Beauty through simplicity

Making its second appearance at Villa d’Este, the Vision Future Luxury puts forth a new look for BMW’s big sedans, and some fresh ideas about the nature of luxury. BMW’s automotive design chief Karim Habib explains.

Photo: Beauty through simplicity 1
July 10, 2014

Following its debut at the Shanghai auto show, the Vision Future Luxury concept traveled to Italy’s Lake Como, where it took its place on the concours lawn at Villa d’Este near the MINI Superleggera Concept. To find out what this new concept portends for the future of BMW, we spoke with automotive design chief Karim Habib, who penned 2007’s influential Concept CS (which debuted at Shanghai that year) and the current F01 7 Series, among other projects.

Bimmer: The Vision Future Luxury made its debut in Shanghai seven years after the Concept CS. What’s changed since that time?

Karim Habib: The exercise is a bit different. With the Concept CS, we very clearly wanted to create a four-door coupe, and it was our first foray into the four-door coupe idea. This is a little more about elegance and definitely a lot more about luxury. The CS was more about sport and power, a V12 sports coupe idea. The statement the Vision Future Luxury is making is a bit different. I think you can see it not only in the interior, but also in the exterior. For example, you can see that it’s one continuous line from front to rear. The CS put more focus over the rear haunches.

Bimmer: Does this car emphasize a newfound emphasis on technology and construction at BMW, and is that part of the overall corporate zeitgeist?

Habib: Yes. It is definitely part of the corporate zeitgeist. We’re an engineering company, and I think what we’ve done with the BMW i cars is pretty gutsy, pretty risky, betting on carbon fiber for such big numbers. There is that mentality that we should do things because we can, to a certain level of technology.

There are three elements. There’s technology and the desire to push technology. There’s the fact that we have a portfolio that’s been recently expanding at the lower end, if you will, of the bandwidth. And then there’s the fact that you can now start talking about luxury at BMW, something we haven’t done very openly in the past.

Bimmer: What made that possible?

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Habib: We’ve been playing with that idea since the Concept CS. Also, it’s just the fact that we think the brand can do it. BMW can ask a fair amount of money for its cars. Also, if you’re expanding the portfolio at the bottom end, you need to make sure there’s a balance to that, to make sure that the exclusivity, the aura, stays intact.

Bimmer: How would you describe BMW luxury? What does it consist of? What does luxury mean for your target audience?

Habib: It should be about innovation. It’s not about more wood and more leather. It’s definitely not about more weight and more plush—it’s exactly the opposite, in fact. It’s about light weight. It’s about innovation in every sense of the word.

For example, we want carbon fiber to be visible, because it’s a structural piece, and we want it to be authentic. Can you really do carbon fiber in luxury cars? Our answer is yes, but it has to be done in a certain way. Here, for example, it’s a very fine weave. It’s a small detail, but it helps. And it works quite well in combination with some very natural, traditional materials. For example, there are cracks in the wood, but we said that’s okay. Show those cracks. It’s natural. And we used leather tanned with olive oil, and which will darken where you touch it and will age over the years to have a patina that will hopefully be charged with positive memories.

Bimmer: And human interaction.

Habib: Exactly, and history.

It’s also about light weight. It’s hard to talk about light weight within a traditional understanding of luxury, but it’s also something that’s expensive, and that’s hard to produce in the millions. You can only produce it in small numbers, and because it’s small numbers it’s expensive. There’s a kind of natural exclusivity to it, which then creates luxury, because you decide, consciously, to use technology that is difficult, technology that requires time, that requires investment.

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That, combined with the whole idea of the digital world. That’s also a big question: How ‘luxury’ can you do this whole digital thing? You can, if we as designers choreograph this information. We’re pretty much competing with the Apples of this world, and you have to offer the customer—who has an iPhone with a certain resolution, software that evolves very quickly—something that works on that level. It has to feel just as modern.

We have a head-up display, we have a central cluster and we have a central display,. You can actually use that three-dimensionality in combination to create something unique, and something typically BMW. That’s the second major statement.

Bimmer: What are some historical precedents for a concept car like this? Or is it a clean slate?

Habib: At BMW, it’s always a mixture, because we’re always going to have the double kidneys and so on. There’s no clear inspiration from the past about this car.

What was important to us, though, is that we rehabilitate not only a luxury as a word, but also beauty—beauty and simplicity, or beauty through simplicity. There are few big gestures, but the gestures that are present are quite big and quite bold.

Bimmer: What really pleases your eye?

Habib: The major thing is the proportions. They’re very spot on, even the rear deck, which is a bit shorter than we usually do it to make it a bit rounder, a bit more compact, a bit unusual for a big luxury car.

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Those kind of things are a tweak that make it unique, in my opinion. I love the fact that the body side is basically one line at the top, one feature at the bottom and the rest is just working with volumes. And the interior, the overall proportions with the very slim dash—one frame that almost works like calligraphy from thin to thick all the way around…

The idea was that you have materials that have sort of been bound together through time, and then you mill through it to find stratification. You see it clearly in the console. The first layer is the leather layer, and you mill down to get to the carbon fiber, or on top to the displays. It’s all about these geological layers.

Bimmer: As head of car design, you know what the future is like in terms of BMW’s production cars, but for those of us who don’t know that, what are some of the most important elements to this car?

Habib: There are a few things. First of all, aerodynamics: how you stage aerodynamics, how you work with aerodynamics. That’s something we started with the air breather. Here we want to stage it in a new way with milled aluminum so it can actually become a pretty intricate and essential part of the statement. It’s not just ornament. It’s ornament connected to function.

We also have an air curtain and air breather over the rear wheel. It will not happen exactly like that in production, but it’s how you work with aerodynamics. That’s the idea.

Bimmer: How does that influence the shape of the car at the front?

Habib: At the front, we tried to focus where air comes in, and also how it leads around the corner. When you have an edge [like this one at the front fender], depending on the acceleration of the surface before the edge, it really helps to control the way the air goes around the car. What’s important is to always have a pretty long surface in front of the front wheel to make sure the air sticks to the side. It’s always difficult because we want short overhangs, but cars with long overhangs have an advantage for aerodynamic goals. We discovered over time that you can really tune that by how you create that corner.

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Otherwise, we tried to focus the air intake on the kidneys, visually and functionally. You still need air at the bottom, but we tried to hide it, to have a blade in front. I don’t think the customer really cares how much air the engine needs. He or she wants it to work. We want the kidneys to be present, to be an efficient air intake solution, and we want to keep the rest clean. When you talk about M, that’s a different story. But for a luxury car like this—you can’t say it’s understated, but…

Bimmer: It’s almost exuberant. I’m seeing a little Virgil Exner in that kidney grille.

Habib: Whoa! Okay…

Bimmer: It’s a lot of chrome.

Habib: It is. Obviously, for a show car we upped the ante a bit. But I think what’s really important is the proportion of kidneys to headlamps. You can make kidneys look much bigger with thin headlamps. You can also create a statement of high tech with very thin headlamps. They’re actually kind of reduced. We made the double round a bit more technical, with a blue highlight because it’s a laser lamp, and because it’s a laser we can be that thin.

Bimmer: Is there a directive from above to use more carbon fiber? Or is that an impetus from within the design department of wanting to explore the possibilities?

Habib: It’s more from us. We know it’s a technology that the company has decided to use, and it can be a bit tricky. We know that economically it’s a bit of a challenge. But what’s most important is that for us good design is authentic design. To be authentic, you have to show what you’re using, to show what it actually is on the inside.

That’s the idea. Don’t use carbon and hide it.

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