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There can be few more comfortable places to be than inside a top of the range BMW. Cocooned in top quality leather, every detail carefully crafted, the cars' interiors would put most living rooms to shame.
In 2002 BMW produced over one million cars, some of them made in South Africa, all of them styled under the direction of head of materials and colour, Sabine Zemelka. After initially studying product design, Zemelka started work in the car industry 26 years ago. She joined BMW in 1986 and is now based at the Forschungs und Innovationszentrum, or FIZ, BMW's extensive R&D centre in Munich which is home to a design department of 280 technicians, engineers and, of course, designers.
These are interesting times for BMW. The group had been criticised in Germany for a conservative approach characterised as "eine wurst, drei grosse" or "one sausage, three lengths" - the implication being that all BMWs look the same, they just come in different sizes. In response, the manufacturer appointed American Chris Bangle as head of design in 1992 and charged him with putting design at the heart of the company. The first major new car produced under Bangle's leadership was the revamped 7 Series, whose chunkier, more bulbous lines were met with a hail of criticism (there's even an online Stop Chris Bangle petition). Undaunted, BMW is set to launch an incredible 20 new models over the next six years, including a 1 Series for young buyers, a new 6 Series aimed at the top end of the market plus new variants of the BMW-owned Mini.
Zemelka's role in this is becoming ever more central. "The importance of material and colours has changed substantially in the last 20 years," she says. "In the big era of car design - from the 30s to the 60s - the exterior was very significant in expressing passion and identity, but the interior was a secondary factor with a purely ornamental function." But now it is recognised that the use of different materials and finishes inside a car is a vital factor in attracting consumers, creating, as Zemelka says, "strong character and powerful points of distinction." With so many cars now on the market, the designer's task, she says, is to "create a face in the crowd". The exterior of the car provides the initial visual hit, while the richly detailed interiors come into play as the potential buyer takes a second, closer look. The two work in tandem as do the two sets of designers.
As no college offers a specific course in the design of car interiors, Zemelka's team come from all disciplines including product, fashion and textile designers. "Our work is a junction point between car design and the implementation of trends from other areas including fine art, architecture and fashion to reflect the zeitgeist," she explains. "We find many ideas and suggestions in other product areas - we are like hunter-gatherers."
BMW develops most of the materials used themselves - it even owns two leather factories. The process starts four to five years before the introduction of a new model. As it can cost around $1billion to research, design and equip a plant to produce a new model, the stakes are high. And, as Zemelka notes, it's no use creating something that will look dated within months: "the design must remain appealing for many years - be innovative at the beginning but sustain the effect through the life cycle of the car."
It must also be true to the BMW brand: "all BMWs must have a family resemblance - the challenge is to take current trends from other areas and translate it into the BMW design language. But there is no bible defining the BMW design style, it is developed by the team working together."
That team must invent many different variations for one model - the new Z4 roadster, for instance, has ten paint colours, four levels of equipment and 76 different options for customers to choose from. "We have different options for different tastes - if you don't like, say, wood you can choose something else, you can adapt the car to fit your own personality."
But even though there are options, the enormous costs involved ensure that car designers are far more restricted in their work than their contemporaries in other areas of practice. Zemelka herself admits to feeling like she is on "a different planet" to other designers. At London's Royal College of Art, the car designers are easily distinguishable at the annual degree shows - they're the ones wearing ties.
Nonetheless, the principles at work would be familiar to any of her colleagues. Zemelka sees her task as to elicit "emotion, desire and fascination" in viewers of her work. Not bad words to live by for any designer.