Mauer’s men

Michael Mauer – de­sign boss of the VW Group and its 12 global brands – is the most im­por­tant car de­signer in the world. We se­cure a rare au­di­ence with him and his de­signer dis­ci­ples

CAR (UK) - - News - Words Guy Bird | Pho­tog­ra­phy Peter Guen­zel

VW Group de­sign mes­siah and ev­ery sin­gle one of his

brand de­sign chiefs, from Audi to Sca­nia

VOLK­SWA­GEN HAS a mas­sive tar­ma­c­cov­ered view­ing space in Spain where Group head of de­sign Michael Mauer meets with his 12 de­sign di­rec­tors – from Bent­ley’s Stefan Sielaff to MAN Truck’s Hol­ger Koos – to ap­praise each other’s new pro­pos­als (in the form of full-size clay mod­els) in broad day­light and to­tal se­crecy. The space is so big that Mauer’s team can even do ‘drive-bys’, so they can de­cide whether or not their lat­est head­lamp de­sign’s ‘down the road’ graphic re­ally works, or if the grille of the new Skoda baby SUV looks too much like the one from Seat.

‘We have this event ev­ery six weeks – we all present our cars to the board mem­bers from all the brands,’ says Mauer, a mild-man­nered 56-year-old. ‘We do our pre­lim­i­nary meet­ing one day be­fore, just the de­sign­ers, and do mod­i­fi­ca­tions. Some­times I say, “Okay, I would pro­pose to do it dif­fer­ently, but let’s see what hap­pens to­mor­row.” Ninety nine per cent of the time we find a so­lu­tion.’

It’s quite a scene to imag­ine, and gives some in­di­ca­tion of the scale of the job Mauer has taken on since late 2015 – and this in ad­di­tion to be­ing vice pres­i­dent of style for Porsche, where his small pro­por­tional changes have made big dif­fer­ences to ex­te­rior aes­thet­ics (new Cayenne Mk3, sec­ond-gen Panam­era, sec­ond-gen Cay­man). The wider Group sold 10.7 mil­lion ve­hi­cles in 2017 to be­come the big­gest ve­hi­cle man­u­fac­turer in the world, and its brand port­fo­lio bris­tles with some of the most fa­mous mar­ques in au­to­mo­tive his­tory: Audi, Bent­ley, Bu­gatti, Du­cati, Lam­borgh­ini, MAN, Porsche, Seat, Sca­nia, Skoda, VW cars and VW com­mer­cial ve­hi­cles.

‘We have 12 brands and 12 de­sign lead­ers, and this is one of the key ad­van­tages of the Group,’ Mauer con­tin­ues. ‘It would be a waste of cre­ativ­ity and ex­per­tise if every­body only worked for his or her­self, or their brand. Just ini­ti­at­ing more com­mu­ni­ca­tion makes the whole Group stronger. I don’t see my job as telling any­body what to do within the brand. It’s more a dis­cus­sion between col­leagues and an ex­change of opin­ions. In the end it’s their re­spon­si­bil­ity.’

Ac­cord­ing to the Group de­sign di­rec­tors, they would only meet once a year un­der Mauer’s pre­de­ces­sor, the enig­matic Ital­ian de­sign vet­eran Wal­ter de Silva, and as he didn’t have a brand of his own he had time to get more in­volved in each brand’s de­sign, which may have ruf­fled feath­ers. From Mauer’s per­spec­tive, de Silva made great strides in rais­ing de­sign’s im­por­tance within the Group, but he wants to take a slightly dif­fer­ent tack now.

‘For me it [de Silva’s ap­proach] was a lit­tle bit too much on pure de­sign, like “Line up or down; sharp, or less sharp”. What Wal­ter re­ally man­aged was to get more re­spect for de­sign. But still I think it was re­duced to what every­body con­sid­ers the job of de­sign to be. I think it is much more. It’s about po­si­tion­ing a brand. Among our de­sign lead­ers we re­ally try to act as a team, so as a group we are stronger in bring­ing for­ward our mes­sage.’

In in­ter­view, first at a photo stu­dio by a Ber­lin canal and later con­tin­u­ing down that same stretch of wa­ter on a boat chock-full of his de­sign team lead­ers, Mauer has a calm de­meanour and tone. He’s in charge, but doesn’t overtly act like the cap­tain of the ship. Along­side us is Bent­ley’s de­sign di­rec­tor Stefan Sielaff. Across the aisle, Lam­borgh­ini’s de­sign boss Mitja Bork­ert chats in­for­mally with VW’s com­mer­cial ve­hi­cle de­sign di­rec­tor Al­bert-Jo­hann Kirzinger over nib­bles. I’d like to think the for­mer is pick­ing the brain of the lat­ter about a po­ten­tial Urus pick-up. Surely they shouldn’t all travel to­gether like this, for com­mer­cial safety rea­sons. Ei­ther way, it’s sur­real.

