What Is Beauty, According to Mercedes-Benz Head Designer

Credit: Courtesy Mercedes-Benz

The new Mercedes-Benz design book looks more like a MacBook Pro than something you'd find on a coffee table. And like the stunning sedans you see on the street, you can thank Chief Design Officer Gorden Wagener for something so gorgeous. Sensual Purity: Gorden Wagener on Design gives a photo-driven and futuristic walk through the newly launched design philosophy of Mercedes-Benz. It’s a big-dreaming tome that extends from the company’s current-day concept cars to ideas for a fantastical future (dubbed “Mercedes-Benz Future World"), with mock-ups of an entire world where the architecture, megayachts, sports arenas, and even the bridges are all in line with Wagener’s design aesthetic.

We sat down with the magnetic German recently at Art Basel in Miami to talk about his inspirations growing up as a kid near Cologne and his idea of the perfect match.

How do you define your personal taste?

I always was and still am a strong believer in beauty. But of course, what is beauty? That is the question. Basically, in our philosophy it’s about two things: emotion and intelligence. The heart and the brain. We build our whole philosophy around that to shape our cars. So sensual purity is describing my taste in beauty and aesthetics. On the one hand it’s something that’s very clean, defined, and techy-looking, and on the other hand, it’s something that’s very free form, organic. Typically, what we as humans find attractive is deep in our DNA. And in my design we try to capture that creation knowing we’ll never reach it, but trying to make it as close as possible.

How German is your own design sense?
The purity aspect of my style is the tech aspect — those clean, defined surfaces and cool details. In one way, of course, it’s a very German approach that goes back to Bauhaus in the 1920s. That was actually the first school of modern design. Bauhaus was very much about simplicity and cleanness, in order to create solutions that can be mass-produced to bring design to a broader audience. In a way, we bring this original Bauhaus ideal to the next level by combining it with beauty while keeping the purity. And that’s very much what my personal taste is about.

How does that purity show up in your designs?
With each car design... it’s like the human body. You have negative areas and fuller areas. And then there’s the pure structure in the car, the geometry. And this is what brings out the purity idea that we are talking about with Bauhaus. The pure structure of our cars makes them techy-looking but also on the long life side. And every feature of our cars always has both aspects of sensual purity.

Were you into cars as a kid?
Growing up near Cologne, I was always into little toy cars. It was natural to me. And the cool thing now is that it’s not much different, what I do, to being a little boy. I have to keep that little boy feeling, just on a much larger scale of course. I always liked drawing and painting. And from a certain point it was obvious I wanted to design a car — it’s actually the most complex thing to design, if everything comes together. My dad always drove a Mercedes, so it always had an impact on me. The car had some kind of presence you could feel.

What product designs and designers do you admire?
If you ask a designer about other people’s designs, there’s always a lot to admire. But typically what you love the most is what you do yourself. And (with Daimler) we’ve designed a complete Mercedes yacht, cigarette boats… it’s not only about the car, it’s about the world around it, too. Our old CEO once told me that every designer wants to build a boat. It’s true: Somehow, I always wanted to make a boat. We’ve had 10 years of cooperation with Cigarette Racing now, with Mercedes AMG. So it’s bringing together the top performance on the water with the top on the land. The Cigarette Racing 41’ SD GT3 boat — the most powerful “open-performance” boat in the world — was inspired by the Mercedes-AMG GT3. We designed it. It’s the same aesthetics, the same power aggressiveness; it’s the perfect match.