At last month’s New York Auto Show, we had the opportunity to chat with Hans-Dieter Futschik, director of passenger car design at Mercedes-Benz. We grabbed his ear, a microphone, and a seat between the new E-class cabriolet and the SLS AMG, and discussed past, present, and future design for the company and the industry as a whole. He may be one of the least controversial car designers currently working for a German company, but he’s quite good nonetheless, and he had plenty of interesting thoughts to share with us.
KM- There’s strong commonality in the design the current Mercedes-Benz lineup, and that usually means that a whole new generation of design is coming. Does the F800 Style concept unveiled in Geneva indicate a new design language for all future models?
HDF- Yes, although it isn’t showing exactly how future designs will be. But that’s a research car, so it is of course an indicator of style.
KM- While some of your fellow German brands are abandoning the past with more recent designs, your cars, like the new E-class, embrace some classic Mercedes design elements. Can you talk a bit about why heritage is so important?
HDF- The importance of heritage depends on the brand and the expectation of customers. Mercedes-Benz has a deep history, deep roots, in our style. What we try to offer customers is a styling statement that says this is a brand; that we have the history and the experience and a position in the market. We think our customers appreciate and expect that. They want to see that a Mercedes is always a Mercedes, that there is not a break between a successor and a predecessor. It’s an evolutionary way of designing cars — continuity is something we want to express. We want to go in one direction, not many, and we have and will continue that.
KM- The CLS-class defined an all-new type of vehicle that’s since been copied many times. What is the next niche waiting to become popular?
HDF- We are watching the market very carefully. We’re seeing what is going on and we see a lot of new challenges. For example, we do a lot of new markets like those in Asia. Those markets are growing tremendously and there are new demands, while Europe and America are shrinking. We’re looking for new opportunities, but niches are always changing. Maybe we’ll not continue in one segment, maybe we’ll start a new one.
KM- Two technological concerns come to mind that will be important for future designs—reducing weight and allowing space for advanced powertrains like batteries or fuel cells. How are these factors impacting your upcoming designs?
HDF- I’m convinced it has an influence on the major architecture. There are different possibilities with different units like fuel cells or electricity; it’s just a question of optimizing for each. We have to look at these and make a compromise between all powertrains.
We also have to think of expectations. The S-class, for example, is a brand of its own and the expectations of our customers are very defined. For that reason, we will not turn any development 180 degrees. The S-class will always be an S-class, and new ideas are why we have these new niches.
KM- The new SLS AMG is a very specialized vehicle. Is its design meant to stay unique to that car, or will we see some SLS influence with new generations of other sports cars like the SL and SLK?
HDF- What we want to do is offer all these products to our customers, so there must be some differences. But it isn’t a problem to have similarities to define sportiness. You’ll see how we will define it. They have a grille in common already, and we are building a product family with all “SL” cars. There will be other possibilities to underline this family feeling even a bit more, as you will see.
KM- Do you have a favorite current Mercedes-Benz design?
HDF- We are very proud of the SLS AMG (laughs with excitement) and everybody likes it. We were absolutely convinced that the reaction would be positive, but now that it is here the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. That really surprised us. For that reason we’re very happy with that design and it is winning all the design prizes. This is why I like the moment very much, but there are more products coming.
What about a favorite from further back in history?
From the past, the original SL from the ‘50s is an icon; it embodies history. But we have had lots of nice cars, from the thirties, which were very elegant, and from the seventies. Some of those cars are great, and they established the image of Mercedes still today. The first C-class, too, has the possibility of becoming a classic car in the future.
KM- What about cars outside the company you work for. What are some of your favorite non-Mercedes designs?
HDF- I love some of the sports cars from Italy, but what I admire very much is the Citroen DS. When you imagine the time, 1956 — and think about what cars looked like from that time — and then comes the DS; it looks like a spaceship. It was very tough for those guys to go that way, and they could have failed, but they were convinced and they did it and for me it is still a very good design.
KM- Do you have a favorite era of car design on a more general level?
HDF- Sometimes we dream about the freedom designers had in the ‘50s and ‘60s. There were not tight regulations like there are today. When you design a car now, you have to have lots of consultants that can tell you what you have to do. Sometimes it’s a matter of being able to move a surface one millimeter up or down, because there are just so many regulations. Pedestrian protection, and so on, it is all so complicated. So we dream of the past, when designers did things any way they wanted.
KM- As a child, did you know you’d want to become a car designer? Did anything in particular inspire you?
HDF- Well I’ve always been a designer; I studied product design, and I needed a job and went to Mercedes. From that time I’m a car designer. That was the beginning, but a car for a designer is such an interesting thing. You have all these products, furniture, colors, graphic design, whatever. The car goes so deep into the culture; people have a connection with them. If you said “I’m in love with my fridge,” people would look at you like you’re crazy. When you say that about a car, it’s normal. For that reason, a car is a very interesting, complicated product with so many faces and opportunities. It still isn’t boring after more than 30 years. Every new product is a new challenge and you never know how it might end up. It’s always an expedition.
KM- When designing cars, do you consider the aftermarket and what people might do to your vehicles?
We have to. That’s part of the business and we want to earn money. We know individualization is a big part of it, that people want their own cars. We want to offer that possibility through wheels, different lines on the cars, different programs. We have to create possibilities for them. It doesn’t bother me when people alter cars. Why should it? Sometimes when we see tuner cars, it’s a little bit amusing to look and say “Okay, that’s one possibility.” If a customer wants to have it like that, why not? Our business is not teaching good taste, it’s offering customers possibilities.