We had a chance to have a friendly chat with David Hilton, recently appointed Head of Exterior Design for Bentley Motors Ltd.
He has now moved to Crewe in the UK, after 12 years running his own successful design firm “Motorcity Europe“, which is now available for a Designer or Group interested in taking over.
We imagine that leaving Motorcity Europe was not an easy decision for you, after all it was your “baby”.
Yes, it was definitely my baby, but I called it “Motorcity Europe” for a reason, I didn’t call it “David Hilton Design”. I did that intentionally, as I wanted it to be a community of people that could be led by someone else if necessary.
How are you feeling now, working again inside an automotive company, after many years working on your own as a consultant? It changes your working style and habits.
That is a really good question. It’s different, there are pluses and minuses. But I often remind people it’s nothing really new for me, because I worked for many years at Ford, Mazda and Volkswagen. What I really miss is surfing on Wednesdays.
When I did my interviews, they asked me “Why would you want to do this? You run your company, it’s going really well, you have many clients, it’s a dream job, everyone would love to do it”.
And my answer to that was “Yes, you are right, it IS a dream job, but I did it for ten years and now I want to do something different.”
I also wanted to do something where I’d be part of a family for a longer period of time, and to be involved and see the development of my work instead of working for a company just for a few months.
Also, when you work as a consultant you almost never get credited for your work, it is quite rare.
It seems that being an “automotive design consultant” is a quite rare job as well.
Yes, it’s very rare, there are not many people that are doing it. And it’s not very easy, even for experienced design directors who have worked for big companies and decide to start their own consultancy.
The key is that you have to be able to do everything: I used to do the high-end design, business reading, budget management – and I cleaned the office.
Bentley is an iconic marque. Did the brand name play a role in your decision?
Yes, of course it did. An interesting thing that happens when you are interviewed for a job at this level, is that they can’t tell you what the projects are, they can’t tell you about your team, you can’t see the studio, you have no idea of what you are getting into, it can be scary.
Actually in the end it was a very positive surprise, as the projects are fantastic and the people are great. And being part of the Volkswagen Group, there are many different projects and products going on.
Will it be different to design premium and luxury cars, rather than global or racing models?
Yes and no, the Bentley brand image also means “performance luxury”, these cars are very powerful machines, so it’s not that different from what I’ve done, except for the fact that they cost a lot more, so you’ve got better toys to play with, for sure.
It’s a premium brand, in the world’s greatest Group, I’m very happy about it.
Volkswagen Group appears to be one of the most design-driven automotive groups in the industry, also considering the recent acquisition of Italdesign-Giugiaro.
Yes, definitely. And the beauty of working within the Group is that you can share technologies and ideas in order to strengthen each Brand’s models, future products and so on – it’s like being a kid in a candy store for the Designers.
During my first week on the job I went to a Bentley Group event that only happens once a year, where a complete business strategy was presented, so it was a perfect timing.
Also, even if it is part of the Volkswagen Group, Bentley is still run as a small company, so you are involved in the financial and business management issues at every level, which is good, because you have more responsibility than you do when working for other big companies.
From a designer’s point of view, do you have more creative freedom and time for actual design when working on your own – with all the unrelated activities that need to be done – or when working inside a company – with all the responsibilities, meetings, etc?
When I was at Motorcity Europe I’ve got to do a lot of the design, and then I got external help when needed, whereas here I have the constant help of other designers and there are a lot of projects going on – but on the other side there are many more meetings.
In the last years I have worked for so many companies, and I’ve seen a lot of bad ones and a lot of good ones. So now I have a good knowledge on how to run a company efficiently and I brought this experience with me to Bentley.
There are a couple of groups interested in taking over. In case it doesn’t work I could just put it into a coma and maybe pick it up and use it later myself, who knows.
But I’d really like to have someone else take it over, because everything is in place: the name is there, the studio in Cologne is available, the website is there.
The whole structure is ready to go, someone could just walk in and start working.
When at Motorcity Europe you have organized several design workshops. Would you be interested in teaching again in the future?
They really made me think about how I do what I do, they forced me to be creative and pass on creative ideas to people.
I think I’ll continue to teach, but it is going to be in a different way, more for the designers that work with me, taking the same mentality from the workshops, exploring creative ideas, new ways of doing things.
Is there a specific structure for the Workshops still in place at Motorcity Europe?
It would be an interesting activity, since most of the transportation design courses last much several years. There are very few professional workshops of that kind, and they can attract both students and professionals.
Yes, they were almost always sold out, people enjoyed them and everyone was very happy. And I think the pricing was very competitive.
I think it would be the kind of person who is like me ten years ago: very ambitious, ready to work for different companies, ready to get out and get the work, it’s not always easy though.
I woke up every single day unemployed.
I had that mentality all the time, you never know, a project could end at any time, so I was constantly looking for the next thing.
It was really a pleasure, David. Thank you very much!