Mobility is constantly evolving, with new technologies wielding huge potential to further shift the way we move and travel. For decades, Designworks—the creative workshop of BMW Group—has been at the forefront of shaping how we will get people and goods around in the future. Earlier this month, the California-based design studio made an historic move and relocated from its longtime home in Newbury Park, CA, to a new inspiring space in Santa Monica. IGNANT was invited to have an exclusive peek at how the new creative environment gives shape to endless areas of innovation, bringing tomorrow’s technology to life.
From the outside, the new LA studio is not particularly impressive; it is a low-rise building, unadorned and plain-looking. However, step through the door, and you’ll find an unexpected space that is much more than it seems. With about 16.500 square feet, this is the studio’s largest location—a sublimely lit, industrial, loft-like workspace filled with chairs, desks, and stunning vehicles. This is the birthplace of iconic designs for BMW, as well as many other clients; the place where global trends are not only identified and pursued, but, quite literally, put in motion. “Welcome to the real Santa Monica,” says Adrian van Hooydonk, Senior Vice President of the BMW Group Design, upon our arrival. The building sits at the heart of one of the hottest and trendsetting media and technology hotspots of Southern California, known as Silicon Beach—a nod to Northern California’s Silicon Valley, the original tech hub. “It’s a center of creativity and progress, which makes it a very vibrant and competitive market for us,” he says about the reasons behind the move. The Californian coastal city is one of the most progressive municipalities pushing for modern mobility and alternative transportation—a direct result of the region’s long-standing, freeway-fed car culture. “Santa Monica is a test bed for the innovative and sustainable mobility solutions for tomorrow,” he adds.
"Santa Monica is a test bed for the innovative and sustainable mobility solutions for tomorrow"
Here, a team of great minds and talents, from all possible design fields and more, are empowered to embody pioneering ideas and go beyond design limits, in a world where imagination is only limited by the bounds of each person’s creativity. With around 40 seats for 65 employees, the office follows a newly conceived hybrid working model, where much work is done and communicated digitally. “It is a post-COVID setting. The studio’s design allows us to fully exploit the freedoms digitalization gives us,” explains Holger Hampf, Head of Designworks, as we are shown around the open space. “Personal interaction remains a focal point, but in this new workspace, our processes are geared towards virtual communication.” Entering the space’s meeting room, the ‘holodeck’—a dark chamber where drafts are worked on together virtually, on massive screens—immediately attests to Hampf’s words and promises.
The creative workshop Designworks was established in 1972 by legendary industrial designer Charles ‘Chuck’ Pelly, and was later acquired by BMW in 1995—which proved instrumental in the design of several mass-produced vehicles. Maintaining its relentless search for the true ‘better’ for over five decades, the innovation studio has now grown into an international design consultancy that operates worldwide, with offices in Munich, Germany, and Shanghai, China. The goal? Create innovative products and experiences and bring forward unique brand values. As a BMW Group subsidiary, Designworks is involved in many internal design projects with the German multinational manufacturer BMW, but also with external clients from numerous other industries—ranging from transportation via air, land, and sea, to consumer electronics and interior spaces. If BMW has always been triggered by innovation, Designworks’ mission has always been shaping the future of mobility and design. “Every day, we stride forward, stepping further into the great unknown,” says Hampf. “At times, beyond what seems rational and reasonable, and very likely beyond our own hesitations.”
If setting ambitious developments in motion sounds exciting, bringing those to life distinguishes the studio from other market competitors. “Designworks can do a lot of free-thinking about the future, but we also produce a wide range of vehicles,” notes van Hooydonk. With around 300 projects a year, Designworks comprises a team of designers with future-based visions and dedicated craftsmen with the skills to realize much of the visionary work envisioned on the many screens of this very space. Most importantly, the studio is catering not only to BMW but also to a wide variety of other companies. “Designworks is not just our eyes and ears to the world, it is also a door to the world; where people and start-ups can come in to engage with the BMW Group,” says van Hooydonk. With a successful model of simultaneous integration and independence, Designworks has exciting partnerships with a range of players in the industry. Despite a predominant focus on mobility—from seating solutions to flying vehicles, to agricultural machinery and electric charging stations—assignments go beyond the automotive world, to include interiors, phone designs, and intelligent personal assistants. “Designworks gives us a unique perspective that goes beyond the automotive industry, in the vast field of design,” notes van Hooydonk.
