The Second Act Of The World's Most Controversial Car Designer

Chris Bangle was the most infamous car designer during his 17-year tenure at BMW. Now, he's drawing cartoons in the Italian countryside.

Over the 17 years that Chris Bangle served as head of design at BMW, he became in equal measure one of the most famous and one of the most loathed designers working in the industry. Bangle drastically departed from the design language that BMW had become known for in the 50 years prior, and made enemies of purist BMW fans in the process—though many would later admit that the designs aged well. In 2009, he left the car giant and started up his own design consultancy firm.

Chris Bangle & Associates is headquartered in Clavesana, a small town in the Piedmont region of the Italian countryside. Bangle runs it with his wife, Catherine, and employs two secretaries as his only full-time employees. Otherwise, he hires a cadre of mostly local freelance designers to work on various projects, and taps into his network of designers and friends in a variety of disciplines to help on a case-by-case basis. For a recent project working on the design of a nursing home in Japan, for example, he pulled in a local Italian architect as well as a Japanese colleague who has been designing cars for 30 years. Together, they reimagined the common spaces in the home to be more interactive, adding in design elements like a pole topped with a sports car steering wheel that residents can hold on to while waiting for the elevator.

When Bangle moved from Fiat to run design at BMW in 1992, he was brought on to reimagine the company's design philosophy completely—and that's exactly what he did as his detractors will all too gleefully tell you. He was criticized harshly by car fans for taking BMW's sleek lines and tasteful design and replacing them with complicated, seemingly nonsensical, often boxy shapes. These were designs that hadn't been seen in car design before. (As he told David Kiley at Bloomberg, "We aren’t copying anyone else’s design language, not even our own, and I think that makes some people uncomfortable.") In founding his own firm, Bangle says, he wanted to do that for a variety of companies, working in areas as diverse as consumer electronics to packaging to environmental graphics to, yes, even car design.

"I wanted to found a design company of associates for the reason that I believe in co-innovating, with everyone from clients to engineers, marketing and end users," he says. "The clients we have are still classic design clients. But they are clients that want more than just product design, they want their own company to embrace design and grow along the way."

As a design consultancy, there aren't many projects Bangle can talk about in specific terms. According to the firm's website, it has consulted on projects for companies as high-profile and varied as Adidas, Mattel, and Samsung (to rumors that he plays a big design role for the latter, he's only said he's one of several people outside the company helping create product experiences for Samsung's customers). He mentions designing for an assisted living facility in Japan, and packaging for an alcohol company as well as a huge environmental graphics project, but otherwise remains relatively tight-lipped.

The other side of the firm speaks to Bangle's more eccentric side: He and his wife's long-time interest in art has culminated in various projects such as Arky Arch, a cartoon that follows the wacky adventures of an anthropomorphic Triumphal Arch. There's also the Big Bench Community Project—literally a series of giant benches in a park near the studio that dwarf sitters, much to the delight of tourists. These projects at times come out of client projects or serve as inspiration for the team in between work, and are under the purview of one of the dedicated secretaries.

As for client work, Bangle says that right now nearly his entire team of freelancers are busy working on one large project that involves the development of an electric car, the first car project in a while that he's felt truly excited about. Although it is still too early to know if the car will be an autonomous vehicle, Bangle says he's not currently involved in the race to build self-driving cars. But he is keeping an eye on it.

The autonomous car industry has stalled, Bangle says, because people are waiting to see what it becomes before it can move forward. Driverless functionality and ride-sharing, "dramatically changes the meaning of a car," he says. "We'll have to decide, what is [a car] to me? Something I make money on?" Tesla, he says, is doing the best work in this space ("You have to give props for their gung-ho approach"), but until it and other companies designing autonomous vehicles fully decide on the answer, there won't be any significant movement forward.

Bangle, always a firm believer that people a buy car because they are emotionally engaged with it, says that the design of autonomous vehicles still leaves a lot to be desired. "People have a right to be critics," of the current crop of driverless cars, he says. The jury is still out on whether autonomous cars will still require the driver to be paying attention, for instance, and the aesthetics of Google's self-driving carhave been criticized for being unsophisticated. "I don’t think it’s moving forward as quickly as it could. The entire industry is holding its breath to see how this new paradigm will function."

Bangle has always been a bit of an evangelist about the emotional quality of objects (in fact, he tells a story about the origins of this design philosophy, which involve his mother attributing feelings to the dinner dishes, on the first episode of Arky Arch). It's an approach to car design that has made his designs for BMW both reviled by traditionalists and, eventually, an inspiration for other companies. It's also a design philosophy he applies to whatever he is designing or consulting on. "To me, it’s all car design," Bangle says. "The way I describe car design, and transmitting emotion into the design process—it’s all the same type of thing. I never left that side of car design. What I did leave is having a team of 500 people responding to you and that’s been a big change."

True to style, it's even something he's imbued in his Triumphal Arch cartoon. "In a sense, [Arky Arch] is an enterprise I personally consider car design," he says. "The idea of using things in our life and giving personality and character without adding hands or eyeballs or feet. That’s what car designers should be promoting as a skill set."

[All Photos: courtesy Chris Bangle & Associates]