World Exclusive Interview with Klaus Bischoff

GCD caught up with Klaus Bischoff, Executive Director of Volkswagen Design, at the New York International Auto Show 2011.  As a series of projects designed by his tight knit design team are coming to the foreground revealing a new emotional side to VW we wanted to get to know the man behind the change.  Unlike most of his counterpart designers that migrate from one car company to the next in search of top pay and power, Bischoff is a rare man in that once he set eyes on Volkswagen he never turned back.  As he tells us his story you can tell that VW was love at first site; he speaks with words such as honour, heart, and trust.  VW had lost its fun factor and lost many die-hard customers but by reviving its icons, Bulli, Beetle, and new Golf, Bischoff has put VW design back on track.  There is no-one so uniquely qualified as himself to bring VW into the future nor is there anyone so passionate about VW’s heritage to imbue their new creations with green.  Meet Mr. Bischoff! 

Green Car Design : How did you come to be a designer?

Bischoff : Oh, I was always drawing and drawing…for me it was my kind of language. I was always drawing boats, and all kinds of mobile stuff, cars of course.  In school it was my favourite hobby, and my father was an architect so I had a surrounding that was always creative.

GCD : What kind of design did you study?

Bischoff : First I studied product design in a University close to Wolfsburg, in Braunschweig, and my goal was to become a car designer.

GCD : So you were clear!

Bischoff : It was a clear vision, this was something that came from inspiration that I saw about car designers.  It was a dream of mine to become a car designer.  I also had a close relationship to cars because my parents had VWs and my own first car was a Beetle, and I studied in the town near VW.  My target was to make an internship there and for this I had to deliver nice results in a project where the prize was an internship through my school, Braunschweig University of Art.  And I won!  I got my foot in the door in the design studios of VW, from then on I did all my studies within VW design and when I graduated the design chief at the time said “oh well now we have to take you!”.  A dream came true, I was inside this job, I was in VW, it was 1989.  From then on I have been with the brand in all possible positions from interior design, to being responsible for a small studio to feasibility.  Then in 2007 finally Dr. Wintekorn became the head of the group and the brand VW and Walter da Silva joined VW as head of design of the group and at that time I became head of design for the VW brand.  As you can imagine that was a very special time for me because I worked very hard to achieve that goal and that dream.  Now it is very nice, the cars that my team have done with me over the last few years are finally coming out.

GCD : Yes, we can tell something is changing, it seems like the tension in the lines are letting go, if looks like you are having fun again!

Bischoff : This year is the year of products that are much more emotional and sympatic, we started with the Bulli in Geneva and now the second hit is Shanghai, Berlin, New York with the Beetle and the next thing is the Up!, the new small segment car that will come later in the year in Frankfurt.

GCD : What will happen with the XL1?

Bischoff : That will be put into series production, a small series, but a series nonetheless.  This will be in the next 2-3 years before it will be on sale.  It is a very special product, involving a lot of hard tasks and technology.  It was very special to do this kind of car with a target of 1 litre fuel efficiency per 100 km where design is not the top priority.  We did our utmost to create a car that although design is not the priority we tried to design a car which is outstandingly beautiful and in the end we managed to do something, from an aesthetic point of view, very balanced and nice.

GCD : Tell us about the Beetle, it must be a cool project?

Bischoff : This is something really coming from the heart of the design team, from the heart of my wishes also.  To keep that icon alive, you really have to do the right thing.  It is very easy to fall into a trap to do something that is stupid.  You have to carefully develop such a design.  In the end with all the changes that we fought for, we designed the car in a way that was subtle and honest and true to the core of the original design from ‘38 but a lot more sporty and full of character; not many cars can say about themselves that they still have so much presence after 70 years of existence, its an honour for me, a real dream. 

GCD : Do you think that green cars should be completely redesigned or should cars evolve as they are?

Bischoff : Its like two pairs of shoes, its our task to combine this.  Although the new 2012 Beetle is much more greener and efficient than before, to go into electric drive trains or as extreme as the XL1 you have to change the architecture dramatically.  The Bulli is an example of how you can connect an icon from the past with a task of the future, it is well combined because to make electric cars producible you have to stack batteries in a very compact dimension and also the same type, the best is that they are sitting very low and close to the ground.  This makes batteries more affordable and cheaper, in the Bulli the architecture and the shape of the car fits with the technology and its doable.  If we are talking about the XL1 its all about aerodynamics and a very compact engine, the occupants are sitting very close to each other, one slightly after the other (he makes an off-centre gesture) to get the shoulders across to optimise the footprint of the car in respect of the aerodynamic coefficient.  The weight is completely different; it is still a combustion engine that can travel large distances. 

GCD : As a designer do you have an ‘aha’ moment?

Bischoff : For this I have to talk about something different…one of the most important cars for the brand VW is the Golf.  It is also an icon, but you are a bit more free and have to change in a more dynamic way with stronger cuts and harder measures but also without changing the identity.  If you created an identity and the identity is successful better don’t change it, because people won’t recognise the product anymore.  This is something that you have to learn and sometimes you learn it the hard way, and for me the point where I would say that I got it…that we put something on the road that was truly VW, was the Golf VI, you will see in the near future…the design team designed this car for the next generation.  We are showing a much more emotional facet of the brand, with strong characteristics…you need something for the heart, and its an honour to deliver this.

GCD : What is your design obsession?

Bischoff : To be creative is like a flash, I like very much when you are coming together with the team, together with the designers, you discussing, you are drawing and you have different opinions and then out of this discussion comes something new.  This creative moment, when you have an idea (he snaps his fingers), its common sense, and you are puyting something onto a model or on to paper that is new! That is the best moment you can achieve.

GCD : For those people who want to be good car designers what are your tips?

Bischoff : Draw, draw, draw, draw, draw…think, consider what you are doing taking respect for heritage.  Try to understand what you are doing, don’t avoid conflicts with engineers, conflict is the potential to do something better.  You have to be open-eyed and ready for compromises if you want to do car design.  Be strong be creative, don’t copy!

GCD : Do you talk about green within your team?

Bischoff : If you design cars efficiency is a huge topic and has always been in VW.  If you remember we already had a very fuel-efficient product the Lupo 3litres.  We missed that one a little bit because we were not able to bring it to the right price point as a company, not from a design standpoint.  We always talk around the weight of the car, air intakes, and aerodynamics, around all the possible parameters whilst designing a project like this.  The interesting point for me is that people need to show off that they have purchased a product that is more expensive than others because its green.  At the moment that is a given fact, if you take into consideration that batteries are extremely expensive then the car cost is higher, so our job then is to give the customer a car they can identify with and something that they can show off to their neighbours, to their friends, to the public that they did a good and responsible decision…so you have to make something very identifiable.  We are currently working on something like this.  People need a super sign for electro-mobility. 

GCD : What do you think of personal mobility design?

Bischoff : I am curious to see how this develops.  A few years ago there was a lot of this stuff from the Japananese designers and in the motor show and now it has disappeared.  For the moment we are staying with the concept of having cars.  Maybe sometimes we are only seating two, it seems to be the minimum.  Cars that are only for one, I would rather take the bike or something like the Segway.  This is something that we will see more often, electrified personal mobility like electric bikes…this is useful. 

GCD : Where do you want to be in 5 years?

Bischoff : One thing is clear, I want to stick to the brand!  A lot of projects are coming true, I will be honoured that VW will trust me with this job.  My dream is to continue to shape this unique brand.

GCD : You are very rare…designers move around…

Bischoff : I am not interested in hopping around…you need time to understand the brand.  It a lifetime journey, and a tough one!

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