INDUSTRIAL Design was Nils Uellendahl’s field of study at Pforzheim University, but his mobility-related thesis may have been a sign that he would get involved with car design someday. The 38-year-old German began his career in London with Ross Lovegrove, where he was inspired by how the renowned Welsh designer looked to nature for answers and his vision to create.
Nils subsequently joined Designworks in their then newly established studio in Singapore, before moving on to Munich and Shanghai. After spending three years as Director of Interior for Great Wall Motors, China’s largest manufacturer of SUVs and pickups, he re-joined Designworks Shanghai in 2017.
His current stint with Designworks allows him to design not just cars, but a diverse spectrum of products which are relevant to current times.
Nils tells Torque about what fascinates him as a designer, what makes designing automobiles extra special, and why fighting for that half a millimetre can be so magical and addictive.
Did you always have an interest in cars and automobile design?
There was definitely an interest, but I did not set out to become a car designer.
I remember visiting a car show and feeling a connection with seeing how professionally and passionately the cars were being put together. That was when I realised that there was something special there. Everyone has an emotional response to cars and this is interesting to a designer. Regardless of what you are designing, the most important thing is to have a positive impact on people’s lives.
The satisfaction is in driving change, creating something that has not been thought of before or approaching it from a different angle.
What are some of the memorable projects that you have worked on at Designworks?
The BMW X1’s interior is a very special project for me, because it was my very first experience going through the whole process of developing a production car. Before you can build a car, you must build a team and get everyone excited to make things to happen. I also worked on the First Class seat design for Singapore Airlines. The interesting aspect was working with what Singapore Airlines represented as a brand, their values, and translating these into tangible design solutions that would form a visual brand language. How is designing automobiles different from, or similar to, other design genres? When designing a car, thinking three to five years ahead is like doing something for tomorrow because the development cycle is that long. You need to stick to what you believe in, but be intuitive and savvy enough to decide which constructive criticisms to take and which battles to fight. With cars, you also feel that you are working on something big because every single car project is celebrated.
TRADITIONALLY, DESIGN WAS USED TO MAKE PRODUCTS ATTRACTIVE, BUT I THINK IT HAS TRANSCENDED INTO A THINKING TOOL.
How is the design environment changing? Traditionally, design was used to make products attractive, but I think it has transcended into a thinking tool. Many top executives now have design backgrounds, and a macro trend that we are seeing is how corporate strategy is being driven by design strategy.
You must still possess expert knowledge, but increasingly, you also need to be able to connect with other disciplines and have a cross-disciplinary understanding. If you want to create holistic experiences, you need to understand and relate to other elements that are coming into play. How do you balance form and function, or is one more important than the other? Actually, they should go together, like yin and yang.
In addition to form and function, I would also include experience, which should be considered another strong pillar. How can design and technology complement one another? It is an interesting relationship because design defines certain experiences that you want to achieve, while technology ignites new possibilities of what these experiences may be. It is a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Sometimes you come up with a design idea and find the technology to realise it; sometimes technology sparks off ideas for new designs. What are some of your favourite car designs? GINA is a project where Designworks collaborated with BMW Group Design, and what I find fascinating is how the vehicle adapts to its user. GINA may be 10 years old, but I feel that it is even more relevant than ever.
Like many designers, I like vintage cars, such as old Alfa Romeos and the Jaguar E-Type. I love their proportions, which never go out of style. It is not just the proportion of the car itself, but also the proportion of the car in relation to the driver. What are your favourite noncar designs? I think the matchsticks by Japanese designer, Kaoru Mende, are an amazing piece of design. They serve the same function as regular matches, but are executed in a way that makes you reflect on larger issues, such as the relationship between man and fire, destruction and creation, sustainability, production process, etc.
It is the emotional connection that really makes it stand out. There can be beauty, perfection and genius in the smallest of objects.