Gorden Wagener Is a Serious Designer. Really.

Gary S. Vasilash

When you’re heading up the design team for what is objectively one of the leading luxury brands on the planet, chances are you’d better be serious about what you’re doing. Gorden Wagener certainly seems to be.

Final questions in interviews with the sorts of people we talk to and write about here tend to be somewhat lighter than what occurs in the middle of what generally turns out to be a discussion rather than something out of an interrogation scene in a movie. Think of a typical interview as having a soft opening, a more substantial middle, and something a bit light at the end, rapport having (likely) been established.

This is not meant to be a Journalism 101 how-to.

Rather, it is something that struck me as being somewhat phenomenal as when I was doing the preparation to interview Gorden Wagener. I read “Interview with Gorden Wagener, Head of Design Daimler AG: Gorden Wagener on his work, his inspiration and good design” on the Mercedes-Benz International Corporate website (mercedes-benz.com/en/mercedes-benz/design/team/gorden-wagener/interview-with-gorden-wagener-head-of-design-daimler-ag/).

It gives you a real sense of the man who has been heading up design at the German company since mid-2008.

The final question asked by his corporate interlocutor, presumably the one that could evoke a smile or even a slight chuckle: 

"Who or what would you have liked to be?"

Which is, of course, an opportunity to say something whimsical or otherwise less serious than what’s conveyed in all that has come before. Not that we’re getting into Barbara Walters’ “What kind of a tree would you be?” terrain.

Wagener’s answer:

Exactly who I am.

Wagener is evidentially serious about who he is and what he does.

And so the interview begins.

On Contrasts, Principles of Good Design AND the Obligatory Apple Reference

Wagener talks of the importance of “Sensual Purity” in design, which he bifurcates into two poles: Cool and Hot. The former is intellectual; the latter is emotional.

It is about combining the two—the “Hey, that’s really cool” with the “That’s smokin’ hot”—in a complementary relationship that the Mercedes designers are working to achieve, but it should not be thought that this combination is going to lead to something lukewarm or otherwise ambient.

Wagener brings up a German designer who has had influence of enormous effect, even though those outside of the design community might not be aware of it: Dieter Rams.

Rams, who did significant products with Braun, who is considered heir to the Bauhaus movement, worked to create designs that were sustainable, not only in the environmental sense, but in terms of having longevity in the market. Wagener notes in this context that vehicle designs by their nature have long lives, as in the designers are creating a vehicle 5 years ahead of market launch, the product is on the market for at least 7 years, then it exists for years afterward in the world. While some might focus on the period of market launch (i.e., something looks fresh and contemporary when it hits the showroom), that’s apparently insufficient for Wagener, who works to achieve something more.

Yes, when Wagener sets about to create a new Mercedes, he aims at something that will be iconic. Something that will last. And be admired.

Rams created 10 principles of “Good Design”: (1) is innovative; (2) makes a product useful; (3) is aesthetic; (4) makes a product understandable; (5) is unobtrusive; (6) is honest; (7) is long-lasting; (8) is thorough down to the last detail; (9) is environmentally friendly; (10) is as little design as possible. Executed correctly, then it is possible for an object—be it an appliance or an automobile—to have longevity.

(It is impossible nowadays to talk to an automotive designer without Apple design coming up even in passing, and that’s the case here. Dieter Rams is acknowledged by Jonathan Ive as being one of his inspirations. And Wagener points out that Rams had an influence on Hartmut Esslinger, who established frog design, and who had a contract with Apple during the early ‘80s, and who essentially created the design language for the breakthrough Apple IIc, which is one of the icons in the Apple collection.)

There is another aspect to the temporal relationship that Wagener has with the vehicles that he and his team design, one that is not about the storied past of many great Mercedes vehicles: “It is my job to create the future,” he states, plainly.

Make no mistake. Wagener has a vision, a vision that he is singularly dedicated to realizing: “Design is not democratic.”

Introducing the E-Class

The occasion of meeting with Wagener is based on the world debut of the Mercedes E-Class.

This car is a “business-class sedan,” but the business isn’t boring, stuffy or otherwise stultifying.

At 193.8 inches in length, it is 1.7 inches longer than the model it replaces. The wheelbase, at 115.7 inches, is up two inches, so there are short overhangs. The hood is long (notably, in what could be consider Rams-like efficiency, the vehicle will launch with a 245-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged four) and the roofline is coupe-like as it arcs through space. The 10th-generation E-Class has a strong feature line running from fore to aft. The rear quarters form shoulders above the wheel arches so there is a sense of power and muscularity to the form.

There is a distinctive, familial look shared by the E-Class as well as by its siblings like the C-Class on one side and S-Class on the other.

The Overall Look Beyond the Vehicles

While it is typically thought that automotive designers simply design the cars and trucks for their respective companies, there is a tradition among designers like Rams and Esslinger that goes beyond the physical objects that represent the companies in the market. They also get involved in how the companies are presented to the market.

And so, too, has Wagener. He points over his shoulder to the sign on the wall behind him with the widely recognized tri-star. And then he goes onto explain that they’ve established a new corporate design language for Daimler. The logo form remains the same, but in all cases they’re using silver as the principal color.

On the one hand there is a certain history to that color—think of the “Silver Arrow” racing cars that the company campaigned—but on the other there is a sense of high technology with the clean sheen.

“Designers,” he says, “give a voice to organizations.”

The Future of Mercedes Design

In January 2015 at CES, Mercedes unveiled its futuristic, autonomous vehicle concept, the F 015. There’s the clean exterior surface and an interior that is more akin to an advanced media room than an automobile.

Yet contrast that with something like the Google Car, with its organic shape that seems to have more affiliation with a Peeps marshmallow candy than a vehicle like the F 015.

Let’s posit that an autonomous vehicle is likely to be a shared vehicle. After all, part of the argument of a new mobility strategy has it that when someone isn’t using their car, someone else might take advantage of its availability, 
and given that the car can operate autonomously, then a few taps on the surface of a smartphone can get the car to where it is required.

So this would change the nature of car ownership. And conceivably make the exterior of the car less important than the interior (after all, this is something that is not necessarily representative of the person inside as is the case with vehicles that are driven, not just occupied).

Does the autonomous future—and realize that Mercedes is at the forefront of putting cars with semiautonomous capabilities on the road right now—have the potential of making car design less important?

Not surprisingly, Wagener doesn’t think so, particularly in the segment of the market where Mercedes certainly has sterling credentials: “We will maintain the luxury aspect of our vehicles,” he states. The exteriors will continue to be as distinctive as the interiors.

As for the other autonomous vehicles? “They’re like trams that run on virtual tracks.”

And while Wagener could undoubtedly design a magnificent tram, it is clear that’s not something that will likely ever to be found in his portfolio.