Gorden Wagener.

Interview with Chief Design Officer Gorden Wagener

“An icon must be something truly novel, beautiful and timeless."

June 15, 2023 – Gorden Wagener, one of the most influential automotive designers of our time, has headed the global design division of Mercedes-Benz and its brands – Mercedes-Maybach and Mercedes-AMG – since 2008. Wagener has served as the company’s Chief Design Officer since 2016. His goal is to create the most desirable cars in the world.

The basis for this is his design philosophy of sensual purity, which defines the specific hallmarks of luxury for each respective brand in the Mercedes-Benz Group. Wagener’s creations establish new impulses in the luxury segment and stand for beauty and the extraordinary. At this year’s Design Essentials in Carlsbad, California, Wagener and his team will be showcasing exciting new products and visions for the future – both physical and digital.

The now well-established Mercedes-Benz Design event is taking place for the fifth time this year, this time with the theme of “Design No.5: Creating Iconic Luxury”. What defines this year’s event?

Last year, we presented our new strategy and explained how we want to build the world’s most desirable cars. At “Design No.5”, our purpose is about showing how we’re bringing it to life. That's why we’re providing insights into both current projects and taking a look ahead at future design trends. And, of course, we’re also featuring the newest show cars with which we’re creating new impulses for the future of Mercedes-Benz design. For us, it’s all about continuously evolving our unique design language based on the Mercedes DNA. At “Design No.5”, we’ll be sharing what inspires us, how our creations come to life, and how we define iconic luxury at Mercedes-Benz.

How exactly do you define and set the stage for iconic luxury?

Let’s stay with the keyword “icon” for a moment. Every designer strives to create something new and unique and, in so doing, make a statement that resonates long into the future. But whether or not a designer’s work actually becomes an icon only becomes apparent with the passage of time. However, it’s icons that count. They define luxury and embody specific characteristics. They are original and unmistakable, pursue a clear aim, are timeless, based on a powerful idea and, therefore, can also be polarising. Products, brands, people or also a style can be iconic. In this respect, we have the greatest possible potential here at Mercedes – for instance, with our iconic Mercedes, AMG and Maybach brands or outstanding individuals such as Carl Benz or Gottlieb Daimler. Beyond that, we have developed our own distinctive style. And Mercedes has created many iconic vehicles, including the 300 SL, the S-Class and the G-Class, for example – all of which are automotive legends. They’re cars with a very long pedigree. Our job is to continue this success story – or even to reimagine it.

My team and I have designed many sports cars for Mercedes. And I personally feel that some of these cars have already become icons: an SLR or a GT, for example. The new SL also has the potential to achieve cult status. Of course, there are certain standards for extraordinary design. The most important one is that a vehicle must be something truly novel when it comes onto the market. Beyond that, it needs that magical “x factor”: that unexpected, extraordinary flair that generates lasting fascination. Something that wasn't there before, like a 300 SL Gullwing, for example – an “über-car” that almost seemed like a UFO when it first came out. Aesthetics are also very important. An icon must, by definition, be beautiful and, moreover, timeless. It doesn’t just capture and surpass the current trends or zeitgeist, it sets them – and it’s not a fashion or fad. It would literally go out of fashion before it had a chance to achieve icon status. I always urge and embolden my team to be visionary and unconventional! It’s only by breaking the rules here and there can you create great things. Perhaps even something iconic.

Let’s look first at the exterior. Which features here are typical of iconic design?

Mercedes-Benz design has always featured numerous iconic elements. Think of the gullwing doors of the 300 SL, or the so-called “shark nose” from the 1950s and the 1960s, which we’re still reinterpreting today. Shark nose describes a front-end design that has a strong forward lean, which gives the vehicle a distinctively dynamic appearance. As the saying goes – they look fast, even standing still. Another iconic element is our “signature graphic”, also at the front – in the case of AMG, for instance, the typical AMG grille with vertical struts, the widest part of which hovers close above the road. This A-shape contour markedly shifts the visual centre of gravity lower to the ground – evocative of a predator ready to pounce. In Carlsbad, we’re providing an insight into a new and equally sporty grille variant for Mercedes-Benz. It looks super cool. Another new element is the modified daytime running lights, the so-called eyebrow above the headlights, which we’ve further enhanced with a stylised star. We will successively introduce these features into all model lines. Together they will comprise the new sporty “face” of Mercedes-Benz – the look of the future. And because we always take a holistic approach to design, we’re also working in parallel to develop corresponding elements around the rear lights.

Keyword “holistic” – what does iconic design mean for the interior?

For us, it’s the overall experience of a Mercedes-Benz that counts. Meaning – conveying the uniqueness of a Mercedes-Benz from the inside out. In other words, giving our cars a strong and unmistakable design identity throughout. Our aim is to give our customers an interior experience that seamlessly unites aesthetics and beauty, one that’s achieved through exceptional design and materials. The so-called “cocooning effect” plays a central role here. A car’s interior should lend an ambience of luxury and security, one that offers maximum comfort combined with bespoke details and touches of the highest quality. We combine traditional materials such as wood and leather – created with genuine craftsmanship – with the latest high-tech features such as the Hyperscreen. The result is a thoroughly unique and distinctively Mercedes overall composition of analogue and digital elements. The exquisite details and the interplay of contrasts in the interior contribute to the iconic design.

For quite some time now, we’re seeing many luxury brands making a clear break with the past, starting with the move away from traditional colour combinations. We’re a driver of this trend – and in some cases, taking an approach that’s deliberately polarising. For example, through the use of unusual colour combinations such as sunny yellow interiors that contrast sharply with dark/black metallic exteriors. Maybach shows this from a completely new perspective – one that’s far more extroverted than before. At the same time, we are shifting to a more generous and expansive surface design language – with screens being a prime example. We’ve developed a new touch architecture for these that is emphatically personal and haptic. All of this makes for a very dynamic change in design in the Top-End segment.

Is there a timeline for the goal of building the “world’s most desirable cars”?

I think we’re already creating the world’s most desirable cars. The latest proof of this is the new E-Class, which I feel is an outstanding combination of innovative technology and iconic design. The W 214 E-Class is currently the most intelligent business sedan on the market; it embodies digital and physical luxury in the purest form. And its design makes that clear at first glance. However, with regard to the goal of building the world’s most desirable cars, I would also like to make it absolutely clear that this is a continuous process that starts anew with each future model generation.

But that also means that your team is permanently working under high pressure – how do you manage that?

First of all, delivering top performance is an expectation we have of anyone who is at the top of their game – whether it’s an artist, an elite athlete – or the Mercedes-Benz design team. What counts is how you deal with this. And regardless of what you’re doing or which field you’re working in, there’s really only one approach that makes sense: having a clearly defined concept with a coherent strategy. Together with a highly motivated and competent team, this is the foundation. At “Design No.5”, we’re showcasing how this works for us – how it all comes together. And the venue – this year at our Design Center in Carlsbad, California – plays a central role in this. It’s part of our global Design Center network, with which we are present in every key market. This network allows us to pick up on regional trends around the globe and work together in an interdisciplinary and intercultural fashion. The Design Centers function as our creative melting pots, where we forge ideas for the luxury automobiles of the future. Each Center’s respective environment – such as California, for example – serves as an incredible and inexhaustible source of inspiration for our work.