Gorden Wagener, Mercedes’ global design chief, has a particularly appropriate surname. Wagener (or Wagner) in German means coachbuilder. In this case, it’s not any wagon but the prestigious carriages that have been carrying the famous three-pointed star for nearly 125 years.
He’s in the UK as part of the launch of the SLS AMG – a £160 000 supercar that closely evokes in form one of the greats of all time, the 300SL Gullwing. To impress on us the richness of Mercedes’ heritage, he’s also brought along the 1934 500K in all its Art Deco splendour.
While Wagener refutes the suggestion that Mercedes’ design has become Baroque, his selection from the Mercedes back catalogue is instructive; he ignores the typically German austerity and control of the models of the 1980s (including the massively influential and lauded 190E). Instead, Mercedes, he says, is about ’bringing emotion into quality’ and acting as ’an ambassador for European luxury’.
Wagener is more than capable of boring you silly about Mercedes’ brand positioning (around a three-pointed star of ’fascination, perfection, responsibility’). ’Design has to state brand values,’ he says. His suggestion that brand will be the key differentiator in future, particularly coming from the most famous of engineering-led German companies, is somewhat startling. Soon everyone, including Chinese car makers, will have access to the same technology, he suggests. However, brand – and the European tradition of luxury – cannot be bought off the shelf, and that is what he is busy trying to protect.
Wagener says there’s been a sea change in the status of design at Mercedes. While he is not on the board, Wagener does report in directly and says he often meets twice a week with Dieter Zetsche, head of Mercedes and parent company Daimler.
The SLS AMG sports car is a distinct return to form. ’It’s the iPod of supercars,’ Wagener suggests, fishing out the ubiquitous device, and speaking about Dieter Rams and Jonathan Ives. So does he feel part of a German design tradition? He winces slightly. ’I’ve always hated the “form follows function” idea,’ he says. ’Why does there have to be a reason, why can’t we just do something because it is beautiful?’
Though born in Germany, Wagener feels very Anglo-Saxon. Like so many top car designers, he is an alumnus of the Royal College of Art, and he also spent a long period in California as Mercedes’ director of strategic and advanced design. While he moved back to Germany in 2008 to take up his current position, he often returns to his second home in Los Angeles. Even his first name is an English one, but if there’s a story attached, he’s not telling. ’You’d have to ask my mother.’
But there’s nothing particularly flash about him. At 42 he is considered young for his post, no doubt helpful in dispelling the unwanted perception of Mercedes as an older person’s car. His dynamic vision for the way forward is encapsulated in the F 800 show car, a beautifully fluid reinterpretation of traditional design cues.
Is this an indirect compliment to Chris Bangle, the radical and recently ousted BMW designer? ’No. He made shocking, surprising designs – and look what happened to him. BMW is going back to what it did before. We are not interested in the Russian doll approach, making all the range look the same.’
Ask Wagener if he still designs and draws cars, and he’ll look at you with an uncomprehending blink. ’No, I have a team of designers who do that,’ he says. ’Once we did a car every three years, now it can be three a month.’ But to keep the creative juices flowing, he paints cars in oils on canvas, and even has an easel in the office so that in quiet moments he can pick up a brush. And for his team of designers there will now be a new creative challenge: Mercedes-Benz Style, a new design consultancy run within the automotive studio that will see the team working on chairs, helicopters and yachts as well as the luxury cars that remain so much in demand.