The Fat Of The Land
The era of German car design superiority has ended.
In a sense, Gorden Wagener was first to read the signs. Who ever had the misfortune of listening to Daimler AG’s Chief Creative Officer blabber about Bauhaus and how it informs current Mercedes design understands that Herr Wagener has not got the first clue what Bauhaus is really about.
Aesthetically, the Sensual Purity® form language Wagener and his minions have devised is virtually the exact opposite of Bauhaus. But Bauhaus is to German design a bit like what Beluga caviar is to luxury food: both are effective shorthand for something few truly know.
In that sense, Bauhaus is almost as over- and abused a term in the automotive design realm as ‘premium’. With each (mis)use, both these cyphers appear to have lost some meaning. Gorden Wagener’s utter lack of understanding of German design heritage underlines this in equally drastic and tragic a fashion - and betrays the lack of substance in the work of today’s supposed scions of Walter Gropius, Max Bill and Otl Aicher.
This lack of intellectual rigour is one sign that the sense of superiority that forms the core of the German ‘premium’ brands’ image is eroding. The product itself betrays this, as well.
Thirty years ago, when Mercedes-Benz churned out the cars designed, rather than styled according to the Bruno Sacco-devised concept of Vertical Homogeneity/Horizontal Affinity, a ‘Benz’ was a much safer, more long-lasting, more diligently engineered automobile than any other. During this period, the appearance of Mercedes-Benz cars manifested this reasonable (rather than excessive) superiority for everyone to see. The solidity of these cars’ construction was made visible through equally solid, yet sophisticated shapes and forms that instinctively suggested that this was a device not just of superior build quality, but also usability, safety and fitness for purpose.
No car maker has ever built a range of cars as in keeping with the intellectual ideals of Bauhaus as Mercedes’ Vertical Homogeneity/Horizontal Affinity range. Gorden Wagener has openly described these designs as ‘forced’, which is just as well, given his sensually pure concoctions are more gin palace than Bauhaus anyway.
However, Mercedes current (as well as first) Chief Creative Officer is but a symptom of the greater malaise the German ‘premium’ manufacturers are facing. Despite overwhelming sales success for the past few years and decades, the justification for German ‘premium’s’ premium becomes increasingly threadbare, certainly in terms of aesthetic added value.
A visit to any major motor show paints a rather bleak picture. For the German brands’ stands overwhelm with their size, the sheer number of models on offer and, in recent years, an onslaught of increasingly confusing sub-brands that muddle the main marques’ image above all else. Yet at the same time, the design on show underwhelms.
The ‘premium’ brands are, of course, mass market players today. And this shows in car designs that feature few original or even focused messages. The clean, uncompromisingly high-quality appearance of the best Audi models has given way to a clumsily geometric (‘but that’s totally Bauhaus!’), ornate, heavy, aggressive aesthetic. BMW’s traditional, rationalised-Italianate visual identity is just as absent in 2018 as the boundless, occasionally ill-advised creativity of the Bavarian cars styled under Chris Bangle. Today, BMWs achieve the feat of being simultaneously generic and fussy. Rather than Bauhaus, this is visual Esperanto, barked with a shout of affected conviction.
Against this background, and disregarding Mercedes-Benz’ rich heritage (to which Herr Wagener pays so little regard), one could almost be led to commend Mercedes’ stylists from Untertürkheim and elsewhere for at least being consistent in their pursuit of faddish vulgarity. But then again, their most recent, avowedly ‘crease-free’ creations suggest that the previous models’ success was more of a lucky accident, rather than the result of thorough deliberations. Which in turn leads to the conclusion that today, we are not so much dealing with design, but rather fashion.
As in fashion, speed also matters greatly in the German automotive design scene of the 2010s. Model after model is launched, niche after niche exploited, with increasingly little changes of substance coming about. It is not diligence anymore, or fastidious attention to detail, or visual deliberation that is putting the premium into a ‘premium’ car design, but soft touch plastics, stitched-on leatherette, aluminium look switchgear and digital displays.
Sustainable design is design that does not age, both metaphorically speaking and in tangible terms. It is also what Germans used to excel at, and which put cars built between the Kiel Canal and the Alps in sharp contrast to charming, but wonkily built British fare, exciting, but brittle Italian motors and the products from Detroit, that used to offset their simple ruggedness by means of planned obsolescence. German cars were never the most exciting to look at, but pleased the eye for a longer period than the more fashionable competition. That is obviously not the case anymore.
The German word Strenge means strictness, as well as rigour and austerity. German design, no matter whether one is talking about the Third Reich’s intimidatory edifices supposed to ‘last a thousand years’, Bauhaus’ radical eschewal of the decorative or the Ulmer Schule’s Gute Form, has always had more than a bit of Strenge to it. Lightness of touch and originality were always the domain of design cultures other than Germany’s. Like many other areas, design has traditionally been no laughing matter to those Germans pursuing it in earnest, no matter what their aesthetic or political leanings. Which makes it even harder to fathom how the German automobile could become an item of fashion, rather than design. Mainstream fashion even.
In contrast to design in general, and German design in particular, fashion is all about the new. It is about speed and instinctive reactions, rather than thoughtfulness and intellect. Given the frantic turnover of new models of automobiles, it is hardly a surprise that the German marques almost inevitably had to stop upholding traditional principles of measured design. Instead, they go with the flow, adding ‘expression’ to any frontal aspect that is not deemed imposing enough for the Chinese, or a tertiary touchscreen, on behalf of that elusive ‘tech-savvy’ customer. That the first case is a sellout of aesthetic values, whereas the latter constitutes a break from the previously sacrosanct devotion to fitness-for-purpose is not just taken into account, but celebrated as an act of free-thinking.
The German ‘premium’ marques’ past success was hardly undeserved. For quite some time, the German design formula simply was, all things considered, that bit more diligent. But neither fluidly animated displays, nor a proliferation of sharply stamped creases are worthy substitutes of long-lasting, visually sustainable forms and superior functionality (which includes omitting unnecessary, distracting frills).
It is not without irony that it was these traditionally German traits and qualities that allowed the ‘premium’ brands to thrive in the first place. But success sometimes devours its children - which means that rather than applying Strenge, German designers (or those working for the German brands) prefer to pander to what ‘the customer’ supposedly demands. Which, given the results this entails, appears like a highly patronising stance to take. After all, there is still an industry selling Bauhaus furniture to people all over the globe, at a considerable, well, premium.
With German automotive design as we knew it being no more, it will only be a matter of time before ‘the customer’ realises that he is not, in fact, buying a device of superior design, but the emperor’s new clothes. With plenty of soft-touch plastics, animated digital displays and conspicuous stitching.
And that, eventually, will not be worth any premium.
Photos: Audi AG (1), Bauhaus Dessau (2), BMW AG (2), Daimler AG (6), all rights reserved
Text © www.auto-didakt.com, all rights reserved