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A meeting between two design giants: One is the most influential car designer of the 20th century. The other is leading the design for the entire BMW Group into a new, fascinating, yet challenging era. We spoke to Giorgio Giugiaro and Adrian van Hooydonk during the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este at Lake Como about the legendary BMW M1, designed by Giugiaro, the future of the BMW design language, and the design challenges they are currently facing.

4 August 2022

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Mr. Giugiaro, Mr. van Hooydonk, let’s start by talking a little about the past, the present, and future of BMW Design...

Giorgio Giugiaro: Adrian van Hooydonk is the future, I’m the past (laughs).

Then the question is about the past and the future: What do you feel when you see the beautiful BMW M1 here in this stunning landscape? After all, we are celebrating 50 years of the BMW M.

Giugiaro: A person who has dedicated their whole life to research and design usually only gets to see whether their work was good and meaningful many decades after the fact. At the same time, they also see what they could have done better. When I see the BMW M1 here, I’m surprised. It’s a bit egoistical of me, but I could say that it’s a pleasant surprise. I think the vehicle still has a raison d’être.

Adrian van Hooydonk: When I look at the BMW M1, I see a very exciting but in no way complicated vehicle. What’s more, it’s a compact sports car. I like these three components. That’s why the BMW M1 is still – and will continue to be – an outstanding example of how you don’t have to make things overly difficult to create a strong character and an exciting vehicle.

BMW M Adrian van Hooydonk Giorgio Giugiaro Design Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este BMW M Adrian van Hooydonk Giorgio Giugiaro Design Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este

Would you get in and go for a drive?

van Hooydonk: Of course! I have already driven the BMW M1 and, although it is not built for really tall people like me, it’s one of those cars that you can fit into.

Giugiaro: It’s a sports car that can accommodate even Mr. van Hooydonk, thanks to its spaciousness. So it’s not really all that cramped – in that sense, it’s a fairly tame sports car.

What did the unusual design of the BMW M1 mean for BMW back in 1978? And what does it tell us now when we look at the modern BMW vehicles of the present?

van Hooydonk: The BMW M1 was the first real, 100 percent BMW M model. As we all know, BMW M started out as a motorsport company which then had the idea of building a road vehicle. The BMW M1 is the first. It was designed to be a performance car from the beginning. But Mr. Giugiaro knows the whole story much better (laughs).

Giugiaro: It was a time in which design and architecture were going through major changes. It was a time in which the series production vehicles were somewhat flattened due to various design requirements. The BMW M1 reflects these characteristics wonderfully: It is as wide as possible and has a very angular design. The question is whether its impact has suffered or benefited due to the changes of the past decades. That offers enough room for interpretation. Change is inevitable – it just is. In the past, there was a big difference between sports cars like the BMW M1 and the high-performance series production vehicles. Today, everything is a lot closer together.

van Hooydonk: Mr. Giugiaro and his team used a simple but clever principle when designing the BMW M1: If a vehicle is rounded, it automatically looks short. Due to its angular design, the BMW M1 doesn’t just appear longer and more stretched, it also looks more elegant.

Mr. van Hooydonk, what characterizes the design approach of BMW?

van Hooydonk: At BMW, it’s about proportions and designing a car that looks like it’s moving even when it’s standing still. It’s also about creating a design that isn’t too convoluted but is the product of a strong character. Nowadays, BMW Group builds many vehicles. The challenge is giving them all their own character – that’s what we work on every day. But the most important thing is to fulfill their purpose as simply and as cleanly as possible. Design doesn’t have to be complicated to look fantastic.

BMW M Adrian van Hooydonk Giorgio Giugiaro Design Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este BMW M Adrian van Hooydonk Giorgio Giugiaro Design Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este

Mr. Giugiaro, if you look at the development of BMW Design, in particular with regard to the last few years with Mr. van Hooydonk as head of BMW Group Design, what has impressed or surprised you the most?

Giugiaro: In my opinion, sales pressure is forcing manufacturers to create more aggressive and diverse forms. We both worry that the search for new designs is becoming too hectic. The competition is huge – these days, it’s not enough to just find one’s own identity, although that’s an important aspect, of course. Unfortunately, everyone is looking for too many details. I don’t think that’s a good thing. That isn’t meant as a criticism; it’s an observation. After all, I am first and foremost an engineer and not a designer. People don’t know what they should be doing anymore. Research has become sluggish in parts, and the search for new design details is getting out of hand. The BMW brand, however, is still strong and creates great products with a clear, expressive design.

What are the key factors in designing a new vehicle – today and for the future? Will it become increasingly complex?

van Hooydonk: I think it will, as a car is composed of so many individual parts. A headlight comprises 60 parts, for instance, while a taillight has 40 parts – this makes the design process quite difficult. That’s why I completely agree with Mr. Giugiaro. If you can manage to come up with a clean, simple design language, it will stand the test of time. But in general, it is more difficult to simply focus on how the car will look these days, as we have to comply with a multitude of intricate laws. And we have plenty of competitors, of course. However, BMW Design will always go its own way with design language with a strong character.

Mr. van Hooydonk, can you give us an idea of what to expect from BMW Design over the next few years – in particular with regard to the start of the Neue Klasse in 2025? What can customers expect from each BMW in terms of electrification, digitalization, and sustainability?

van Hooydonk: In the next five years, we will experience huge changes in technology. We will use them as an opportunity to significantly change BMW Design. It will become more authentic, much more modern, and even cleaner. Everyone will recognize these changes at first glance – nevertheless, they will always know that these are vehicles from BMW.

BMW M Adrian van Hooydonk Giorgio Giugiaro Design Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este BMW M Adrian van Hooydonk Giorgio Giugiaro Design Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este

To conclude, let’s get a little philosophical: Do you believe that automobile design can change our whole life or make the world a better place?

van Hooydonk: I am certain that our design has a huge influence on society. When we design a vehicle, the first thing we look at is how to use resources in a sustainable and responsible way. We measure the energy that we need to manufacture a BMW. Ultimately, though, customers usually decide whether they like a vehicle or not based on the design. If we manage to overcome the economic and ecological challenges that vehicle manufacture entails on one hand, and on the other hand manage to create something beautiful, then we can influence the behavior of customers on an emotional level and inspire them, for example, to drive an electric vehicle from BMW. This is our great responsibility, and it can bring about a greater change in society than telling people what not to do.

Giugiaro: It’s now all about costs, performance, and aesthetics. The aesthetic factor is still important, even if new generations are increasingly attracted by other features in the vehicle. It’s a commercial and economic question. Laws are passed that should improve the welfare of the citizens. These become safety regulations, which Mr. van Hooydonk and his team have to deal with, all over the world. Everything has to fit together and match. That is a huge challenge for automobile manufacturers, yet buyers are to a large extent unaware of this. But I see more and more clearly how the automobile is becoming more and more the focus of social interest.

To finish, here’s a hypothetical question: If you could design a BMW together as a team...

van Hooydonk: ...then it would certainly be a very special car (laughs).

Giugiaro: It would be elegant, spacious, and authentic (laughs).

Author: Barnabas Szoecs; Art: Verena Aichinger, Madita O‘Sullivan; Photos: Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos