Gorden Wagener, Chief Design Officer for Daimler AG, likes to say that he’s living in the future. “There’s a different time zone within our design department,” he explains. “You have to fast-forward your watch at least five to 10 years.”
Wagener has been plotting a vision for the future of Mercedes-Benz and other Daimler car brands since taking over the German automaker’s top design job in 2008. At the time, he was just 39 years old—the youngest head designer in the industry—and tasked with revitalizing the oldest car brand on earth.
Eleven years later, Wagener’s vision has been realized in a new design philosophy he calls “sensual purity,” the basic idea of which is to design cars that appeal to both your head and heart. Its results are striking: the modern-day Mercedes, as we know it, is streamlined, sporty and curvaceous, a sweeping upgrade on the stately saloon of yesteryear. Wagener’s most beloved car design to date, the voluptuous Mercedes-AMG GT sports car, was recently spotlighted on the popular Showtime TV drama Billions, with acclaimed actor Damian Lewis promptly remarking, “I’ll take two”, after laying eyes on it. (The car is priced at $132,700.)
Sportiness is a big part of Wagener’s ethos in general, too. Before he began a career in car design, he dreamed of becoming professional surfer and applied his artistic instincts to designing surfboards. Ultimately, though, pivoting from primitive watercraft to sophisticated road vehicles came naturally to Wagener, who went on to join the prestigious car design program at London’s Royal College of Art. “A surfboard is a very sexy shape,” Wagener tells me. “A car is not much different.”
Now, over a decade into his tenure, Wagener continues to push the venerable Mercedes brand forward. Earlier this year, the company rolled out its first ever all-electric car, the Mercedes-Benz EQC, a very sleek, aerodynamic-looking SUV that’s outfitted with high-tech voice controls and various other state-of-the-art features. “It’s more clean than clean— it’s seamless,” Wagener says. “Like a smartphone.”
Yet despite his modern sensibilities, Wagener still prefers to begin every new car design the old-fashioned way: with a hand-drawn sketch. “You can do that on an iPad these days, but still it makes a difference if you have a piece of paper and a pen,” he says. “This is what we aim for: to create something that has a certain feeling. A lot of the process, when we digitize it, render it, put it into clay, or a virtual model, is all about catching that feeling from the very first sketch.”
Below, Wagener spoke to artnet News about the art of car design, bringing Daimler AG into the future, and of course, surfing.
The Mercedes-AMG GT. Image courtesy Daimler AG.