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The Ultimate Styling Machine?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Except for the overrepresentation of BMWs in the parking lot, there’s nothing about the Designworks/USA building that speaks to its purpose. That’s the way it is supposed to be.

In the closed world of auto design, where secrets are meant to be kept, companies until recently have been loath to advertise the presence of their styling studios.

They still don’t let anyone but insiders wander around inside. But as the business gets increasingly competitive, some auto makers have found there is a benefit to singing the praises of their design operations.

Looks, after all, are critical to sales. Some designers--such as Ford Motor Co.'s mono-initialed J Mays and General Motors Corp.'s whiz Brian Nesbitt, who penned the PT Cruiser when he was at Chrysler--have become pop icons.

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And as talk of the importance of design increases, so does awareness of the influence Southern California exerts.

Almost every major auto company, from Audi to Volkswagen, has a studio in the region (that includes all three of the domestic brands and most of the Asians as well). Ford has two, one for its mainstream products and one for the luxury and performance cars in the new Premier Automotive Group. There are 26 in all--most corporate-owned, a few independent--strung out along a 150-mile coastal strip between La Jolla, where designers at Nissan Design International turned out the Xterra sport-utility vehicle and the forthcoming Z sports coupe, and Newbury Park, where BMW’s Designworks/USA studio has given birth to the company’s K1200 motorcycle, the 3-Series coupe, the initial prototype of the X5 sport-utility and a new version, yet to be seen, of the Z3 roadster.

Unlike most, Designworks is more than an automotive studio, and that gives this growing design house, perched on a hilltop above the Ventura Freeway, a mandate that is both familiar and a little odd, with a range that stretches from cars to printing presses.

It is telling that this BMW facility is closer to the Ventura Freeway than the Autobahn.

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“At first, we bought Designworks to get the advantages of design thinking from California,” said Bernhard Koehler, chief of operations. The studio, which BMW bought outright in 1995, is housed in a 78,000-square-foot facility. It is home to 32 designers, six engineers and 60 others, including a staff of futurists, a group of model makers (some sculpt in clay; others are wizards in three-dimensional computer imaging) and a cadre of fabrication specialists who make prototypes of some of the products the designers dream up.

“But when you are working in Munich, things are smaller,” Koehler said. “The streets are narrower, cars are smaller, everything is closer together. After a while, this place in California was seen as something useful for the growth and development process of our people as well. Coming here helps them open up.”

And come here they do: Fourteen nationalities are represented among Designworks’ 100 staff members, many in California on one-or two-year rotations from the corporate design center in Munich.

“People who work here live everywhere from Malibu and the [San Fernando] Valley to Santa Barbara,” said marketing staff member Chrissy Presser.

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“Driving in from all those places, it gives you time to think,” added Koehler, who said he regularly marvels at the vistas and views of cultures and trends, automotive and otherwise, that aren’t seen in his native Germany.

Another benefit Designworks brings to the BMW Group is that it is one of just a few automotive design studios that also work for outside clients in a variety of disciplines.

Indeed, Designworks President Adrian van Hooydonk figures that BMW brings in only about half the firm’s revenue. The rest comes from clients of its general products, graphics, transportation and advanced communications units.

The next big long-haul truck from Kenworth got its looks in Designworks’ transportation studio. Cell phone maker Nokia’s products for most of the last decade, including the best-selling 5100 series phones, were inked by Designworks’ product specialists. Motorola has just signed on as the design firm’s new cell phone client.

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The look of locomotives from Siemens of Germany, printing presses from Heidelberg USA, tractors from John Deere, snowboards from Atomic, bicycle seats (and their environmentally sensitive recyclable packaging) from Ticor, stove tops from Thermador, even sunglasses and children’s pedal cars from BMW’s Lifestyles unit--all have come from the drawing boards and computers at Designworks.

“A lot of our transportation clients were clients before BMW bought Designworks,” said Greg Brew, head of the transportation unit. None are automotive companies, so there is no competitive market problem, and most have stayed on in part because they like the idea of BMW designers working for them.

The philosophy hasn’t changed with the ownership, Brew said: “When we do our first work for a new client, we like them to be a little bit scared with what we show them. Then we get more pragmatic as we work down to the final production design.”

In addition to steady customers such as John Deere, the transportation unit’s clients have included bus builder MCI, Amtrak (Designworks did interior and exterior studies for a high-speed train that since has been shelved) and, in conjunction with Pasadena-based Art Center College of Design, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which was looking to attract public attention for the unmanned space program a few years ago.

