Interview: Gorden Wagener, Chief Designer Mercedes-Benz

The designer bridging rapidly developing software with long-lasting hardware to create the luxury automobiles of the future

As far as plum roles go in the industry go, being the chief designer for Daimler—parent of luxury stalwart Mercedes-Benz—is nonpareil. The brand’s carefully curated image bridges luxury and lifestyle in a way that others can only seek to emulate. When Serena Williams holds up the US Open trophy at mid-court, the prominent Mercedes three-pointed star—visible to all on either end of the net—is no accident. Models rifling off Instagram photos with #MBFW tags front-row at BCBG and Tory Burch, also no accident. Yet keeping the brand relevant for the newly minted, while not alienating loyalists, is no small task.


In the glamorous world of luxury, there’s no shortage of new, alluring options vying for your attention. But beyond the panache, underneath our masks and all of our fronting, humans are pretty simple: we like beautiful things. Sometimes, those beautiful things manifest in six-figure purchases. And the emerging challenge then, is igniting that desirability in Bejing as well as Beverly Hills, in Dubai as much as the Upper East Side. So how do global brands design for ultra-luxe markets and varying tastes, in places as diverse as China, Europe and the US? To find out, we spoke with Gorden Wagener, the man responsible for the brand’s universal allure.


You’re often designing for discerning clientele in very diverse luxury markets, people who may not think twice about shelling $176,000 for the S63 AMG 4Matic Coupe we drove. How do these buyers—and their varying tastes—impact how you approach design?

The key is actually not to make it right for everyone. The key for any luxury brand is keeping design authentic, and true to its roots. You can see this in fashion. Take a Louis Vuitton bag for example, it doesn’t matter where the buyer is, they are buying the bag for its unique, authentic luxury style. It’s the same at Mercedes-Benz; our cars are not supposed to look Chinese, or American. We’re European, and a German brand. We have a unique style we developed parallel to what we believe the brand stands for, which is the ultimate global luxury brand. Our “Sensual Purity” design language needs to be beautiful, and if we do it right—and I think the S-Coupe is beautiful—it will succeed everywhere.


This isn’t about asking what things will be like, it’s about creating the future.

Does this mean then that you don’t take into consideration preferences from one market to another?

It’s never good to tailor something to a certain market. Design is not a democratic process, it gets worse and worse if more voices are included. It’s great to get feedback, but if five people are deciding, this is already too much. My job is to make those decisions, and bring it through the organization. Of course you have to have a sense of what is good, beautiful and modern. You also have to be way ahead of your time. We’ve already designed and completed models through 2018 and beyond, and we’re already thinking about the next decade, from 2020 to 2030. This isn’t about asking what things will be like, it’s about creating the future.

Can design keep up with technology? For example, the new S-Class Coupe has optional advanced safety systems like Autoliv Night Vision (infrared cameras to detect heat from animals and people at night). This didn’t exist when you were designing these cars several years ago. How do you adapt and incorporate the latest technology into your design? What sort of challenges does that pose?

Every camera or sensor is a challenge, and we’re always adding more. If you’re putting it in the headlight, suddenly the headlight has to be bigger, but as a designer, you think it’s sportier if you have little, thin headlights. But this is part of the modern job as a designer, we’re industrial artists, and we have to cope with all of the technical requirements. But if I think something will harm the design, I’ll fight against it, and will defend that position. We’ll always face challenges, and we’ve got to find the best solution.


There’s also design that’s ahead of technology. You can hop into a five year-old luxury car, and it may feel ancient because of the dated infotainment or navigation system.

That’s absolutely right. You get into that car, and you see an HMI or an old screen that basically says, “Congratulations, you’re in an old car!” We’ve always developed very advanced systems that were ahead of their time, but things are changing very quickly now. We have to be able to update software every two years; smartphones are on an 18 month cycle, we should be able to do it every two years. But the hardware has to be something that lasts longer. Luxury is meant to be long-lasting, it’s not meant to be thrown away tomorrow. Quality too, is a huge aspect of luxury; you spend a lot of money, and you want it to be a good investment. So that’s the bridge, we need rapid development of software, and hardware that is long-lasting.

We always hear of designers pulling inspiration from different places and things, where do you get yours from?

The biggest inspiration is going out into the world, traveling, and seeing it for yourself. It’s not just sitting in a studio, you need to get out; even here right now talking to you, you need to get out and talk to people. I’m always on the move, going somewhere. People and places broaden the mind, and give you the needed distance to see things from a different perspective.


The 2015 S-Coupe is certainly striking, do you have a favorite feature?

The Coke bottle shape in the rear. You can see it where the shoulders come out, the cabin tapers in, and it gives the car this incredible stance. I love this area the most.

Was this what you always wanted to do?

It was always about creation, about building something. I was always into art, into drawing and rendering, and car design was where the most skilled people were, doing the nicest fleshy renderings. And a car is the most beautiful thing to design; I couldn’t do a coffee machine, or even a phone, that would totally bore me. A car has so much emotion to it, it’s a sculpture.

Wagener’s latest sculptures—the 2015 Mercedes-Benz S-Coupe and S63 AMG 4Matic Coupe—can currently be seen at dealerships across the US.

Images courtesy of Mercedes-Benz