It’s every kid’s ultimate dream to pen cars for a living, but few rarely follow through with such a pipe dream as adulthood beckons. This was not the case for local Aussie Calvin Luk who not only persisted with his childhood passion, but eventually earned a spot designing some of the world’s most exciting cars at BMW Welt – BMW’s cultural mecca, museum and advanced car plant located in Munich, Germany.
D’Marge recently flew over to experience some fine Bavarian hospitality and chatted to Luk about the art of precision car design and how he landed the job by cramming five of his mates into a Mini Cooper trunk at the Sydney Motor Show’s BMW booth.
Luc Wiesman: So can you tell us exactly what you do at BMW.
Calvin Luk: I’m in the Exterior Production Design Studio at BMW. We design the exterior body surfaces for all the cars. We do sketches and develop ideas on the way the car can look; we go through 3D models on computers and develop full-size clay models with our team of sculptors.
We also think about how the cars should look, their character, sportiness and presence. It’s all about giving life and attitude to the car. You experience something as a driver and passenger and we’re there trying to find ways to enhance that.
LW: How does the BMW design process work?
CL: In the beginning of the process of a new car, we have a design competition between all the designers who submit proposals, sketches or renderings. It’s how we envision the car based on the brief we’re given. Selections are made based on management so there maybe six selections made and then we develop those into models.
From the model stage we’re in teams because designers work with a few modellers or sculptors to develop the car, so the later stage is more of a team approach.
LW: From those six or so selections, how much does each design vary?
CL: They offer a bandwidth on different ideas of how the car could be. Typically it’s depending on the designer and what direction its going in.
LW: And at that stage of the design where they’ve been selected, what input do you have left?
CL: The designer responsible is ultimately responsible for it. We’ll have reviews with senior management and they’re responsible for the car too so we’ll take their feedback and input in the design to resolve anything based on these directions.
LW: How many people are involved in the design process?
CL: In terms of structure we have our creative project leaders, Exterior Director, Exterior Chief Designer and BMW Chief of Design who’s in charge of design of the entire BMW group, including Rolls Royce and BMW Motorcycles design work.
LW: What’s your first baby you’ve worked on?
CL: Currently we’ve just launched the 1 Series facelift, so that’s my first car I’ve worked on coming into the industry.
LW: Is that how it works at BMW, when you come in you start at the 1 Series and then work your way up to the i8?
CL: Not necessarily. Each project that comes along is a competition. When you have time you contribute. Generally all designers are very eager to be a part of every project because every car from BMW is pretty cool. So when you have time, you contribute and show your ideas; your vision of the vehicle and then you go through the competition to try and win.
LW: How do you develop your ideas?
CL: Personally we sketch a lot. Design in the car world is very interesting because there’s a lot of 2D sketching involved. And because of the sheer scale of the development, it’s difficult to jump straight into a model. So we spend a lot of time sketching and seeing if it has the right feeling about it.
When I’m sketching I’ll find new ideas that I didn’t already have in my head. It’s all about sculpting it on a computer screen in 2D way and trialling out surfaces. How do the lines connect and what do the lines do so there’s a lot of experimentation done in the sketch phase.
LW: The golden question: How did you get into this?
CL: I was always into cars when I was very young. My parents bought a 3 Series when I was ten and I just fell in love with it. It was the E36 and I couldn’t stop drawing it in a all the school books and on desks.
LW: Did you have to study something specific to be qualified?
CL: Yes. Transportation Design at the Art Centre College of Design in Pasadena. It’s where a lot of the car designers of today grew. Previous to that I was at the University of Technology Sydney for a year.
LW: And how did you land the job?
CL: I was at the Sydney Motor Show with some friends and BMW had just launched a new Mini. I asked the representative there if we could all squeeze into the trunk of the Mini to see how many of my mates could get in – we got five in and a photo to prove it. I noticed the representative had a slight German accent so I asked if he’s from Germany and if he could pass on a letter to the BMW design team. He said, “Okay”.
So I ran home and typed up a letter, attached a few of my sketches and sent it to the design department. I got a reply from their Senior Designer, David Carp, who answered a lot of my questions on how to become a designer, what sort of things to think about and how to undergo this path.
LW: What is BMW trying to bring to its drivers that its competitors aren’t?
CL: BMW is always the sportiest car in each segment and you can see it in the motto itself – ‘Sheer Driving Pleasure’. You can notice that when you drive a BMW, you feel empowered and confident, like you can do anything in it. Through the turns you’re confident of the handling. It’s something you just expect from every BMW.
The cars are very efficient as well. They’re designed with an engineering mindset of how to be responsible. In terms of design, the wheels always standout and the face is always recognisable as a BMW with the double light icons.
LW: Do you ever look at other car companies and go, “hmm that’s not a bad idea…”
CL: I think BMW have their own thing going with a strong sports car heritage. We’ve always been strong on sports sedans and that’s carried through the 3 Series. It’s such an iconic car for our brand and whole industry so we really have enough to draw upon ourselves.
LW: Did you have an unlimited canvas to work with on the 1 Series?
CL: The 1 Series facelift is a special project as it’s a lifecycle impulse. It already has some predefined characteristics so we’ve only made the complete redesign of the front and rear on new technology.
If it’s a completely new generation vehicle, then the canvas is completely open. Of course, in every project it’s important to respect the values of the brand. You’re not just designing a car, you’re designing a BMW. It has to be a BMW when it’s unveiled.
LW: And apart from the 1 Series, what’s your next favourite car?
CL: Definitely the i8.