Mercedes-Benz Irvine Studio: design people

Automotive Design 2 Jun 2008
Mercedes-Benz Irvine Studio: design people

Official information on the processes at Mercedes-Benz Design Studio in Irvine, California. The document includes comments by the designers with personal quotes and biography notes.

cover image: Mercedes-Benz senior designer Nicolas Garfias sketching

This document was released 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.

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Sketches and clay modelHardware and manual work

The Design Studio team implements its visions using a combination of hand-crafted precision and modern computer technology.

Black-and-white and color sketches continue to be drawn on paper with pencils and markers — but these days the drawings are scanned into computers, where they can be refined and altered using an electronic stylus before being passed on as frontal, rear, and side-view images to model constructors.

The latter are organized into a team of four “sculptors” who build 1:4 scale models on the ground floor of the studio.

Irvine Design Studio - Production HallThe model specialists start out with a molded blank of clay that they scan with a computer.

The approximately two million data triangles for vehicle geometry thus obtained enable the computer to calculate a detailed polygonal surface encompassing everything from the radiator grille to the car’s taillights.

The resulting measurements are utilized by a computer-operated molding cutter to precisely shape the clay.

Senior design sculptor David Slaughter

“Digital technology has given us a tremendous opportunity to do things more quickly and make data calculations that can be sent to other design studios around the world,” says David Slaughter, the most senior design sculptor in Irvine.

Senior design sculptor David Slaughter“Ultimately, however, the digital world cannot completely replace a physical model. A well-proportioned design line that breathes and conveys the spirit of Mercedes-Benz is still best created by hand.”

Despite this view, Slaughter and his colleagues have been working for years with completely computer-generated models.

These have been especially helpful with advanced concept cars and show cars designed for exhibitions or — like the liquid-metal Silverflow — conceived solely for presentation at design shows.

Design and technology in synch Much in the constant transformation of design involves a certain tension between designers and research and development specialists.

Clay modelsAll the designers in Irvine, for example, like to make fun of the term “on package,” which refers to the profile of technical demands that every new vehicle needs to meet in order to comply with the increasingly complex safety and other regulations.

This “package” contains a large amount of data and measurements that are “set in stone.”

Designers must comply with these stipulations, regardless of whether they pertain to headlights, the occupant cell, wheelbases, engines, or transmissions.

The challenge here is to ensure that designers and engineers remain on the same page.

Although the specialists in Sindelfingen are anxious to see their latest inventions implemented in an Advanced Design concept vehicle, they also need to realize that designers will not be content with simply delivering aesthetically pleasing “packaging” for the new technologies.

Nicolas Garfias Senior designer Nicolas Garfias

“There’s a constant dialogue between us and the engineers — after all, our common goal is to build the best possible vehicle,” says senior designer Nicolas Garfias, who recently spent three months in Sindelfingen to assist in the transformation of his winning design from a small-scale model to a series-production prototype.

“When you get to that point, you can’t cut corners,” Garfias explains.

“All of the details have got to be on package, as we say — and we ensure this by comparing the latest data with the specifications.”

Finding the right mixture The team in Irvine also searches for the ideal mixture of technical perfection and aesthetic sensibility when it’s recruiting designers for the future.

Benjamin Ebel with a 1:4 clay model Designer Ben Ebel with a 1:4 clay model

That’s why staff members from the Advanced Design Studio regularly lecture at the Art Center College in Pasadena, which has traditionally been a center for automotive design.

The idea is to get students familiar with the design philosophy of the Mercedes-Benz brand and recruit some of them later on. The studio offers one or two internships lasting from three to six months each year to students from the college, and many current employees are former students from Pasadena.

Benjamin Ebel, who has worked as a designer at Mercedes-Benz since 2004, teaches once a week at his alma mater. His goal is to explain to design students how they can best manage their careers.

“There is, for example, a big difference between whether I appreciate a car because I’m a designer or whether I like it as a car buff,” says Ebel.

Benjamin Dimson Benjamin Dimson

“The latter is what I call design with depth — and it’s actually what’s most important. Producing a depth model requires research and the ability to tell a convincing story.”

Ebel, who describes himself as a “purist with a preference for minimalist forms,” seeks out talented, communicative, and versatile students at the college for recruitment.

Benjamin Dimson believes the future will be shaped by the emotions and attitudes of Generations Y and Z — that is, those age groups that have grown up with the Internet from the beginning.

“These drivers of tomorrow won’t care about horsepower or displacement, and they won’t be fiddling with carburetors,” says Dimson.

Model constructor Michael Cato Model constructor Michael Cato exchanges data with colleagues

“They will, however, pay a lot of attention to high-performance batteries in electric cars, storage capacity, mobile Web capa­bility, and vehicle entertainment systems.”

Among other things, such future customers will want to have system interfaces in their cars that resemble those they know from iPhones and game consoles.

“If we still want to be the world’s best brand in 100 years, we’ll need to lock into such trends at an early stage,” says Dimson.

“Our job is to technically incorporate these trends into our designs in a manner that ensures that Mercedes-Benz remains the top brand for luxury and performance. This won’t be easy — but I’m optimistic.”

Designer Chris Rhoades with an F 700 sketch Designer Chris Rhoades with an F 700 sketch:
Learning from dolphins

His optimism just may have something to do with the California sunshine that bathes his office and makes cars on the West Coast shine just a little bit brighter.

Design People – Quotes and bios

Gorden Wagener

Gorden Wagener heads the Strategic Advanced Design department and as such acts as director of the Mercedes design studios in California and Japan.

From mid-2008 onwards, Wagener is heading the globally active design division of Mercedes-Benz.

“We’re all artists, but we need to think like engineers as well.”

Christopher Rhoades

“The ultimate goal of a designer is that the car in question makes it to the final round of consideration and, ideally, is chosen for production,” says Christopher Rhoades, who has been working for Mercedes since 1987 and is now the Assistant General Manager in Irvine.

“It’s an unbelievably great feeling to
see your baby on the road.”
Chris adds.

Nicolas Garfias sketching Designer Nicolas Garfias sketching

Nicolas Garfias

“Every good idea I have ­begins with a pencil and a blank piece of paper. I just sit down and let my imagination run free.”

He began thinking like a designer as a child, when he loved to play around his mother’s desk — which just happened to be located in the legendary design office run by Charles and Ray Eames.

Today, Garfias is thrilled to be getting paid for fulfilling a childhood dream.

Benjamin Dimson

Designer and Assistant General Manager of the
Advanced Design Studio in Irvine, Daimler’s first such studio abroad, Benjamin Dimson was one of the first people hired in Irvine.

Senior sculptor David Slaughter modelling Senior sculptor David Slaughter modelling

He likes to stay on top of the latest trends and developments in southern California. “What happens here in California filters through to the rest of the world.”

David Slaughter

“Unique designs require at least some of the work to be done by hand. Working only with a computer produces rigid forms.”

Senior design sculptor David Slaughter was the first employee hired in Irvine in 1990, when the studio was still just an empty hall with one telephone line and no furniture, tools, or computers.

He still swears by the handcrafted quality of clay models as the key to producing forward-looking designs.

(Source: Mercedes-Benz)

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