It’s all a matter of perspective—design takes shape in the eye of the beholder. Michael Mauer’s style is making its mark on the contours of twenty-first-century
This is a wondrous place. The sky is a deep blue, the sun skips across the reflection of the lake. Surrounded by the fjord-like craggy cliffs rising more than 3,000 feet skyward, this Swiss mountain lake imparts the essence of serenity. The area is familiar to winter-sports enthusiasts as a bottleneck en route from Zurich to Davos, Arosa, or the Engadine. Only a few travelers have discovered the treasures to be found in the shadow of the autobahn that winds its way along the azure lake on narrow avalanche protectors and through the tunnel: tranquil spots with small coves and even sandy beaches.
More sensitive souls might consider the steep mountain massif to be rather oppressive. But this is where Michael Mauer, a passionate sportsman, has found his oasis of tranquility. “One designer may get his inspiration from art, another may go on city breaks and fly to London every Friday after work,” he explains over coffee on the top floor of his home in a former factory, complete with a view of the lake and the mountains. “I see how we’re constantly being bombarded with information, which is why we have to give our minds more and more time to process all of this information. Whenever I’m here on the weekend and go skiing, ride my bike, hike, or simply sit on the deck for a couple of hours without thinking about anything particularly lofty, my subconscious uses this time to sort out information from the week just gone by, to process it, and to find solutions.”
Even today, Mauer views his profession as a dream come true. Upon completing secondary school, he first worked as a ski and surf instructor before studying automotive design in Pforzheim in the 1980s. As a young designer at Mercedes-Benz, he created the first SLK: a personal milestone and an early statement of his purist, flat style. Following jobs at Smart and Saab, he joined
The designer doesn’t view brand identity as something fixed, something immutable, something that can be established by checking off items on a list. “Familiar product identity features are changed as part of the development process for new models. The resulting change in the brand image can range from subtle to significant—at least visually. The front-hood graphic design of the
“Proportion is our top priority,” says Mauer, “not to mention the second and third.” The 53-year-old smiles. True, it’s not the first time he’s joked about this, but he means every word. The proportions have to be right before any work on brand identity can begin. From Mauer’s perspective, designers are far more than packaging artists. Design begins early on, when the volumes are determined. “For this reason it’s important that we help influence this issue.”
Mauer is drawing all the while. Focused, quiet, he pauses to take a critical look at his sketch before turning the paper to scrutinize it in the warm sunlight falling through the skylight into the room. “Here’s a classic: you take a look at a sketch, and see that something’s not quite right—but you can’t say why, exactly. It often helps to simply change the angle and view the drawing from the other side.” It is these changes in perspective that are so characteristic of Mauer’s work. And that applies to his approach to teamwork as well. Today, his team numbers more than one hundred designers, model designers, and CAD specialists—and his aim is to regard his own point of view as just one of many options. “Naturally, our designers need a certain amount of direction, but that should be no more than a bit of guidance, in my opinion. Otherwise, we just stifle creativity. And my opinion is no more than one particular point of view.” Mauer still has to answer for each decision at the end of the process, but the design chief wants to encourage variety until that decision is made.
It’s just a few steps down to the lake. During the summer, the surfing school sets out tables there. On occasion, Mauer stops by to enjoy an evening aperitif and a view of the lake. A thrilling location, yet so unpretentious that you begin to see why the stylist—whose weekdays are spent in countless meetings—is so drawn to this place. Is a personal style really possible in a global car corporation like the Volkswagen Group? And if it is, what is it that marks the Mauer style? “I always want my cars to convey a feeling of rock-steady strength,” says Mauer. “To convey that you don’t need a myriad of lines and details to show them off to advantage. That their design is distinct—simple but full of suspense. And my hope is that people will stand in front of them and say, ‘What a work of art, what a gem!’” And in fact, the surfaces on a
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The sun is now vanishing—and with it, the surrounding mountains. Now, only the
Author Jan Baedeker
Photographer Tim Adler