I ask Bent­ley’s Sielaff if Mauer’s egal­i­tar­ian team chat can re­ally be true. Be­fore Sielaff can hold forth, Mauer jokes, ‘Should I come back in 10 min­utes?’ Once the laugh­ter’s died down, Sielaff speaks. ‘For me Michael is like Miles Davis. He en­ters the stage and we do a set to­gether. He knows how de­sign has to be done, from an aes­thetic and a busi­ness point of view. And, as with a band or a jam ses­sion, when you are cre­ative you need some­body in a very hon­est way to give you feed­back, with­out po­lit­i­cal or fi­nan­cial is­sues. This is fan­tas­tic. Every­body wants to in­flu­ence de­sign but we have to de­liver re­sults and Michael and all the guys here have done so for many years. We are all not so young any more, so we know how to play the mu­sic.’

Sielaff leaves the in­ter­view at this point, and Mauer whispers con­spir­a­to­ri­ally, with Sielaff still in earshot: ‘Now we can talk about Bent­ley de­sign…’ The warm ca­ma­raderie on dis­play seems com­pletely gen­uine and spon­ta­neous. Car de­sign bosses – like so many oth­ers in cre­ative high places – all too of­ten4

spend years hav­ing their ego mas­saged and even­tu­ally start to be­lieve the hype. By con­trast, Mauer – de­spite a CV worth shout­ing about, at Mer­cedes (Mk1 SLK), Saab (9-X con­cept) and then Porsche (Ma­can, 918 Spy­der) – doesn’t seem to have had his head turned. In­deed, his mantra is very much about keep­ing it real, for the good of his own soul as well as the Group’s de­signs.

‘I try not to change, and I am con­vinced that it al­ways helps to be hon­est and open,’ he says. ‘This is a tough busi­ness – it’s not kinder­garten. But one thing is what you say and an­other is how you say it. You can’t avoid say­ing things but you can say them with re­spect; try to sep­a­rate the con­tent from the per­son.’

An­other of Mauer’s team, who also worked un­der de Silva, ex­plains that the two men ex­press their con­cerns over a de­sign in dif­fer­ent ways. Ap­par­ently de Silva pursed his lips, while Mauer keeps silent and tilts his head to one side – if you see them on video or at a mo­tor show do­ing just that, now you’ll know why…

Mauer rose to his cur­rent po­si­tion when de Silva left amid ru­mours of im­pend­ing de­sign bud­get cuts and man­age­ment bust-ups in the wake of the Diesel­gate scan­dal. Mauer was asked to steady the de­sign ship. In other cir­cum­stances it’s a role you would be teed up for in an or­derly fash­ion, but the job was abruptly thrust upon Mauer. Did the man­ner of de Silva’s exit, and that of then CEO Martin Win­terkorn, worry him?

‘No, Wal­ter was al­ready of an age [64] and trav­el­ling a lot, and for him the re­la­tion­ship between the CEO and de­sign bosses should be very close. Win­terkorn and Wal­ter were a team. Matthias Müller and me were a team at Porsche, so I think it was nat­u­ral that Müller asked me.’

Of course Müller, who re­placed Win­terkorn, is also a for­mer VW CEO too, re­placed in April 2018 by Her­bert Diess. How does Mauer feel about his own po­si­tion now? ‘We will see,’ he says with a smile. ‘You never know, but so far it seems to work’.

One no­table ab­sen­tee from this get-to­gether is Italde­sign, the leg­endary de­sign and en­gi­neer­ing busi­ness co-founded by Gior­getto Gi­u­giaro back in 1968 and fully ab­sorbed into the VW Group in 2015 when Gi­u­giaro sold his re­main­ing stake and walked away. Orig­i­nally con­ceived to pro­vide spare de­sign ca­pac­ity for the Group’s var­i­ous de­sign de­part­ments, it has been some­what side­lined since de Silva left.

