“I think it’s a good time to be a designer, interesting time because the whole world is changing and the speed of the change is amazing,” said Robert Lesnik, director of exterior design at Mercedes-Benz.
We sat down with Stuttgart’s styling specialist for a chat during the New York Auto Show, both to learn about what’s going on in the studios of this hallowed German automaker and to gain insight about where automotive design is heading.
Bits and Bytes Not Horsepower and Torque
For the industry as a whole, the biggest trend Lesnik sees is digitalization and the accelerating push for autonomous vehicles. “If you are doing something for 10 generations, then everything is pretty defined and we are pretty good in doing that,” he explained. But in the future, self-driving cars will force designers to completely rethink what vehicles look like and how they function.
Lesnik explained the traditional automotive package will change. Today’s cars and trucks feature clearly defined spaces, one for the powertrain, another for passengers and a separate area for cargo. When full autonomy becomes a reality, he said driveline components can be minimized so interior space can be pushed to the limit without making a vehicle’s exterior any bigger.
On the surface, this tectonic shift sounds like it might be many years away, but Lesnik estimates that by the end of this decade, we will start seeing “different shapes” enter the market. Automakers are hard at work developing their autonomous plans and platforms but really, they may not be that far off. Still, these sweeping changes could be hard for some folks to accept.
“We designers, we have many ideas … but we have to sell it, we have to convince other people and they have to convince other people, and at the end, the customer has to be convinced,” explained Lesnik. “The engineering is what you use, but before you use it you see it … you touch it, you feel it.”
No matter how advanced a vehicle is it still has to look good, work well and provide an experience commensurate with its price. “We say you have to fall in love,” Lesnik said.
Designing the Future
It’s quite difficult to uncover what a specific automaker’s upcoming product plans are, but Lesnik pulled the curtain back a little bit for us. In the future he said, “We are trying to do some new products, create some new, let’s call it crossovers, something that you cannot really define … something unexpected. This is definitely what we are going to do.”
The new GLC Coupe, which was revealed in New York, is an example he gave for what’s to come from Mercedes-Benz. Perhaps a more rakish version of the GL is under development, or maybe even a two-door variant of military-grade G-Wagen. Who knows?
As for the actual design of future vehicles, Lesnik said, “Our cars will get much cleaner, much more simple in terms of details on the body side for example. The lines are getting more and more subtle.” It seems minimalism is in for upcoming Mercedes vehicles, which is something they’ve already demonstrated with their Concept IAA and F 015 Luxury in Motion design studies.
Similarity Breeds Contempt
Circling back to Mercedes’ current lineup, all of its products bear a strong family resemblance. This helps build brand identity but it can also make its vehicles difficult to distinguish. Even automotive journalists sometimes have trouble differentiating their various products. Can you tell a CLS apart from a CLA? What about the GLC and GLE? Don’t even get us started on the C- and E-Class sedans.
When asked if there was a danger in having all of its vehicles look the same Lesnik said, “At some point, of course, but at that point where we are in the moment, everything is OK.”
He joined the company back in 2009 during the dark days of the last economic downturn. At this time, Lesnik said they laid the groundwork for the brand’s current design language, their so-called sensual purity philosophy. “And we said, ‘First of all, we really have to bring the cars together so that people understand what Mercedes design is.’”
It’s taken several years for this new styling language to sweep across the company’s product range, but pretty much all of their models now look like they belong in the same family. Lesnik said this movement really began with their flagship sedan.
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“If you talk about the core of this brand, the sedan … this is S-Class, E-Class and C-Class, we have started [the] new design language with the S-Class,” Lesnik elaborated. “We call this car ‘the best car in the world,’ so if there are certain similarities with [the] other two sedans, that’s OK, so they are linked to the best car in the world.”
A Favorite Child
Of all the vehicles in Mercedes-Benz’s broad range, Lesnik must have a model that he loves above all others, so we asked him.
“It’s always interesting to see two years after the so-called ‘design freeze’ the car that you were working on weekends, days and nights … [to] see it moving around, driving around,” said Lesnik. “It’s a cool feeling.” He loves all the products he works on, but this egalitarianism hasn’t prevented him from singling one particular model out.
“The S-Class Coupe is probably my favorite,” said Lesnik. “You don’t see [it] that often … this is part of the special feeling.”
This car is unique, both for the luxury and technology it offers but also because of its size; it’s huge, measuring nearly 200 inches in length, riding atop a wheelbase of almost 116 inches. Accordingly, there aren’t many rivals to it on the market today. “We designers had a really fun [time] designing the car and I think that you really see this,” said Lesnik.
But it’s not just how big the S-Class Coupe is that appeals to him. “I know decades ago that was just sheer size so, ‘I can afford more than you can afford,’” he said. “But I think the modern luxury … this is different these days. So everything is about the best quality,” which is something this model, and many other Mercedes-Benz products offer.
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