The other day in Paris I met with Karim Habib, the head of design for the BMW Group.
The 44-year-old Lebanese-Canadian is the one responsible for creating the handsome 2-Series convertible the automaker debuted there last week. He held various posts in interior and exterior design at BMW before winning his current title, and it’s easy to see why. Habib is thoughtful, articulate, smart, and eager to jump right into deep discussions over espresso about the future of car design.
“BMW’s are about motion — you don’t drive a BMW because you have to,” Habib told me. “When I design I am always working to honour that thought.” He also has ideas on whether the i8 looks masculine or feminine — and why.
Elliott: Tell me about the 2-Series.
Habib: The convertible is a derivative of the coupe. There is a difference to it from the 1-Series, although there are quite a few parts that are the same. It’s more about the character for this car, though, because it really is the direct lineage from the 2002.
Elliott: People love that car.
Habib: Or even now more and more people are really appreciating the E30 — that very clear original BMW spirit. And that’s what we focused on essentially, trying to show it become a little boxier. We could have made it a more flowing C-pillar (the trusses that hold a car’s rear side windows in place) like the 4-Series, but we purposely tried to make it have corners.
When you make a convertible, and that roof is gone, then what makes it then is that special character (of C-pillar design.) One more thing that is typical of the BMW classic roadster convertible: We also tried to make the trunk lid as low as possible.
On the other hand it can’t be too low because you don’t have the roof! So that was the major exercise, trying to find that balance. We did it in the 1-Series convertible. And that’s why that car is one of the best-selling convertibles — it has the classic feel of BMW convertibles. With the 2-Series we did that and made it one click sportier, one click more precise in the line work. Maybe a little bit edgier, a little bit boxier.
Elliott: How much credence do you give to consumer feedback and market trends versus your own opinion about what should be done, what is right, where the design should go?
Habib: I mean, I am going to say that we don’t design cars for ourselves, but our own beliefs as a company, the values, are what it stands for. But we also start with a process where we look around. We have design groups and a context design group in our department. They actually don’t draw very much but they research. They travel around the world and talk to trend researchers, talk to architects, journalists, and social research people, and they usually try and design a world, a context in the future for which we’re designing.
Elliott: So without getting too philosophical, is there such a thing as absolute beauty in the world, or is it all always in the eye of the beholder?
Habib: Hmmm. Uh. That is a very philosophical question! Let me have a sip of my coffee.
Elliott: Okay. For me, for instance, that 2-Series looks beautiful. But in a masculine way. A Ferrari to me looks feminine. They both are beautiful, but differently.
Habib: Ferraris are feminine? But they’re still beautiful to you?
Habib: And this is handsome?
Habib: I will get philosophical if you’ll allow me some metaphors with women. Just proportional metaphors: Length of the legs to the body. There’s something out there that says women with longer legs … okay? But on the other hand if you look at paintings — I’m really getting philosophical now — If you look at paintings from the 18th century where women were rounder or had very light skin, that was beautiful. Light skin, big eyes, there are always different things that mean different things to different people, and I just think for cars the long hood has always meant a sort of elegance. That’s maybe part of it.
I mean if you think of Ferrari, Ferrari was always that. And those Ferraris to me look really beautiful.
But if you look at the i8, we designed that car to balance the proportions very differently from a Ferrari or even a Lamborghini. It’s pretty long. So like the original M1, it’s a bit more balanced. So beauty, to me for cars, (is) a certain balance. A sportiness. And also a humanness. When you look at somebody who looks sportier, maybe they’re better looking that someone who is not.
There are a lot of things about cars that have to do with human physiology, even the face. And the rear. We talk about shoulders when we talk about the rear as well.
Elliott: How will the proliferation of alternative fuel vehicles affect the ways cars are designed in the future?
Habib: Well, I think it’s the best time to be a designer. I really do. We would have never done the i brand if the world wasn’t changing. How awesome as a designer to do that? And that isn’t changing.
We are using more carbon fibre, we are going to be mixing aluminum steel carbon fiber. And we have to work with more aerodynamics in mind. That’s a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity. Even cars on the stand today show how we used aerodynamic restriction to make design features that have made the car better.
Elliott: What do you mean by aerodynamic restriction?
Habib: To achieve our goal of making something that is fuel efficient, we have to make it aerodynamically as strong as possible. We want it to look also dynamic on the sides, so we push the back glass pretty far forward, because we need a long roof and a pretty long spoiler. And that’s one thing that looks really quite dynamic.
The other thing is a detail. What’s really good for a car is to end with an edge. The i8 for example has this edge in the rear where it’s all going down, because it takes the turbulence and ends it; the turbulence area in the rear becomes much shorter. It creates an edge and goes around it, and the air keeps flowing.
And even on the 2-Series we have a small edge on the tail lamp, which you don’t really see because it’s in glass. We usually like to do that. But this time we said we know we have to do this, so we took that edge all the way down and connected it to the bumper line. And you don’t really see that usually but that actually is something that I really like because in the end it gives the car a much better stance.
Elliott: Sometimes people say vintage cars are more exciting and more emotional than modern cars, and the answer often given is that it’s because designers back then didn’t have federal efficiency mandates and safety regulations, etc, etc. But what you’ve described is a scenario where stricter mandates are actually prompting new creativity.
Habib: Sure. Yes. I mean there are different perspectives on that. I think it does. But obviously I’m an industrial designer, and I live in a world of industrial regulations. Probably an artist would say, ’Well you’re just subject to the external factors,’ so there are two schools of thought. There’s truth to both.
I’m always amazed with the kids on my team. They come up with amazing solutions, and I love that. And it’s part of — sorry for being philosophical again — it’s the amazing thing about mankind. That you take a challenge and you make something happen. It’s a little part of it — it’s just a line of a car — but it’s a pretty amazing development.