Mauer says it is do­ing more work for out­side com­pa­nies now, and won’t be drawn fur­ther on what role he sees for Italde­sign in the fu­ture, other than to rather mys­te­ri­ously add, ‘Let’s say I have made some pro­pos­als…’

He’s al­ready made some key de­sign team changes, and as a re­sult the peo­ple in the group pho­tos are all, bar Spaniard Ale­jan­dro Mesonero-Ro­manos at Seat and Ital­ian An­drea Fer­raresi at Du­cati, Ger­man and male (al­though to be fair the lat­ter point is a re­flec­tion of the wider in­dus­try, not just VW). Mitja Bork­ert took over from Filippo Perini in April 2016 at Lam­borgh­ini (Perini is now at Italde­sign) and Oliver Ste­fani took the reins at Skoda after the Slo­vakian Jozef Ka­ban got the de­sign di­rec­tor job at BMW in early 2017.

Might this pose some per­cep­tion prob­lems for brands whose iden­ti­ties are in­ter­twined with their na­tional cul­tures? ‘That’s an in­ter­est­ing ques­tion,’ Mauer con­cedes. ‘When you talk about de­sign­ers, I think we are pro­fes­sion­als who can pretty quickly un­der­stand the essence and val­ues of a brand no mat­ter what na­tion­al­ity we are. I would con­sider lo­ca­tion much more im­por­tant. To give you an ex­am­ple, when I worked for Saab I was part of the GM group. Apart from Saab, Vaux­hall and Opel, all the brands were de­signed in the Tech Cen­tre in Detroit, no mat­ter if it was Chevy or Corvette. I think that was re­ally a prob­lem. When I was head of the Ja­pa­nese stu­dio of Mer­cedes, the idea was al­ways that just the head of the stu­dio is from the head­quar­ters, but the staff had to be 100 per cent Ja­pa­nese. You have to live in a cul­ture to un­der­stand it.’

He un­der­stands the im­por­tance of work/life bal­ance, too. For him, that means a lot of his free time is spent heli-ski­ing – the lat­est man­i­fes­ta­tion of a half cen­tury of ski­ing. He has raced, but re­alised he pre­ferred off-piste to full-on com­pe­ti­tion. A metaphor for his au­to­mo­tive in­cli­na­tions too, per­haps?4

‘This is a tough busi­ness – it’s not kinder­garten. You can’t avoid say­ing things but you can say them with re­spect’

‘For me it’s re­ally about sports,’ he qual­i­fies. ‘Be­ing in the moun­tains; hik­ing, ski­ing, bik­ing, find­ing quiet spots.’

But does he get to do much of that, when his job is 24/7 and truly global? ‘It’s still okay – I have my es­capes,’ says Mauer. ‘I’m con­vinced that your brain needs this kind of time off. Just me, the for­est, the trees, the birds, no re­cep­tion and no phone.’

And when he’s back at work again, fu­ture-gaz­ing, where does he think the in­dus­try will be in 10 years’ time? ‘I don’t know but I hope that we as de­sign­ers can con­trib­ute,’ he says pas­sion­ately.

‘This is the beauty of our multi-brand con­cern. Not each brand has to do ev­ery­thing. We can try things out in cer­tain brands and see how they work. I think this will be a big ad­van­tage in the fu­ture, es­pe­cially when you don’t know how things will de­velop. Dif­fer­ent brands can go at dif­fer­ent speeds.’ I half-jok­ingly ask whether ev­ery VW Group mar­que should have a shoot­ing brake, given that Mauer has drawn or a least com­mis­sioned one at al­most ev­ery brand he’s worked for, from Saab’s 9-X to Porsche’s Panam­era Sport Tur­ismo?

‘I love these cars be­cause I like sports cars and I al­ways need room for my sports gear, but I def­i­nitely don’t think that. You have to re­ally think about who is do­ing what. With cer­tain brands it works, for other brands it doesn’t.’

And that last line very sim­ply sums up Mauer’s in­cred­i­bly com­plex job – re­tain­ing brand iden­ti­ties and keep­ing a keen eye on the fu­ture. So far his light, in­clu­sive and con­sid­ered touch is reap­ing re­wards.

(Top) CAR’s Guy Bird (left, bor­ing trousers) sits with Mauer and Bent­ley’s Siela

(Above) If you’re go­ing to do a driver­less pod called Sedric, it might as well be cuter than a bas­ket of kit­tens

(Top) Peter Wouda, Markus Auer­bach and Peter Ortlieb try to get one up oneach other

(Above) Elec­tricLambo Terzo Mil­lenio con­cept points the way to life after V10s and V12s

‘But I thought you were bring­ing the sand­wiches…’

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