Profile – Laurenz Schaffer

Laurenz Schaffer took over the presidency of global design group BMW Designworks USA this month. Guy Bird met him in LA to discuss his ambitious vision for the business and why the practice is nothing like Porsche Design

Interrogation by a dozen or so hard-to-please, jet-lagged journalists might not be everyone’s idea of a ‘dream’ start to the first day of a new job, but Laurenz Schaffer appears to be taking it in his stride. The new president of BMW Designworks USA – responsible for three studios in California, Munich and Singapore with 135 staff, 60 active clients and 120 projects a year – was presumably appointed for his ability to handle pressure.

To be fair, the role and location may be new, but the business is familiar. The 42-year old Schaffer has been with BMW Designworks USA for 11 years, most recently as head of its Munich studio (prior to that he’d worked with Frog and Phoenix Design in Germany). During his time at BMW he’s been involved in luxury yachts for Zeydon and public transport furniture for Landscape Forms, with coffee-makers for Saeco and skis for Head in-between.

By his own admission he’s probably more of a product designer than a ‘car guy’, but his new role is taken very seriously within BMW Group for its ability to steer the company’s future design direction by tapping into influences from inside and outside the car industry. The studio has originated some of BMW’s most important recent cars – the 2001 X-Coupe and 2008 Gina concepts plus the X5 production car – and current overall head of BMW Group design, Adrian van Hooydonk, held the exact same job from 2001 to 2004.

So what is Schaffer’s new vision? Further world domination would seem to be one part, as despite its current US, European and Asian outposts Schaffer is aware that new global inroads are needed. ‘Most of our clients have operations all over the world with products that need to be understood globally, so we need to increase our reach and look at our coverage for different cultural contexts,’ he says. That might not mean more permanent studios, but rather using more temporary set-ups for specific design projects.

Making the practice even more future-facing is another key area. ‘We want to design the future so it’s super important to project out over two to three product life cycles – ten to 15 years in advance – so we can consider all the design impacts,’ he says.

A third part is developing design – especially transport design – to fit better within its environment. ‘We’re looking at issues surrounding mobility, not necessarily individual mobility, but public mobility and how that is embedded in an infrastructure in cities that tend to develop in a rapid way. We are not talking about one product, we want to understand the more complex framework.’

Won’t all this ‘vision-making’ stunt his day-to-day designing though? Overall, Schaffer thinks not, but he is realistic. ‘My role is managing creativity first of all,’ he explains.

‘There is a portion that deals with increasing design quality and creativity, and on the other hand, there are more – you might say – dry organisational issues. But I’m a designer by origin and will certainly stay very much connected to designing.’

BMW Designworks USA is a separate profit centre within the BMW Group and Schaffer is keen to distance its role from other design outfits with car connections.

As he says, ‘Most design groups linked to the automotive industry have a strong emphasis exactly there. Pininfarina is famous for car design and this is 99.99 per cent of its reputation, but with Designworks it’s different. About 50 per cent is very successful work for our parent company’s different brands [BMW, Mini and Rolls-Royce], and the other half is for diverse industries and famous companies. We’re working with Coca-Cola, Starbucks and Hewlett-Packard – although there are smaller companies on that list as well – so we have a true balance.’

Schaffer says the benefit of such interdisciplinary design means that working on a private yacht might inform a new Rolls-Royce interior, and vice versa. Don’t mention BMW Designworks in the same breath as Porsche Design though, for while Schaffer understands the apparent similarity he’s clear about the difference too.

He says, ‘If a large company commissioned a project at Porsche they would get a Porsche Design style, and for a certain fee would be allowed to use its name. We’re completely different in that sense. We don’t tend to have one style. We want to understand our clients’ values and translate them into authentic products that fit their mindset. We don’t license our name either; we don’t play with the assets of our parent company in that manner.’

Plus, as he concedes, laughing in reference to a conversation about a favourite pair of shoes he can’t remember the brand name of, ‘I’m absolutely not a brand guy, it’s not of interest to me at all. I worry about what the product offers as a complete experience.’

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