Walk into Designworks USA's corporate-style sprawling glass and concrete building in a nondescript office park in Newbury Park, Calif., and it's not surprising to find a Formula One race car just off the reception area to greet visitors. After all, the design studio is part of BMW.
Wander around as far as the watchful security-minded staffers allow, and curiosity leads you to displays of cell phones, a cardiac exercise machine, bicycle helmets, a John Deere backhoe, photos of an airplane interior, and one of the HP Photosmart picture-printing kiosks found at drugstores. There's even a Nilfisk brand carpet cleaner. What's all this got to do with "The Ultimate Driving Machine?"
BMW bought Designworks in 1995 at the behest of chief designer Chris Bangle, who wanted a design post in California conveniently near the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena (which he attended), and a full-service design studio that gets at least half of its business from clients other than the German carmaker.
FIRST CLASS. While hatching designs for BMW as important as the current 7 Series sedan, 1 Series sedan and hatchback, and X3 sport activity vehicle, it's still the only studio of its kind in the auto industry driving innovation and cross-fertilization among products as diverse as vacuums and luxury cars. "We get to design around lifestyle changes in all these categories, and pretty much everything is being defined as a lifestyle brand these days," says Alec Bernstein, Designworks' director of advanced communications.
Perhaps the design generating the most excitement around Designworks this year is the interior of Embraer's line of light corporate and personal jets. No wonder designers are giddy, as well as sentimental. BMW started out as an aviation company nearly a century ago (BMW's familiar logo depicts a plane propeller in motion), building high-performance plane engines, before it went into autos.
It was a BMW engine, for example, that powered Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen (The Red Baron) to fame and glory. And Embraer, the Brazilian aviation company, last December shelved its own design after Designworks spent about $20,000 to create a foam and plywood prototype that utilized seats from BMW's Mini Cooper.
ALREADY A FAN. The Embraer 100 and 300 very-light-jets (VLJs) are the aviation company's first foray into small, four-to-eight-passenger jets, a fast-growing segment of plane manufacturing (because of the rising nuisance factor of commercial air travel). Companies and well-heeled individual pilots are increasingly choosing to bypass two-hour departure procedures and other commercial hassles in favor of flying in style.
Besides liking the actual design, Embraer was attracted to Designworks' experience in designing luxury cars. Most of the owner-operators of VLJs have one in the garage. "The cockpit and instrument cluster Designworks did is based more on automobile sensibilities than inspired by a fighter jet, and we were very attracted to that," says Luis Carlos Alfonso, senior vice-president, corporate aviation market, for Embraer.
The irony is, since Designworks led BMW on the creation of the current 7 Series sedan, the reaction has been polarizing because of what many see as an overly complicated electronic interface in the center console, called iDrive, which controls on-board telematics, radio, climate, navigation, and more.
ARTFUL DESIGN. The interior of the Embraer Phenom 100, the less expensive of the two jets, aimed more at owner-operators than corporate fleets, has drawn great praise at aviation shows. Features singled out by customers and reviews: A bamboo floor option—the most hotly debated feature inside Embraer—more spacious passenger leg room than Embraer had engineered in-house or competitors have; a cockpit chair that slides back far enough to allow a pilot to pivot out of his chair instead of having to climb out, as is the case with most small jets; and a panoramic windshield that wraps around the pilot.
Artful design hasn't been part of the small-plane market up to now. Even the steering yoke of the Phenom, with its triangular center, was inspired by a trip one of the Designworks designers made to Embraer's Brazilian headquarters where he couldn't help being struck by the abundance of bikini bottoms on the nearby beach.
Is there synergy between designing plane interiors and cars? Consider that the same designer who led on the Phenom's interior also worked on the interiors of the Mini Cooper and Rolls Royce Phantom (Rolls is part of BMW too).
INFORMATION OVERLOAD. Verena Kloos is president of Designworks, and the German-born former Mercedes-Benz designer says she loves the profit-driven learning that benefits her studio, as well as corporate parent BMW. "We do a cell phone, or a graphic interface for a coffeemaker, or a photo-developing kiosk, and that informs how we manage in-flight entertainment systems for Embraer and that cycles back to what we do for BMW."
This way, she says: "We have to prove out our designs constantly to clients and there's no safety net. It keeps us honest. These are not fancy design exercises, which get tiresome," she says. Working on cars alone, she points out, can be stagnating because a designer typically only gets his or her work "proved out" every few years.
Design, says Kloos, is being driven today by making a lot of information more easily accessible to the consumer. She's not kidding. The 7 Series iDrive system manages some 700 separate functions. The system has gone through two modifications since 2002, and BMW has developed a new system for the new 7 Series due out next year.
TACTILE TOUCHSTONE. With all that digital information needing to be designed and packaged, it's both fitting and ironic that Kloos's private passion is collecting paper. She has art objects sprinkled around her office made from recycled paper. "I love the idea of paper. It's tactile. With so much of what we do today built around a digitized world, we need more tactile experiences."
In a digital world, it's easy to get caught up in the sheer abundance of what each new invention can do. But like each successful design, whether it be a car, plane or cell phone, she adds, paper is made one sheet at a time.