The cars are traditionally the stars. Rarely do in-house designers outshine their creations to the point that their names are legends throughout the greater automotive community. Chris Bangle is in that exclusive fraternity. Not since Bill Mitchell at GM in the 60s and 70s has one person had so much power and influence over all the designs of a car company.
Bangle’s radical pen strokes at the traditionally conservative BMW made him one of the more controversial figures in automotive design. He was able to provide some insight into his creative purpose during a fundraiser speech for Florida International University's Wolfsonian Museum in Miami. While we consider this intimate lecture a rare opportunity, this is neither a love letter nor an excuse to go "Bangle bashing". Instead Bangle gives a personal glimpse at the art that helped create his dynasty.
Bangle joined the Wolfsonian for a weekend-long celebration of the car as rolling sculpture. While this idea has been used many times before, the Wolfsonian Museum provides the perfect backdrop to emphasize there is life in industrial design. Located in the art-deco nucleus that is Miami, the Wolfsonian specializes in showing there is personality in bricks, mortar, and metal.
While Bangle is an American, there is also a part of him that is distinctly European. His career included sketching for Opel and Fiat before a seventeen-year run heading BMW’s design. His defining car at BMW was arguably the 2002 7-Series. It was a major departure from the traditional style of a BMW. Where historically the cars were understated and sleek, the new 7-Series carried multiple angles that made the flagship sedan louder and more aggressive. The most distinctive feature was a rear truck lid that appears to be at odds with the rear fender. This styling cue became known in the automotive world as the “Bangle Butt” -- a term that may have started out as derogatory, but today Bangle utters it with affection.
It is easy to understand why Bangle doesn’t see polarizing elements as design setbacks. He embraces unique vehicles by incorporating elements that go beyond simple function. Life and personality is what he is looking for in his designs. Bangle speaks with enough affection for unique car designs that finishing a car is like creating a child. He gives it unconditional love, flaws and all.
But Bangle admits that modern cars don’t just live in a vacuum of design, and they must adapt to the reality of the situation. For example, he explains the creation of the Bangle Butt as largely due to: “The reality of engines pushed the hood up 6 cm, and that caused a chain reaction all the way to the end of the car.” In the final product, even the compromises of reality don’t dilute the art of a well-designed car. Bangle believes that when love and passion go into a design, they breathe life and personality into that inanimate object, turning it into “the biggest sculpture ever.”
This life/art balance is where Bangle feels most at home, and his comfort has led to exploring new boundaries. He made the Gina concept car out of fabric so the body could contour instantly to new shapes, including creating a winking feature for the headlights. He has also utilized paper origami to incorporate into sheet metal car bodies.
Even with a better understanding of how Bangle views the automotive world, a large question remains. How did he go from designing the Fiat Coupe (which is widely considered to have understated flowing beauty) to the fourth generation BMW 7-Series? The answer was simple to Bangle: “Fiat wanted a Chris Bangle car.” He continued to explain that BMW wanted him to design a revolution that was distinctly BMW. The result was absolutely successful in ushering a new era of design that is very much seen as Chris Bangle’s BMW. It is somewhat ironic that the vehicles that were supposed to encompass a brand identity became the legacy of their designer.
Regardless of the varying opinions of Bangle’s design, he is a legend. He could quietly retire to his Italian farm, and his place in automotive history would be secure. But that’s not his style. Bangle openly admits that the allure of car design could easily draw him back into the business. That’s the mark of a true car guy.
Chris Bangle Bangle BMW car design features