THE ULTIMATE DESIGNING MACHINE

Henrik Fisker is drawing a car in chalk. With quick sweeps so familiar he could probably do them in his sleep, he sketches the new BMW Z8 sports car on a black sheet tacked to a wall, showing how the shape compares to the classic 508 of the late 1950s (Elvis owned one). Fisker, the Z8’s chief designer, is Danish. BMW, of course, is German. But we’re in the offices of Designworks/USA, in Newbury Park, California, much closer to the L.A. Freeway than to the Autobahn.

Designworks, an industrial design studio where Fisker is president and CEO, began in a Malibu garage in 1972. Its founder, Chuck Pelly, a legendary car designer whose credits include the sporty Scarab, staffed the company with his most talented students from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena–the Ecole des Beaux-Arts of the auto world. In 1995, BMW, one ofDesignworks’s clients and eventually a part owner, bought the company outright to be a satellite design studio. Designworks had a big hand in developing BMW’s X5 sports activity vehicle and new 3-Series, but from the start, its purpose has been cross-pollination. Here, according to Pelly’s plan, automotive technologies and materials find applications in non-driveable goods like computers for Compaq, phones for Nokia, and desk accessories for Haworth. The goal, says BMW’s design chief, Chris Bangle, is shaping “anything that moves your body and your heart.”

Product design requires space to create and view models, but it also demands tight security. Over the years, the collegial openness that helped Designworks invent products for such varied companies as John Deere and Thermador came into increasing conflict with its parent’s security needs. On the one hand, designers profited from a free exchange of ideas–everyone from the clay modelers to the front desk receptionist critiqued projects. “On the other hand, BMW had some real secrets and kept needing to carve out more space for the closed-off clay studio,” Bangle explains. The conflict couldn’t be resolved without a major office expansion. Last year, Gensler’s Santa Monica office began one that will soon nearly double Designwork’s 38,000 square feet and tidy up the place, which Bangle admits is informal, if not scruffy.

According to project principal Gene Watanabe, the original structure–a classic 1970S California tilt-up–“was the most nondescript little white concrete building you’ve every seen.” Gensler’s job was to increase and protect the space without distorting the building’s proportions. Though most of the addition expands the automotive clay studio, the firm’s other task was to prevent the non-automotive departments from feeling neglected. All in all, the specs were a challenge. “They told us they needed lots of security and then in the next breath said they wanted lots of light and air,” Watanabe says. “But what the building really wanted to be was a bunker.”

To integrate the old and new portions, Gensler introduced a 305-foot-long exterior wall punctuated by a glass entrance topped with a thin, winglike marquee. Only a tiny notch suggests the juncture of the two parts. (Bangle, for whom the new facade resembles a ship sailing across the site, refers to the shape as a “knifing prow.”) Nicknamed “the flank,” the wall is punctuated by a long strip of clerestory windows that soften the idea of a division between workers who have access to company secrets and those who don’t. Here and elsewhere on the perimeter, windows vary in size and capacity depending on the activities of the spaces they look onto–transmitting less light to the computer labs, more to the lobby. The section bordering the clay studio at the back is made of Kalwall. At night, onlookers see mysterious silhouettes projected from the active studio’s yellow light, while the space itself remains alluringly inaccessible.

Inside the clay studio, the gems of future auto shows begin life as earthen lumps. Despite the use of scanners and other high-tech tools to transfer three-dimensional shapes to and from computers, modeling is a hands-on, sculptural process. The enlarged space makes room for expensive raised metal plates on which the models will be measured and examined from all angles. Auto-design-group offices, currently shoved away in halls, will be ranged in this part of the addition along a catwalk like mezzanine that emphasizes the involvement of all workers with the clay studio below.

A stroll through Design works reveals diverse products in the making: ski goggles for Scott/USA, ergonomic interface graphics for Sanyo/Fisher. But beginning with the entrance–the company’s public face–Bangle wanted to make clear that Design works is not a high-tech startup, but an avant-garde, global design firm. Moved to a front-and-center position in the renovated facility, the entrance leads to an exhibit area whose focus is an outdoor turntable showing off new products in natural light. When a sensitive prototype is on display, a veil will be drawn around the turntable to thwart prying eyes (especially those of competitors buzzing the site in helicopters). At other times, all Designworks employees will be able to take pride in the company’s innovations.

Bangle’s interest in privacy embraces more than security. It was his idea to provide a tower-like room poking out of the roof that he calls “the tree house.” He conceived it as a raw space, temporarily decorated by its inhabitants, where designers could solve knotty problems by fleeing upward to “lofty” thoughts. Bangle’s prototype was a house he knew as a child that an eccentric had built on top of a stone column left by erosion in the Wisconsin Dells, but he also had the work of a more classical architect, Jefferson’s office at Monticello, in mind.

As executed by Gensler, the tower offers a simple space with a whiteboard for doodling. Bangle, meanwhile, has moved on to other ideas: he dreams of building a virtual, digital studio–a Voodoo studio, in Bangle-speak–that would somehow let designers work anywhere inspiration strikes.

Though Bangle’s ideas are lofty, his feet are on the ground. Sometimes his whole body is. When presented with Gensler’s model of the expanded Designworks, he lowered himself on his hands and knees and carefully studied it from all angles. He loved that the wood was left natural, so the emphasis was on form and perspective, just as in the model for, say, a BMW. Watanabe was amazed. “I never had anybody look at a model for the same things I do,” he says.

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