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Chris Bangle is probably one of the most prominent as well as most controversial contemporary automobile designers.
In 1992, the American who had previously worked at Fiat, was recruited by BMW to update the brand’s old-fashioned image. And he took his task quite seriously. His work as BMW Head of Design Development and Head of Designworks has left a major impact on the brands look. Bangle was BMW's overall Head of Design between 1992 and 2009.
The Controversial and Innovative Designer
His designs are characterized as futuristic and described as deconstructivist. Their deconstructive element lies in the dissolution of the commonly held equation of function, material and form. From his work and words it is quite apparent that Bangle perceives automobile design as something more complex than sheer function oriented product design. In one of his lectures he argued, that ‘Cars are art, cars are what we are’.
Beyond a broad design philosophy, Bangle introduced concrete design elements too. For example, he added flame surfacing to the design language dictionary, and his square rear design introduced with the E65 7 Series (and actually designed by van Hooydonk) became known as the Bangle Butt - not necessarily meant as a compliment by his critics.
The BMW traditionalists were rather offended by his innovative approach and in 2002 even a petition was launched under the title Stop Chris Bangle calling for BMW to fire its chief designer. Also fellow automobile designers criticized his creations openly. J. C. Mays, working for Ford, was quoted calling the BMW 1 Series a ‘shit ugly car’. However, BMW did stand by him and Bangle remained with the brand for 17 years, time enough to leave a lasting imprint on its design philosophy.
The climax of controversy was reached with his 2001 7 Series, a longstanding classic in the BMW fleet, which was not received well by the media. Time Magazine named it as one of the 50 Worst Cars of All Time. In the follow-up Bangle saw his influence dwindling and Adrian van Hooydong (today’s BMW Chief Designer) gained prominence at his expense.
However, despite all criticism have his designs been successful commercially and made BMW the biggest producer of premium vehicles. Also the most controversial 7 Series became the best-selling of all time. His success might be explained by the fact, that Bangle did on the one hand alienate traditionalist (German) BMW customers, while on the other hand he enhanced the brand’s appeal on the international markets, especially USA, Russia and China.
The Spacy Artist
Bangle has basically managed to turn himself into a brand too, not only by selling and discussing his works, but also through controversial statements relating to his employer and eccentric behaviors. For example, he was heard complaining about the BMW top managers behaving like foolish youngsters during test rides, calling them ‘goddamn management idiots’.
Moreover, his creative handling of the English and German languages served as particular entertainment to his German audience and became known as Bangle-Speak. A famous quote referring to the 7 Series goes as follows:
‘Das ist eine der most emotional Motorhaube effect, das wir haben je in eine BMW gehabt. Ich fand das wirklich beautiful, wie diese Form zeigt die Verspiegelung von der Natur durch diese Skulptur.’
(This is one of the most emotional bonnet effects that we ever had in a BMW. I found it very beautiful how this shape mirrors nature through sculpture.)
Other famous expressions are ‘the sovereign Sportlichkeit’ (souvereign sportiveness) and ‘den creative Eleganz’ (creative elegance).
As controversial figure in terms of design aesthetics and philosophy but also in terms of his personality, Bangle has achieved a level of prominence very few automobile designers have. The value of this prominence to the BMW brand and himself, should not be underestimated.
Life before and after BMW
Chris Bangle was born October 14, 1956, in Ravenna, Ohio and grew up in Wisconsin. He studied at the Art Centre College of Design in Pasadena, CA, USA. His first employments were with Opel and Fiat. At Fiat he co-designed the Fiat Coupé and Alfa Romeo 145.
Since his departure from BMW not much has been seen from Chris Bangles. According to the brand’s website, he wanted to complete the construction of his private house in Italy and was planning to establish his own design studio.
Today Chris Bangle celebrates his 54th anniversary. Probably in his house under the Italian sun. We say HAPPY BIRTHDAY! and are looking forward to see what comes next.