"I am very much influenced by the American approach to management, which is more positive and motivational." Those are words you wouldn't expect to hear from someone who leads global design for a 128-year-old German car company, yet that's what Gorden Wagener, head of Design at Mercedes-Benz, says when asked to explain how he envisions design differently from his predecessor, Peter Pfeiffer. The 39-year-old-the second youngest person to achieve that position-is more comfortable in crisp business suits and ties than the stereotypical black turtleneck, sport coat and designer jean wardrobe worn by most designers these days. "I believe that design is a very, very professional business," he explains. Before you question whether Wagener has what it takes to be cool, think again-he's the guy who penned the Mercedes SLR roadster and coupe, cars that are anything but conservative.
More Than a Wall Flower
He spent his formative years in the German industrial city of Essen, and doodled in notebooks when he was bored during academic studies. His love for automobiles drove him to think about becoming an automotive designer. "With art, everything is always in two dimensions, which I found lacking. I wanted to work on something that was lasting, mass produced and was three dimensional, not just a piece that hangs on a wall." He studied industrial design at the University of Essen, then transportation design at the Royal College of Art in London.
After brief stints at GM, Mazda and Volkswagen (where he worked on the Phaeton and T5 Minibus), Wagener settled into Mercedes in 1997. He worked on the interior design of the previous-generation E-Class, then the SLR, a product which helped him garner Pfeiffer's attention: "This was such a prestigious project to award to a rookie," he admits. Shortly after that, Wagener led the design group for Mercedes SUVs and then the brand's highest-volume models, the C- and E-Class. In 2005, Mercedes transferred him to California to head the company's advanced design studios. From the start, Wagener knew he wanted to land in the top spot in the design office: "This has always been my aim and my goal. I knew that Mercedes always looked for internal solutions when it came to succession."
The Rubber Meets the Road
Now he's got the job. "This is a big thing that I am holding in my hands, the Mercedes brand, and I have to consider that and be careful to keep its historical value, but I also realize that Mercedes has to be innovative from a technology and design standpoint and I have to balance that." When some designers say "historical," "retro" isn't far behind, but Wagener says he will never move the brand into a retro direction. In fact, he's not a big fan of traditional 20th-century German design, particularly the Bauhaus and Ulm schools, because, he says that the pure form-follows-function approach minimizes emotion. "That's an essential part of design and that's why I love to design cars."
Wagener says he wants Mercedes to take design in a new direction, one where each vehicle segment family has its own character, as opposed to an all-encompassing design theme across all segments: "At Mercedes, every car is a very individual character." He points to the BlueZERO fuel cell concept vehicle as a vision of what lies ahead: "It is inspired by nature and is a very emotional design having some beautiful shapes…you can call it sexy if you like. Mercedes wants to become the leader in green technology and with our design we will show it."
Wagener's Latest Creation: 2010 E-Class
Saying the E-Class is a critically important product for Mercedes-Benz is making an understatement. More than 1.5 million copies of the current-generation car have been sold around the world since its launch in 2002. The task of building on that success lies with the new '10 E-Class, which arrives in the U.S. in July. The design, led by Mercedes' new global design director Gorden Wagener, marks a significant change in the form language for the German luxury brand: "We have gone from an almost baroque, soft design to something that is modern, crisp and contemporary, like the Frank Gehry design of the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles."
While the car retains the four-eye face of its predecessor, its wide stance and prominent grille provide a sense of presence the previous car lacked, Wagener says. One of the more interesting design cues is found on the rear quarter panel, where an upswept line over the rear wheel well gives the E a sense of drama. "This line was used on the Ponton Mercedes in the '50s, and we brought it back because we feel it really pushes the car forward and projects a message of the power of rear-wheel-drive," Wagener says.
The design of the 2010 Mercedes E-Class is meant to evoke a more muscular, contemporary appeal than the outgoing model.