cover image: the Mercedes-Benz SiverFlow concept created by the Irvine Design Studio
This offical document was released by by Mercedes-Benz in its 2008 HighTech Report published on 9 April 2008. The Californian Design Studio will move from Irvine to Carlsbad on July 2008.
The Advanced Design Studio in Irvine feeds inspiring concepts from California into the global market for pioneering vehicles.
The Advanced Design Studio in Irvine near Los Angeles opened in June 1990 as the first Mercedes-Benz design studio outside of Germany.
Today, the approximately 1,200 square meter facility employs 18 designers and model constructors who work on the vehicle designs of tomorrow and beyond, and are
assisted by one or two interns from design schools in the area.
The design center in Irvine regularly shares ideas — and staff — with its sister studios in Yokohama and Sindelfingen.
A fourth studio in Como, Italy, which has around 20 employees, focuses exclusively on interior vehicle design.
The mirrored glass facade on Cowan Street in Irvine, California, harbors a workshop where experts continually contemplate the future of automotive design — even though very few of their ideas will ever see the light of day.
Those lucky enough to be able to visit Mercedes-Benz’ North American Advanced Design Studio near Los Angeles are allowed a look into the brainstorming processes of vehicle designers whose activities are normally a well-guarded secret.
Futuristic vehicle models scaled 1:4 are displayed on platforms at the design center in Irvine, and the walls are adorned with large-format sketches of vehicles that will either be presented at auto shows from Los Angeles to Frankfurt, or else built exclusively for internal development studies.
Examples include an all-wheel-drive search and rescue vehicle equipped with thick cleated tires for desert driving, state-of-the art satellite technology, rescue tools, a hydrogen drive system, and a four-door luxury convertible named “Ocean Drive” that combines the sleek power of the S-Class with the elegance of the legendary 300D “Adenauer” from the 1960s.
Also on view is an initial prototype of the F 700 research vehicle, which features state-of-the-art technology for enhanced safety and comfort as well as an aerodynamic profile that takes its cue from the shape of a dolphin.
Finally, there’s a particularly bold vehicle study code-named “Silverflow” which, depending on the driving situation, can alter its appearance at the push of a button, like a projectile made of liquid metal.
The futuristic car can be compressed or extended, and even repair itself. Inspiration from neighboring Hollywood and its special effects obviously played a role here.
Free-flowing ideas “Advanced Design is a creative oasis — an island in the sea of production, where you can let your ideas flow freely without worrying about how to get them to the series production stage,” says Gorden Wagener, Vice President for Global Advanced Design.
Some 60 designers work at the three locations on concepts that will keep Mercedes-Benz at the cutting edge of automotive developments for the next 50 years or more.
Together with model constructors, these specialists create exterior design styles behind closed doors. They also work closely with engineers to develop the technological innovations that are often hidden under the vehicles’ futuristic-looking shells.
The activities of the three studios are complemented by an Interior Design Center in Como, Italy, where 20 creative minds tap into the inspiring innovations that can be found in neighboring Milan, a famous center of fashion and furniture design.
This global network has resulted in “continual competition to come up with the best solutions,” says Wagener as he leads us on a tour of the modest-looking facility in Irvine. Wagener’s team develops new concepts and models in a two-story building surrounding an enclosed courtyard lined with palm trees.
Around half of their developments make their way into the ongoing product design process at the company’s headquarters in Sindelfingen.
Beneficiaries include new versions of Mercedes-Benz model series such as the A, G, and S-Class. The other half are bold visions for the automotive world of the 22nd century — visions that for now at least are limited to the drawing board or the computer screen.
Balancing act “Design is emotional — it should display not only the personal signatures of the designers themselves but also the influence of the places where they work,” says Wagener.
When these three aspects form a perfect constellation, an initial sketch in Irvine, Yokohama, or Sindelfingen will eventually end up as a new vehicle model that can be on the global market some three years later.
The concepts for the new CL and SLK originated in southern California, for example. In addition, Irvine produced the prototype for an extraordinary compact car — formerly called the MCC — which hit the streets of California as the smart fortwo at the beginning of this year.
