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BMW designer Chris Bangle on style and controversy


Chris Bangle had just demonstrated how to make a perfectly symmetrical origami-style dinghy out of a sheet of paper when he glanced over his shoulder to gaze at one of Australia's most recognisable structures.

"That building, design, shape and form is an icon," Bangle says of the Opera House from his vantage point on the far side of the Quay. "Look at some of the other buildings on the Sydney skyline: they haven't the same effect or lasting design."

The Opera House was a huge departure from conventional design, the striking spherical shells making it one of the most prominent designs of the 20th century. When it opened in 1973 it was widely accepted as an iconic structure; quite the opposite to the impact Bangle had on the car world with his radical design direction at the once ultra-conservative BMW at the start of the 21st century.

Bangle, the world's pre-eminent car designer, was in Sydney last week for the motor show. And there was intense interest in him for causing the greatest stir in recent automotive history. Bangle rose to fame or infamy — depending on which side of the fence you sit — with his self-proclaimed "flame design", first shown to the world with the arrival of the E65 7-series in 2001.

It was revised last year with the E66 sporting a smoother rump, the infamous "Bangle Butt" having some cosmetic surgery.

Bangle-hate websites have sprung up since he headed off in his radical mish-mash of concave and convex lines that filtered through to the 5-series and Z4 roadster and coupe. They're full of nasty stuff, some personally attacking American-born Bangle, others calling for his axing from the Munich maker.

Bangle acknowledges the wave of protest, admitting he looks into the often murky world of the worldwide web.

"I look at them. I don't bathe myself in them but I certainly look," Bangle says.

"You know Andy Warhol said everyone will have their 15 minutes of fame in the future and it's just that I got in before a lot of people," he chuckles.

"But seriously (websites) are like the faceless media, its a one-way discussion and it's like a wall coming at you.

"I think in the future everyone is going to have their own hate website and we're just seeing the beginning of it."

Bangle qualifies his response by saying he is not immune to criticism.

"I think criticism is OK, it's healthy as long as there is open dialogue," he says.

The car world has to some degree lessened its dislike of the so-called Bangle angles.

And Bangle, 50, is very much in-demand on the speaking circuit. In Melbourne recently, Bangle addressed a gathering at the national design centre at Federation Square.

He says Australia has a lot to offer the world from a design point of view.

"You know a lot of the magazines I pick up in Europe say that Australia is the most influential place for residential architecture.

"I hope to pick up some ideas from my first visit here and take them back and maybe put them to use in the car world," Bangle says.

As with most designers in the game, Bangle is totally absorbed by cars. But he is more than simply a one-dimensional character.

He used his 50th birthday on October 14 as a premise to throw a party around his personal art exhibition in Munich.

"I showed 130 pieces of my art collection from portraits and sculptures and had 270 people show up," Bangle says.

Among three pieces auctioned on the night with money going to Medicins Sans Frontieres was a steel sculpture reflecting Bangle's trademark flame design.

Age has given him a new urgency as one of the most powerful figures in car design: "I guess my sense of impatience has increased in terms of where the industry's going."

Bangle's unconventional designs have polarised opinion on the BMW family's looks.

He does not see the revision to the 7-series last year as an indication that his styling went too far. "It was half-time in the model cycle and a time for second helpings," Bangle says. "You use those moments to harmonise the whole family and the 7-series is now that much more elegant."

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