worthington

February 4, 2009 5:19 PM

chris bangle is the reason why I gave
up driving BMW's for Porsches. I can
hardly wait for the new
will knock the socks of BMW, Maserati,
etc. It is a drop dead car, irresistable. Bangle ruined BMW...all
they are selling now are the 3 series..
he killed the 5 series with his ugly
designs and over the top electronics.


February 4, 2009 5:31 PM

Bangle did not design his exit. He was told, in slightly more polite terms, "Gehen Sie aus!" The business reality is that top BMW management no longer view Bangle's multi "surface" body panel as a viable or necessary to distinguish BMW's "ultimate" driving machines. The latest BMWs are showing the gradual departure from Bangle's preference for multi-facet body shapes and a high rear trunk which the media had unfairly maligned as "Bangle Butt." The 2010 Z-4 and the current 7 Series are noteable examples. While ridiculing Bangle's 750's high rear trunk as "Bangle Butt" the crude and often ignorant auto journalists refused to see that other auto manufactures were sdopting many of Bangle's idea, including some variation of the "Bangle Butt." Typical examples: Lexus 460 and Toyota Camry. Don't be surprise if Nissan-Renault recruits Bangle.


February 5, 2009 1:06 PM

I hated the new BMW design 'language' and even signed that online petition which was asking that Bangle be fired. At the same time, I knew it wasn't all his (or van Hooydonk's) fault as clearly the bosses at BMW had signed off on the new look. It's one thing to shake things up, however, and another to execute it properly and here neither Bangle (or van Hooydonk) has been able to pull it off. If you want harsh-looking sheetmetal that looks 'unfinished' and slightly oddball proportions, with a dose of weird, stupid details, then a BMW is for you. It's telling in that for all their desire to shake things up, the 3-Series, the bread-and-butter of the company, is the least tortured of the new designs.


February 5, 2009 1:31 PM

Talented, smart and controversial he may be, bBangle certainly chased me into the arms of Audi.
How much more successful would BMW be if mpst of their cars did not have a picnic basket for a boot?
I think that their success is more atributable to the fact that they build the best engines and terrific drivers cars.
Go Adrian!


February 5, 2009 3:00 PM

Gina is the best car I've ever see. Thank's.

Dan Reichel

February 5, 2009 8:39 PM

Bangle's designs, in my view are just plain awful. You can say "cutting edge" and "innovative" as you describe his influence over the last several years. I call it pure codswollop. He ruined the 5 series completely. iDrive is the absolute joke of the whole company and the Z4 looks just awful. Honda, Hyundai and Toyota all make better looking mid-size sedans. I have been a BMW enthusiast and owner since I was 18 years old. I currently drive a pre-Bangle M3 and own 2 BMW bikes. I cannot bring myself to buy anything that has his design influence on it.
Hopefully I can look forward to cars and bikes from BMW that don't hurt the eyes to look at. Goodbye Chris.

Mark Maycock

February 9, 2009 9:26 PM

When Bangle's pen hit paper the world began to spin. His designs make some people fart but Johnny consumer has jumped like a cricket and BMW continues to thrive, PIVE. There is more to car design than engine testing and throwing frozen (human) cadarvers through windscreens. Gut Gut Chris you did an excellent job. Well done!!


February 23, 2009 11:25 AM

you know what, when cris bangle change the 7 series, then the 3 series. I wondered why the big change in design. and after a few months, most of its competitor copied BMW design. so did other asian BRANDS. and after all these, Cris was right. You will come to realize that these changes were for the car design to go forward the future. And that's where all the cars are today, the future. Its was getting there. the plastic fenders, the minimalistic design, and others. who would have thought using fabric will surely make the car lighter, more fuel efficient, no more dings and dents, costless to repair, and more.


February 25, 2009 10:45 AM

The fact that others copied Bangle just shows that the profession has the disease, not jut Bangle.

These "designers" speak only to each other in their work, because they are bored of speaking to the world.