"Designworks is not just our eyes and ears to the world, it is also a door to the world"
The studio’s opening in Santa Monica coincided with Frieze Los Angeles, the world’s renowned art fair, which BMW has supported as a partner for years. “Artists and designers alike are forward thinkers who question the status quo, speed up the transformation and shape the future,” says van Hooydonk. The extent to which art and design can be mutually inspiring is exemplified in the BMW Vision M NEXT on display—a radical vehicle design that goes beyond the everyday model. German artist Thomas Demand was tasked with photographing the vision vehicle in 2019, well before the official unveiling. He produced a series of intriguing, abstract photographs that showcased some early details and design characteristics of the car. To create the artworks, however, Demand started by using his medium of choice, paper. Trained as a sculptor, he constructed custom life-size cardboard sculptures of parts of the car that captured the central ideas of the vehicle. The sculptures were later photographed, and the resulting images became the first teasers to be revealed by BMW. “I picked angles of design and surfaces that have a similar aesthetic to my work and engagement with paper,” he explains about the process. “While a picture is often the inspiration, paper gives me the ability to build anything.”
The artworks capture the emotion-stirring and minimalist exteriors of the car, which so perfectly exude the BMW sports-car DNA. Captivating, they show the matt-neon shade of Thrilling Orange in vivid contrast to the otherwise silk-matt Cast Silver metallic paintwork—a color-blocking aesthetic that lends an air of modernity and inherent dynamism to the design. The vehicle per se further demonstrates how technology and design can be harnessed to enhance car driving pleasure, enabling customers to choose between driving autonomously or driving themselves—making the driving experience purer and more emotionally engaging. The sports-car design is also a compelling vision of an electrified future that demonstrates how state-of-the-art technology can impact the possibilities of tomorrow’s automotive world.
The future of mobility is also the force behind the BMW M Hybrid V8 race car—designed by Designworks—which recently debuted at the 24 Hours of Daytona. On display in the Californian studio, this is the first BMW M Motorsport prototype car with a hybrid drive system, paving the way for an electric future for BMW M. The design combines traditional details with the technology required for efficient performance on the racetrack. Visually, it is staggering—from the forward-leaning shark nose, to the boomerang-shaped guide vane just behind the front wheel arch, to the fractal geometry of the M logo. The paintwork recalls the colors of classic race cars while bringing elements of five decades of motorsport history into the present day, including references to the original BMW logo in using blue and purple tones—the latter also pronouncing the natural colors of electricity. “From sketch to finish, the car took 18 months to be completed, which is a tight timeline. It is the result of expertise but also of great collaboration, and high level of motivation of all departments,” says Hampf.
As major innovations are underway and electrification is taking hold, a focus on sustainability is rising to the forefront. But, Designworks is no stranger to this. For the studio, future mobility is about striving towards environment-friendly solutions and fulfilling social responsibility in all aspects. As we are taken across different creative stations, the design teams reveal how their research initiatives are moving up a gear in the transformation towards sustainable mobility. In this way, they are experimenting with new circular production methods and environmental compatible, recyclable materials—such as bacteria-based, plastic-free, and non-animal textiles—that achieve both visual refinement and high durability. Visionary design solutions are also found by looking for new opportunities in the digital area, with AI and data helping fundamentally reimagine practices and processes, and new unique digital platforms pushing the boundaries of what’s possible and weaving together threads of the digital and physical worlds in the mobility landscape of the next decade.
Together, we can go farther, faster
BMW is definitely fit for the future. The designs of Designworks inspire dialogue on all issues that impact our tomorrow—they respond to the call for human progress, through innovation, design, and sustainability, to where progress as we know it takes on new multi-faceted and ever-evolving meanings. While none of us, designers and studio visitors alike, know exactly what’s to come, one thing is for sure: we all share the excitement for a safe, sustainable, and productive future of mobility. If technological solutions are in the hands of a few—perfectly concealed in the minds and laptops around us, in numbers, case studies and statistics—one thing cannot be overlooked: the importance of coming together and encouraging collaboration. Together, we can go farther, faster.