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
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  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…’