"Beauty" is a cliche and anathema to these designers. But as a rebel element among them said, "after ten years, Beauty is all you have left." We who are offended have reason to be. We are not mere design luddites. We have eyes and souls.


February 26, 2009 8:09 PM

What Chriss Bangle did to auto design is a revolution...his BMWs are the best looking cars ever made...Who hates his design is a no class redneck...The new cheif designer at BMW is making the BMWs look all the same the X1 concept and the M5 GT concept both look like the new 7...same lights same door line same interior...its the Audi sindrome in witch the cars look allmost the same...BMW is going down without Bangle he gave BMW its going down the gutter


March 24, 2009 2:52 PM

Chris is a genius, pure and simple. He pushed the BMW into a new dimension, he hung his nuts out and it has paid off in spades. He's to be commended for taking such a risk, and the rewards were high the BMW company.

As for the naysayers, you just need to look around and see who's copying whom, and know that the vision came from BMW and Chris' team, and not from their competitors.

BMW will be less of a company without you. Best.

Mark Steinhobel

April 20, 2009 2:15 AM

Does anyone have contact details for Chris Bangle? We would like him to address a conference for a client in South Africa.


June 23, 2009 7:04 AM

I'll design BMW's for £40,000 a year!

who is responsible for recruitment within BMW?


July 6, 2009 4:06 PM

The Gina is a gorgeous car, probably only of my favorite BMWs
Regards, Jay

Cool KA

July 24, 2009 3:45 AM

Being conventional is murder of creativity. Chris Bangle has catapulted BMW into the "future" league and there may be no looking back, unless someone at BMW now wants to go way back in to the past. His styleing was so compelling, that the S-Class Mercedes took more than a cue from the "UGLY" 7-Series. Thank you Chris for breathing in much needed fresh air in to this what was becoming a conventional / conservative / many a times boring industry.


August 11, 2009 12:08 AM

As one would expect reading these comments, they are split in their opinions of his work. I happen to respect and appreciate Chris Bangle's work for BMW. I own the first model he worked on and absolutely love everything about it. I also look forward to see what Adrian van Hooydonk will do for BMW. For those who don't know he is a supremely talented designer.

Older Car Guy

August 11, 2009 12:59 PM

My first BMW was a '72 Bavaria and, in mid-2003, I was planning to acquire a 5-series. I was pained by the first previews of the 2004 as I had been over the 7's. Bangle had turned out (and BMW managers had bought into) cars that looked like they'd been designed in Seoul or Osaka instead of Germany. The 2003 530i I did get may be the last new BMW I'll buy.

Robert M Bruce

September 25, 2009 6:25 PM

Bangle reinvented global car design and in my opinion saved BMW from being a tired and boring brand. BMW execs were smart enough to leave him alone and allow his futuristic ideas to materialise. More of the same (or me too's) are not good enough in ANY industry....everything (products/companies/govt's) need to reinvented every 4 years...I had two 6 series and as far as I'm concerned nothing comes close.... value for money.


September 28, 2009 10:36 AM

It is difficult to call Bangle a genius, so I'll call him brilliant! He advanced the state of the art, provoking thought, emotion, contemplation, and copycats!


September 28, 2009 10:05 PM

bangle is a misunderstood creative genius. I think most people who love his designs just continue on and adore them while people who don't, look for forums and posts on internet to complain and make noise. Lets face it, the majority don't always have depth and sophistication when it comes to design, it takes a designer to recognize one. your work has been appreciated by designers everywhere. It takes real guts to cater a product to distinguished people, but then again thats what BMW was all about.

To Mr. Bangle, whats said on the internet can be deceivingly biased. understand there are much much more people are too busy admiring your work to make a public thank-you for your contributions to BMW, to the entire auto industry and to design as a whole.

John S Asmah

June 24, 2010 2:46 AM

Dear Mr. Bangle, Thank you. For you dare to open doors for all of us to see inside where others were afraid to. I wish you all the best.

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