Copyright 2004 The Financial Times Limited Financial Times (London, England) March 2, 2004 Tuesday SECTION: CREATIVE BUSINESS - Openers; Pg. 2 LENGTH: 1150 words HEADLINE: Bangle makes waves This man designs fancy cars. So why do people want to kill him, asks John Arlidge BYLINE: By JOHN ARLIDGE BODY: With his Noel Edmonds-style beard, geeky glasses and neat suit, Chris Bangle does not look like an international hate figure. Standing on a sun-drenched street corner in Munich, he has the air of a trendy American vicar on holiday in southern Germany. But Bangle is a marked man. He receives sack-loads of hate mail and even the odd death threat. Dozens of websites want his head on a plate. Headlines scream: "Is this man off his trolley?" He is accused of being "a spanner", "a wrecker" and much, much worse. No designer has caused such worldwide controversy. None has had to withstand such rabid criticism. And none of it shows the slightest sign of going away. So what is Bangle's crime? He is the car man who "thinks outside the metal box". Bangle is tearing up the style sheet one of the world's most profitable luxury car firms: BMW. Since he arrived at the company's Munich headquarters, he has dumped the marque's traditional, restrained "form follows function" design faster than you can say "ultimate driving machine" and replaced it with a radical new 3D, sculptural aesthetic. His cars - the 7 Series limousine, the 6 Series Grand Tourer, the 5 Series saloon and the Z4 roadster - boast explosive, exuberant curved flanks, sharp-cut bonnets, stubby boots and snarky lights. On the inside he has dumped walnut and leather trim in favour of cool-touch metal, nubuck and neoprene surfaces. A single computer mouse-style knob, called iDrive, controls everything from the air conditioning system to the CD player. Supporters praise him as the "Frank Gehry of car design". They say he is the first designer to move a luxury car firm away from retro designs (Jaguar) or minimalism (Audi), and instead embrace a sculptural, modern elegance. But traditionalists condemn him as a loose cannon who is destroying half a century of sober, self- confident styling. Car magazines dismiss him as "the nutty professor". Fortune, a title not noted for a *****y, tabloid style, recently published a photograph of the 7 Series under the headline: "Do you think this car is ugly?" And hundreds of thousands of BMW owners in Europe and America have sent a petition to BMW boss, Helmut Panke, accusing Bangle of being "a diabolical super-robot sent from the future by Mercedes-Benz to destroy BMW". The son of a travelling salesman from Ohio, the 48-year-old Bangle trained to become a Methodist minister until he joined the Pasadena Art Centre College of Design in 1977, where he studied product design. After college, he joined Opel as an interior designer, and then moved on to Fiat, ending up at BMW in 1992 as head of design. Bangle has managed to become one of the most controversial car designers of his age simply by daring to do something different. "Cars have been too alike for too long," he says. "Ninety per cent are boxes that go from A to B. Those vehicles are dead. They are horizontal excuses for an elevator. We need to get away from that. At BMW we are creating a new animal, a new species. It's challenging, so it's no surprise that sometimes things get turbulent." As he tries to create new, emotive shapes, Bangle has introduced new terms into the language of car design. He uses the expression "flame surfacing" to describe the way light flows over the concave and convex surfaces of his cars. He likens the curves on his cars to flags blowing in the wind or the billowing sails of a yacht. "We want to cast off the traditional wedge shape of most cars in favour of cantilevered forms and sculpture," he says. "We want to use softer shapes, shapes that have no fixed start and finish point, to create new kind of visual dynamic." No one doubts Bangle's passion and commitment, but why, critics ask, is BMW ditching a style that no one really complained about and which has helped the firm to set new sales records year after year? Bangle believes that compared with architecture, interior design, fashion and graphic design, car design is behind the curve. To stay relevant, prestige brands such as BMW have to move fast to catch up. "Many people in the car world do not want to move forward. They have looked down the tunnel forwards and have said: 'We don't like where it's going. So, we are going to stop and we are going to go backwards. We are going to relive the past by doing retro-style cars, such as the Chrysler PT Cruiser. That does not help us, does not move us forward. What we should be asking is how can we make cars better and make them apply to our current culture and current lives." He picks an example. "The soft folds in the metal on the exterior of the new BMW 5 Series came from the world of fashion. The folds, called splines, look like creases in cloth. They use technology that has never been used before in car design. They look great and very modern, which make them right for BMW and right for now." Bangle is convinced BMW's new styling suits the times. "Design goes in phases. Sometimes simple shapes predominate and sometimes the visual density increases. In the 1950s, for example, car designers added all sorts of chrome fins and gills. In the 1990s, super- simple shapes dominated. We're now trying to get away from the super simple and move to something more visually dense." Could he be right? As minimalism begins to wane in almost every area, are there signs that Bangle's aesthetic is beginning to win over customers and car buffs? So far, it's a mixed picture. Bangle's early designs, in particular the bulky 7 Series with its "side-hinged" boot lid, is still bitterly criticised as awkward. The iDrive mouse-driven interior controls have been dismissed as fiddly. But the Z4 roadster, the 5 Series and the 6 Series Grand Tourer are beginning to attract grudging praise and are selling well. There is a six- to nine-month waiting list for the Z4, while the 6 Series, to be released in March, has sold out for the whole year. But Bangle still gets hate mail by the truck load. Does it bother him? He shakes his head and says he'd be worried if he didn't attract criticism. "When you plan as far ahead as we in the car business have to, you have to be three jumps ahead of everybody else. Sure, that means you going to shock people. Sure, it can take a long time to get our message across. But the more new models we release, the more people appreciate what we're doing. People see the Z4 and they say to me: 'Now I understand the 7 Series much better.' "We want, we need, to get away from this idea that BMW is only a safe, limited little thing. We want cars that recreate emotional connection to passionate artwork. I don't want a ceiling painted white, any more than I want a metal box car. I want a Sistine Chapel, damn it! I want to know that somewhere we have a Michelangelo among us. Wouldn't it be great if he was in our team and BMW were the ones that did that?"