Italy's Walter Maria de'Silva proved he could change the fortunes of an auto maker in the 1990s with his bold restyling of Alfa Romeo -- a coup that revived the sporty Italian brand. But the challenge was even greater when Volkswagen offered him the job of chief designer for its premium Audi Group, overseeing the Audi, Lamborghini, and Seat brands, in 2002.
De'Silva's task was to inject Audi's cars with excitement and emotion -- without diverging too radically from the brand's clean, simple lines and understated "Bauhaus" look. Some auto industry experts shuddered at the potential collision between Italian design and German engineering. But Audi wanted de'Silva to design cars that would turn heads and lure customers from premium rivals BMW and Mercedes-Benz (DCX). And de'Silva delivered.
Audi's latest generation of cars, from the sprinty A3 sportback to the class-beating A8 sedan, are winning top ratings and fueling double-digit sales growth. Audi's new look is edgier, and the gaping front grill exudes raw power.
But de'Silva preserved Audi's classic attention to perfect proportions and form-follows-function simplicity. De'Silva, now sketching the next generation of cars for Audi, spoke with BusinessWeek's Senior European Correspondent Gail Edmondson about the future of auto design from his unadorned office at Audi headquarters in Ingolstadt. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Edgy concept-car designs never intended for the market are now increasingly found cruising down the street. Why is that?
The investment in a concept car is so high, they [almost] have to be used as a base for a production model. In the technology, architecture, design, and construction, concept cars are made with the same attention as making a car for production.
Small cars used to be boring utilitarian boxes. Now they have to win beauty contests to be successful. What happened?
Cars that make you dream used to be top-of-the-line sports cars and luxury sedans. Slowly we understood how important design was. So design language -- this emotional aspect of cars -- is now being applied to everything from a Smart [mini] to the largest sedan. The functional car made to just go from point A to point B is almost nonexistent.
The Europeans seem to enjoy global leadership in auto design, but that wasn't always the case. What ails American car design today?
I was a child in the 1960s, and U.S. cars made everyone dream -- it was their incredible size and exaggerated design. The U.S. did marvelous cars. The Corvette is an icon. That was something that influenced a lot of European design.
But U.S. car design doesn't make people dream anymore. It's perhaps a reflection of the social-political moment we are living.
I'm not trying to make a political statement, but the country and the culture seems in a defensive mode, which puts a brake on expression through art, architecture, fashion, and design. I see an effort on the part of U.S. auto makers, but I see also a frustration that I don't see in Germany, France, or Italy.
When it comes to car design, everyone is producing more dynamic-looking cars with lines that evoke greater emotion -- even Opel. Audi was a market leader with its new, expressive design. But what do you do when a "new look" has been copied by many others?
We are a premium brand, and we have to follow our own design philosophy. Our only motto is to be a leader not a follower in technology, quality, and design. The evolution of design is constant. What Audi did over the last three years in introducing new models and new design no other auto maker has accomplished in the same amount of time.
I see a period of consolidation ahead. But we are already working on the architecture of the next platform. It's a huge step forward -- the architecture is even better and the cars will be even more beautiful. The proportions will be even better.
What are the most important design trends affecting next-generation cars?
In the future I see a huge improvement in car interiors. We have to work a lot to create a kind of internal architecture and environment that is even more oriented to the customer. We are studying new seats that are more ergonomic. We can do more to enhance the simplicity of the cockpit, the dashboard, and the instruments.
And we will focus on materials -- that they are distributed in the right way and that they create the perception of quality. Information systems are another important area for interior design. The telephone, radio, and all the other buttons have to be clear and intuitive to enhance safety. Interiors will change a lot.
You shouldn't confuse luxury with prestige and exclusivity. There is a different way to interpret each. I see evolution on the exterior of cars and revolution in the interiors.
What about interior lighting?
We will see a combination of the use of music and lights in new features. We also want to study microenvironments, like dividing the front and the back of the car when it comes to noise. That would allow kids to watch TV while a passenger in the front is on the phone.
The interior of the car will be treated like the architectural space of a museum or house. That's my vision.
What do you think of Renault's Logan, the $6,000 car?
Aesthetically it doesn't do much for me. But I don't know the project so I can't say whether it could have been prettier. Low cost can be beautiful. It's a valid concept.
Audi sets the benchmark in interior auto design, but everyone is racing to copy you on better materials, intuitive information systems, and buttons with delicate feedback to the fingertips. What will the next generation of Audi's cars have that the competition won't have?
Perfection, absolute quality, the right materials. Soon we will see a more studied environment inside the car -- to give it more visible and tactical quality. It's not decoration, but architecture. It will be totally new.
What are the most striking cars on the road in your opinion?
I like the Aston Martin DB9. They've done a magnificent job. It's a big car with classy proportions. I would happily buy it. That's my test. I still like the Porsche 911. Maybe because it's been around since I was a child, and I grew up with it.
I appreciate the design of the new Fiat Punto. It's a success. It's intuitively well-proportioned. That's not easy. It has a beautiful personality, especially the front. And it's not aggressive. It's friendly.
And I have to say the Audi A6 Avant is the most beautiful station wagon in the world, just to name an Audi. And with the Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder, we did a great car. The coupe is beautiful but the Spyder is something more.
What is your dream project?
I have the fortune of working for a company with projects in 360 degrees of direction. That is a dream job. Since we are in the premium segment, there are no limits.
In the future you will see families of cars at Audi. The field from the A3 to the A8 is huge, but in the future there will be even more.