Self-confident, ambitious, talented: The Chief Design Officer of Daimler AG has completely modernized and rejuvenated the look and feel of the Mercedes-Benz luxury automobile brand with his philosophy of “Sensual Purity.” But he is far from finished.
How does a graffiti artist and passionate surfer become a design professor?
The key word is passion. That and absolute determination to achieve self-expression. Once you add visionary power and a playful element, you soon become an expert. That makes Gorden Wagener exceptional. So it is no wonder that he completely revolutionized the entire range of Mercedes-Benz models and designed such an iconic sports car as the Mercedes-AMG GT – or the legendary Mercedes-AMG Project ONE show car.
We met Gorden Wagener for a personal and inspiring interview in his getaway studio in Carlsbad, California.
Do your ideas form here – far away from the Mercedes-Benz headquarters?
California is beautiful. That is why I find it so great to have a studio here. It really is a very inspiring place. But inspiration alone is not enough: you also have to make your inspirations a reality. That is the key to success. The most important thing when designing is to always keep moving and changing your point of view. The worst thing is when you lose critical distance and convince yourself of an object’s beauty. Therefore, if I just saw the usual things at the headquarters in Sindelfingen all the time, I would quickly lose my neutral point of view. Here in California I am at a different altitude. Coming here to find and invent something new, then bringing it to Germany and inspiring the people there again – that is the perfect global designer network. The constant exchange of water in the fish tank.
What was your first thought in 2008 when – at the age
of just 39 – you were named Head of Design at Daimler AG in Stuttgart?
At that time, I was already in charge of the Mercedes-Benz Creative Center here in California. So I thought: “Terrible! I have to go back to Germany!” (laughs). Of course, my second thought was: “Cool – you are the youngest Chief Design Officer of all time!” By the way, I have Dieter Zetsche to thank for that. It was visionary and also quite a big entrepreneurial risk to appoint a 39-year-old nobody like me as Chief Design Officer at that time.
And how have you transferred your design philosophy “Sensual Purity” to the performance brand AMG?
Fortunately there is a lot of sensuality in this segment. Sensuality and power. I am a big AMG fan and love the brand – the Mercedes-AMG GT has to be the most beautiful car I had the pleasure of designing. And surely also one of the most beautiful in the history of the company. The GT is a classic sports car with maximum sex appeal. I tried to get as close as possible to the ideal of sensual beauty that we as people find intrinsically attractive and sexy.
"I am a big AMG fan and love the brand."
This “Sensual Purity” also defines a modern luxury. The magic words in this context are: bipolarity of emotion and intelligence. Sensuality and power – that combination is a must for AMG. Without a doubt, it is our most emotive, sensual, beautiful, and powerful brand. Just take the Mercedes-AMG GT3: it is the AMG-specific radiator grill that gives it its characteristic face. Its design was inspired by the legendary Silver Arrows, as well as the 1952 SL. The AMG grill is full of power. It devours the road. And gives the GT3 its unique profile.
Speaking of extraordinary profiles: you also designed the legendary Mercedes-AMG Project ONE show car. How did that design come about? What were the sources of inspiration?
I was very lucky and very honored to design such a high- performance vehicle. That only happens every 50 years or so. Mercedes-AMG had this crazy idea: we’ll take a Formula 1 power train and make a lightning-fast road car with it. That is to say, not a classic Mercedes sports car with the long hood, both seats on the rear axle, and the proportions of the 300 SL, but rather to create a cab-forward race car! The quintessential Mercedes-Benz! In part thanks to the work of Tobias Moers and his developers, the Mercedes-AMG Project ONE show car is already an icon of automotive history.
You were also involved with the SLS. What is the significance of that extraordinary vehicle with regard to the further development of the AMG formal language?
That was the rebirth of a legend: the Mercedes-Benz gullwing doors. I myself very much like to drive it. When I take it through Emilia-Romagna, stop in the Italian villages, and open the gullwing doors – it really is almost like an angel has landed. The SLS is another major milestone. Ultimately, that is what remains. That is why these halo cars are so important. They define the brand like no other vehicle can. In this context, car design is one of the most complex challenges. Naturally, being able to turn a drawing into something three-dimensional in the process is particularly appealing. Then, of course, there are the technical challenges. Automobile design is the symphony orchestra of the creative arts.
In design, you transfer your ideal of beauty to the work.
That means a lot of the personality of the designer flows into their object, doesn’t it?
Above all, you can’t take things too seriously (laughs). And you certainly have to retain a level of lightheartedness. I do sport to balance things out: I ride a mountain bike and go wakeboarding. For me, it is not only the job that is important, but also being a connoisseur of the fine arts and the good life. It is only if you have a positive attitude and put it into action that everything comes together. If you tighten up and try to force things, it usually comes to nothing.
So what do you like most and least about yourself?
(Laughs) I probably lack any kind of introspection. Perhaps that is a major advantage.
What is the next milestone for your career?
For us to make Mercedes-Benz the most loved brand in the world. To have not just customers, but fans who love our brand.
Interview | Claudia Schwarz
Photography | Benjamin Pichelmann