Online Extra: BMW's Spin Through Controversy

Design exec Adrian van Hooydonk believes great innovation often provokes criticism at first. He tells where BMW is heading next

BMW polarized the world of auto design in 2002 with the introduction of its new 7 Series luxury sedan, designed by American Chris Bangle. Since then, controversy has raged over the German auto maker's edgy, modernist look.

Last year, BMW moved up Bangle to group design chief, and it promoted Dutchman Adrian van Hooydonk -- president of Designworks, the carmaker's California design studio, and author of the elegant 6 Series coupe -- to lead the design team for BMW brand cars. Van Hooydonk, 41 and a graduate of the Art Center Europe School in Vevey, Switzerland, spoke with BusinessWeek's Senior European Correspondent Gail Edmondson about BMW's design revolution and what's coming next in car design. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

There has been a lull in auto design since BMW shook things up a few years ago. When are we going to see the next step in car styling?

I can say for BMW that we are working full speed on the next generation of models, and we are working on two concepts that are totally new to the car industry. Some auto companies are in [financial] difficulty at the moment -- when that's the case, it's hard to break out and innovate in design. But the only way out is innovation and taking risks. BMW believes in taking risks -- it's a part of the business.

What have you learned from the famous 7 Series design controversy?

BMW needed to break away from the pack. What we saw around the turn of the century was a wave of retro design. The climax of that trend was 2000. After that, people started becoming more aware of brands and the need to make products consistent with the brand.

One can't look at the 7 Series, which was introduced in 2002, as a stand-alone design. That model was the beginning of our new strategy. We saw in the market a growing desire for greater individuality. Customers want to surround themselves with products that reflect their personality. We wanted each car to be highly recognizable as a BMW but to have its own character.

The 7 Series was the first car in the range to reflect the new design, but it filtered all the way down to the 1 Series and the Z4. The lesson is that the strategy worked -- even if it received some criticism. Now that all the cars are out on the market, people see the complete picture and public opinion has turned around.

Even great design goes stale at some point. So is it time to reinvent BMW again?

We don't want to promote the inflation of good design. In the '50s, U.S. auto makers came out with a new model range every year and they ran out of steam. When people buy premium products, it's not just because they like the styling. They want something that endures.

We want to do design that works at least eight years in the market. But if we do our job right, the cars become a classic. We would love to see some enthusiasts' club invite us to a meeting in 50 years and rave about the design we have today.

Didn't BMW alienate a slice of its own customer base with your "flame design" of alternating convex and concave surfaces -- a look that polarized the industry?

When you realistically look ahead, you notice that people's tastes and choices are becoming less predictable and more individual. We knew we wanted to expand our product line, and we had to widen our design vocabulary to do so. We knew there was risk to doing that.

But BMW never rested on the success of today or yesterday. BMW's history is full of these kinds of moments where you debate the consequences of a big change, you make the decisions, and you do your best to be really good at the next innovative phase.

The sales of the 7 Series are up -- that's exactly what we had hoped for. Inevitably there is a reaction of people saying, "I liked the previous model better."

It seems everyone in the industry is now designing cars with "dynamic" and "emotional" lines. What's next?

In the car world a lot of companies caught on to the fact that life in the middle of the market is going to get difficult. So they are trying to position themselves up-market, and they are studying the premiere segment.

How would you describe BMW's design philosophy today?

BMW design blends dynamics and elegance. Our two new crossover concepts will be unique in the industry, mixing elements of different car segments. The sports activity vehicle will combine [features] from SUVs with those of a coupe, and the second model will combine the utility aspects of a touring vehicle with the elegance of a limousine.

How do you actually work together with Chris Bangle designing BMW's cars? Is it a kind of tandem, or are you pretty independent?

Chris' role is to make sure that each brand prospers. Each brand is at a different stage in its development. He has to make sure the brands stay alive and vibrant without taking ideas from each other.

Chris travels a lot and is in touch with a lot of design chiefs. He brings back interesting insights to the team.

So walk us through the process. You had internal teams in California and Munich competing to design a new model. What happens after that?

The sketching competition takes three months, and then I make a selection. Then we get to two-dimensional and three-dimensional scale models, and I make the decision. When we get to a full-size model, I start to discuss the design with Chris more frequently, but he is pretty hands-off these days.

He does management by walking around -- he goes to the studio and discusses ideas. At the formal presentations, however, he is fully involved.

So by the time you have a full-size clay model of the car, can you still make a lot of changes in the design?

Yes -- this is the point at which the design really happens. Of course, it's more work if you make many changes at that point.

Walk us through the design of the new 1-Series.

We were going into a segment with a lot of established competition. We knew we had to do it with a real BMW, [which meant] rear-wheel drive was key to [allow us to] bring our strengths to the market. We know that meant some compromise in the trunk space.

At face value, it looked as if the compact segment was one where people make rational choices. They use common sense to look for certain features they need. The main player [in Europe] is Golf. So we knew what we were up against.

We decided to build a car below the 3 Series for a younger audience. A car that had rear-wheel agility and was fun to drive, something you could whip around the corners in the city. And we decided to do the design like a sculpture.

Will the 1 Series go to the U.S.?

We want to bring the 1 Series to the U.S., but it remains to be seen in what shape or form. The American buying public is not averse to horsepower, especially combined with good fuel economy. We have been able to increase the horsepower while decreasing fuel consumption -- that's one of our fixed goals at BMW. Anyone can add power. What we wanted to do was increase the real driving dynamics in this class.

Why is the whole European car industry suddenly focused on smaller cars with great performance?

The thinking is changing in that segment. Companies offering more neutral products aren't enjoying success. We went against the common logic and created a new niche [for smaller performance cars].

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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