Designers take note of how many of their ideas make it from the note pad to the showroom.
Like its counterparts in Germany and Japan, the U.S. design studio regularly submits a series of concepts that provide a strategic foundation for the development of new models or bold research (F) and vision (V) vehicles. Although the timeline for these concepts varies, they must all be able to transport the core messages of the Mercedes brand into the future.
“We intentionally collect various approaches with global aspects, because each studio is influenced by its specific cultural surroundings,” says Wagener, who visits the studios in Germany and Japan at least once a month.
After all, creativity cannot be managed exclusively by phone, e-mail, and videoconferencing: “Designers need to present their ideas personally in order to promote them successfully.”
From paper to clay
Each design project can produce as many as 20 proposals that are examined by the Group’s Board of Management, which then chooses three or four promising ideas.
These ideas make the leap from a sketch or a computer animation to a detailed, varnished clay model. The process ends with one selected model being built to scale at headquarters in Germany.
“It’s an unbelievably great feeling to see your baby on the road,” says Chris Rhoades, who together with Wagener and Senior Vice President Peter Pfeiffer developed the concept for the Group’s latest research vehicle — the F 700, which is a futuristic version of the S-Class.
F700 Concept – CAD screenshot
The vehicle, whose aerodynamically streamlined design is based on bionic techniques, is a computer lab on wheels that houses the latest innovations for comfort, safety, navigation, and environmental protection.
Its vertically arranged headlights, for example, contain intelligent laser scanners that monitor the road ahead, while a Diesotto engine with a hybrid module hums under the hood.
“F vehicles are like our free-style events; production design is our compulsory exercise,” says Wagener.
He views both as a challenge, however, since not having factory specifications to comply with doesn’t make it any easier to dream up creative designs.
Los Angeles: the ideal location
First of all, the LA metropolitan area, with its 13 million residents, is a mecca for car fans and enthusiasts who like to work on and improve their vehicles
in accordance with their personal tastes.
“There were several good reasons why we chose the LA area to open the first Advanced Design Studio outside of Germany in 1990,” says Benjamin Dimson, also a designer in Irvine. “For example, the people here are more obsessed with their cars than are people elsewhere.”
Lifestyle trends in and around LA continue to be driven by people’s desire to own automobiles tailored to their individual needs.
It was in Los Angeles, for example, that the surfing craze was born in the mid-1930s, and surfing eventually gave birth to skateboarding and snowboarding.
Of course, those who wish to go to the ocean, desert, or mountains to do any of these things need a network of highways. They also need vehicles like SUVs and pickups that can support the most diverse activities.
Even though such vehicles are often used only in cities, they nevertheless express the desire for an active lifestyle. And that’s exactly what drivers are looking for in the design of their vehicles.
The power of Hollywood
The first freeway in the region opened in 1935 — and the first publicized smog incident occurred in 1943.
Later on, in the mid-1970s, the first catalytic converters were launched inCalifornia. Today California remains the leader in the U.S. — if not the world — when it comes to passing emission and fuel economy regulations that oblige vehicle and engine designers to “think green” when going about their work.
Technical innovations from the Golden State, and Hollywood celebrities, are two additional key factors that continue to have a long-term impact on American society, the U.S. economy, and mobility in general.
In fact, the vehicles used in successful films, or driven by successful actors and actresses, often send a positive signal to consumers.
It’s therefore not surprising that all big-name automakers have set up design studios in the LA area to tap into the region’s creative minds, including students from the famous Art Center College of Design.
“We don’t blindly follow fashion here,” says Wagener. “Instead, we try to identify long-term trends that will increase the value of the Mercedes-Benz brand for decades to come – ideas that meet the highest demands for engineering, performance, comfort, and safety.”
That’s why designers must “live in the future” and think at least two or three vehicle generations (around 14–21 years) ahead.
“We get our inspiration for this,” says Wagener, “from all types of encounters — with other drivers in traffic jams or at traffic lights, at the beach, on the road, and from our in-house trend researchers in Germany.”