Gorden Wagener is clearly under some stress.
The 49-year-old chief design officer for Daimler AG enters the presentation room on crutches, looking more than a bit worse for wear. The week prior to this gathering at Mercedes-Benz global design headquarters in Sindelfingen, he fell off a horse. That same week, one of his employer’s bigger sponsorship properties, the top-ranked German national football team, suffered an ignominious and early ouster from the World Cup.
Wagener knows stress. For the past decade, he has been personally responsible for the design direction of all four of the Mercedes-Benz brands: Mercedes-Benz itself, AMG, the EQ electric group and Maybach. They are required to be distinct, and yet interrelated.
“The complexity of product design has increased by a factor of 100,” says the design chief, referencing the speed of change in the industry over the past 10 to 15 years.
When you consider that Daimler AG is the 13th-largest car manufacturer in the world and the most prolific producer of trucks, there’s no small amount of responsibility on Wagener’s shoulders. He must keep his eye trained on an exhaustive range of vehicles, from the smart fortwo to the Freightliner Cascadia.
On this day, Wagener presents his team’s approach to the four Mercedes-Benz sub-brands. There is no equivalent challenge in the automotive industry. Other groups may be responsible for a collection of individual brands. For example, FCA produces everything from the Ferrari 812 Superfast to the Chrysler Pacifica. The VW Group encompasses the likes of Audi, Bugatti and Lamborghini. These are different brands with different logos and unique histories.
But no other manufacturer is attempting to market four different sub-brands, all bearing the same logo. To better understand their approach – and to help fill in the gaps created when Wagener leaves early to continue the healing process – attendees receive a hardcover book, authored by the man himself, entitled "Global Design Travel Log.” Inside, there are images of Wagener visiting his charges in the 11 different Daimler AG design centres around the world.
“Everything we do is about the bipolarity of emotion and intelligence,” he writes in the book. “Emotion is the beauty, the heart and the sex appeal in design, and intelligence is the purity, which creates long-life solutions that are visually high-tech. The combination of these two poles is our design philosophy: sensual purity.”
This philosophy places the four Mercedes-Benz sub-brands on a sliding scale of brand aesthetic hotness, if you will.
The high-performance AMG spin-off is on the steamiest side of things, followed by the Maybach line; the Mercedes-Benz sub-brand ventures towards a cooler climate, while the forthcoming EQ electric is rooted in the cool shade. But there is a commonality that links all four together: a focus on luxury, whether it be performance-based, modern or progressive.
“Luxury is something that changes over time,” Wagener says, speaking about the capacity of luxury in design to be a thrill and a curiosity. “The experience is key. We want our customers to be excited, inspired and fulfilled [by our designs] – and to have fun.”
The design approach for the mother brand, Mercedes-Benz, may be the most difficult challenge. It’s the brand that sets the stage for the others to follow, and, indeed, the AMG and Maybach lines include spinoffs of Mercedes-Benz vehicles, amped up to 11 in terms of performance and/or luxury.
The focus for the main brand is what the design gurus call “timeless luxury,” characterized by technology and craftsmanship working in harmony. The base colours are expected – black and silver – but they’re used to open the door to warmer hues, both for exteriors and interiors. The exterior design showcases a dominant front grille and dynamic character lines along the silhouette to emphasize speed and grace. Consider the Mercedes-Benz design ethic a half-finished work of art, which the other sub-brands build and play on.
In the Mercedes-AMG room, the spotlight is on the all-new AMG GT 4-Door Coupé. In GT63 S form, the forthcoming model will be the most powerful AMG car of all, with 630 horsepower. This ultra-handsome sedan and the AMG GT are the only two models exclusive to the Mercedes-AMG sub-brand – all other AMGs are speedier versions of Mercedes-Benz models.
The Mercedes-AMG colour palette is grounded in dark greys and blacks, punctuated by red. The exterior shapes of the vehicles are accented by larger air intakes and more overt aerodynamic touches, including rear wings where appropriate. And there’s a front grille that’s specific to the AMG line-up: The so-called “Panamericana” design, with its 15 vertical chrome struts, which echoes the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL that captured the famous Mexican road race in 1952.
Describing the Mercedes-AMG offering, Wagener uses terms like “athletic beauty,” “boldness” and “the aesthetics of power.” He also refers to the race-bred technology that infuses this particular sub-brand. The carmaker’s Formula One team, it’s worth noting, operates under the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport banner.
“Motorsport is what drives us every day,” confirms Bernd Stegmann, director of brand and marketing strategy.
Fun is also on display in the Mercedes-Maybach room, where a concept car unveiled at this year’s Beijing Motor Show takes centre stage. This outrageous-looking SUV, the Vision Mercedes-Maybach Ultimate Luxury, must be seen to be believed.
With its towering ride height, giant tires, wind turbine-shaped wheels, split rear window and truncated trunk, this all-electric concept appears to be influenced by everything from 1930s American metal to some distant point in the future. To further emphasize the audacity of the design, there’s the white interior treatment, blue ambient lighting, a custom Chinese tea set for backseat passengers to enjoy and rose gold metal accents.
While the current Maybach production fleet comprises just one car – a take on the S-Class executive sedan – a host of concepts over the past few years indicates that Wagener has bigger plans for the sub-brand. In comparing Mercedes-Maybach to other “ultimate luxury” competitors, such as Bentley or Rolls-Royce, he mentions “sophisticated beauty” and a clear focus on the latest technology as key differences.
“Design transfers technology into a luxury experience,” says Wagener.
The forthcoming all-electric EQ sub-brand is driven by new technology in both design and function. The EQ vehicles will be characterized by white, silver and black exterior shades with something called “EQ blue” providing a visual hi-tech punch. Aerodynamics also play a key role here. The EQ concept is nothing if not silky smooth: recessed door handles, concealed joints and modest air intakes keep the aerodynamic flow going.
According to Wagener, the EQ line also presents a new approach to using technology to create a better driver experience, regardless of how tech-hungry a customer might be. For example, he describes how the latest UX systems – which allow drivers to remove all information from screens except the essentials – provide the luxury of being in open space.
This day of immersion into the world of Mercedes-Benz design finishes off with another first: the reveal of an automotive sculpture, created for the design forum.
This sculpture, called Aesthetics Progressive Luxury, is a metallic work of art inspired by the aerodynamic shape of racecars from the past. In particular, it’s an homage to the Mercedes-Benz W125 Rekordwagen, in which Rudolf Caracciola raced at 432.7 km/h over a one-kilometre stretch of autobahn in 1938.
One further interesting aspect of the Aesthetics Progressive Luxury sculpture: It foreshadows a concept car that will reportedly be unveiled at this year’s Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, and that car will be released under the EQ sub-brand, which hints at an exciting, electrified future.
Interesting times for Mercedes-Benz design, then – but no less stressful for the man in charge.