Bohemian Rhapsody, Bavarian Groove?
What to expect from Jozef Kabaň, BMW’s new chief designer.
‘Nothing is as constant as change’ - that these words of wisdom hold true is a lesson BMW Group’s styling department had to learn the hard way in recent months.
Once one of the industry’s hotbeds of creativity (in large parts thanks to previous design boss, Chris Bangle), BMW has recently experienced a bonafide exodus of talent.
Anders Warming, the Wunderkind behind recent landmark BMWs, such as the first-generation Z4 roadster, the GINA concept car or the Concept Coupé Mille Miglia, left the top post at the Mini branch in order to help with Borgward’s ambitious plans to reemerge as a (Chinese-owned) premium brand.
Karim Habib, previously in charge of the BMW brand’s stylistic fortunes, since joined Infiniti, thus leaving his superior, BMW design boss, Adrian van Hooydonk, between a rock and a hard place. Having to appoint two top posts at once is no mean feat, especially considering how BMW styling’s reputation has lost quite a bit of its lustre recently.
Van Hooydonk is therefore likely to have enjoyed a good glass of wine/whisky/champagne after he’d secured the services of Habib’s replacement - Jozef Kabaň.
Kabaň, who had been heading Škoda Auto’s design department since 2008, has won plenty of plaudits for revamping the Czech brand’s styling, which means his appointment acts as quite some coup after BMW had experienced such a drainage of stylists (apart from the high-profile losses of Warming and Habib, the Bavarians had to cope with the departure of quite a few other leading designers during these past months).
Czechoslovakia-born Kabaň joins BMW at a crucial point. Due to the combined effects of the entire industry’s general fear of challenging its customers, as well as BMW’s own latent drive to overcompensate for the stylistic recklessness of the Bangle era, and an unparalleled push to expand the brand’s range to include even the most unlikely of products (the 2 series MPV being the most obvious symptom), the Bayerische Motorenwerke’s core model range’s styling has become utterly stagnant. a
The most recent generation of its 5 series saloon vividly proves the point. At no point in its 45-year-long history has the change from one generation to another been as aesthetically timid. When the beloved E34 generation Five was replaced with its E39 successor in 1995, that new model was heavily criticised for being too evolutionary, too conservative. Yet compared with the changes the new G30 generation brought along, one questions what that fuss was all about, back in the ‘90s.
Kabaň’s own career has so far been restricted to the Volkswagen realm. Having joined the German giant immediately upon graduation from the Royal College of Arts in 1997, he was involved in the designs of the lovely VW Lupo, as well as the lamentable Bugatti Veyron.
Since being put in charge of Škoda Auto’s design, Kabaň utterly revamped the Czech brand’s stylistic language. Whereas his predecessor, Thomas Ingenlath (who is responsible for Volvo’s recent design renaissance), pitched Škodas as friendly, somewhat unassuming, slightly quirky everyday cars without many pretensions, Kabaň helped push the brand upmarket by employing sharp, precise surfacing and detailing that’s reminiscent of traditional Bohemian crystal.
As a result, the current Škoda Superb turned out just like that - it’s easily the most coherent and finely detailed of the mid-size saloons offered by the different VAG brands (Audi included). It’s just a pity that the almost innocent sense of playful functionality that had been the hallmark of Ingenlath-era Škodas (and could be considered a unique selling proposition in today’s market) was lost in the process. Škoda, it could be argued, became too sophisticated for its own good under Kabaň.
But that, of couse, wouldn’t be a problem at a premium brand such as BMW. In fact, it should be very interesting indeed to see what kind of footprint Kabaň will set at the Bavarian brand. Under Habib, BMW mostly went for an approach that was half about restauration (making up for Bangle’s sins) and half about applying the prerequisite ‘expressive’ detailing that’s required from a ‘dynamic’ car brand these days, without going for Mercedes-like excess in this area. Particularly the latter component is strangely consistent, by the way, given Karim Habib had been at Mercedes-Bent for a brief stint when the seeds of Gorden Wagener’s ‘sensual purity’ visuals were sown.
If his previous track record is anything to go by, Kabaň is rather likely to go for more sober a style, with a tendency to focus on clean edginess, rather than the occasionally too voluminous, ornamental forms that had been Habib’s trademark.
BMW’s next concept car should give us a clear clue as to what Kabaň has in mind at his new employer.
Chances are that Kabaň’s unquestionable talents can be put to better use at BMW than at Škoda. The Bavarians could certainly do with a bit of Bohemian Rhapsody.
Photos: BMW AG (5), Škoda Auto (3), www.auto-didakt.com (1), all rights reserved
Text © www.auto-didakt.com, all rights reserved