YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Ultimate Styling Machine?

Design * Button-down Germany meets laid-back California at BMW's Designworks/USA studio, where cars are only part of the story.


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.

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.

"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.

"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.

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.

Los Angeles Times Articles