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“We told them to make the space vehicle look like a spaceship instead of a tin can,” Brew said.

Clients like these helped the company log $15.8 million in revenue last year, up from $11.4 million in 1999. Arnd Wehner, chief financial officer, said revenue for 2001 is running about 10% ahead of last year.

The company is unique among automotive design houses in that it is a stand-alone profit center. When Chris Bangle, BMW’s Munich-based chief designer, asks Designworks to draw up proposals for a new 5-Series sedan, “Designworks sends BMW a bill for the work,” Koehler said. “That makes us think very differently, because we have to make a profit.”

Van Hooydonk, who served two years as chief auto designer at the studio before being named president in September, said his role is to encourage the studio’s growth in automotive work for BMW and in projects for outside clients.

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“We work on every production project that BMW has going,” he said. Competition with the “home” studio in Munich is part of the creative process, and when a design from the California studio is selected, as happened with the 2003 Z3 roadster, the designer moves to Germany to stick with the project until the production version is done.

But the secret to turning out those winning designs, Van Hooydonk said, is to continue to expose the auto designers in the west wing of the building to product work--and the product and transportation designers in the east wing to automotive work.

“The days of car designers deriving all their inspiration from the racetrack, or from working under the hoods of their own cars, are gone,” he said. “You have to look at how the consumer looks at cars, and for that you need to know product design and understand that today a car is more than just a mechanical moving object. It is an entertainment center, an information center, a retreat, and you have to know how to design those kinds of things too.”

Because of that, Van Hooydonk prefers to hire designers who have consumer and industrial product experience on their resumes along with their car work.

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The lanky Netherlander, 37, started his career as an industrial designer, working as a freelancer in Amsterdam and for Depro Product Design in Italy before joining BMW eight years ago. In addition to autos, his subjects have included ski boots, audio equipment and kitchen appliances.

He said he intends to continue a tradition of cross-fertilization at Designworks that has auto specialists reassigned to product or transportation units on occasion, and that sends product and transportation design specialists to the auto group.

To Marc Tappeiner, director of product design, that’s the only policy that makes sense.

“Product design was our original business, and it is interesting [to a designer] because of its variety,” he said. “You have to get inside the client company to find out what they are all about, their strengths and attributes, and then you design the product to reflect that.”

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Designworks was started in Newbury Park in 1972 by acclaimed product designer Charles Pelley.

He was hired by BMW in the early 1980s to design a new type of seat for the BMW 8-Series luxury cars, a line since discontinued, and came up with one with an integrated shoulder harness--making the strap more comfortable and the seat stronger than ever.

BMW liked Pelley’s approach--embracing the concept that design is critical to establishing corporate identity and to the creation of products that people want to own and use--so much that the auto maker bought 51% of Designworks in 1985 and set out to integrate the laid-back Southern California design house into its button-down German corporate culture.

In 1995, with Designworks staffers still showing up to work in Levis and T-shirts far more often than in suits, BMW completed the acquisition.

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Excited by Designworks’ growth in outside business and by its growing contribution to BMW’s product line, the parent company two years ago bought an adjacent parcel and set about nearly doubling the size of the facility.

The 38,000-square-foot addition was completed earlier this year and provides the auto design staff with space to walk away from drafting boards and full-size drawings and look at them from a distance--a necessary perspective that was hard to obtain as space diminished in the original facility.

The addition also includes an outdoor turntable, so designers can view models of their work in natural light, and a spacious model-making room with a level one-piece steel work floor 118 feet long--a surface needed for the digitizing machines that measure thousands of points on a clay model’s surface and turn them into digital information for computerized blueprints.

Pelley retired in 1998, just as the expansion plans were being developed, and was replaced by Henrik Fisker, a Danish designer with an automotive background. Fisker, who designed the iconic Z8 roadster for BMW while working in Germany and reportedly was not entirely comfortable overseeing a shop that spent half its time and energy on product work, left in August to become London-based design chief for Ford’s Premier Automotive Group and head designer for its Aston Martin unit.

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Van Hooydonk sees his appointment as a rounding-out of the leadership equation. Pelley, the founder and first president, was a product designer, Fisker was an automotive designer, “and I’m both,” he said.

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Times staff writer John O’Dell covers autos for Highway 1 and the Business section. He can be reached at john.odell@latimes.com.


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