July 2010

VW in the Driver’s Seat

  • The Audi R8, de’Silva’s most lauded design to date, 
repositioned a brand known 
for understated luxury.
  • Volkswagen’s L1, set to enter production in 2013, gets 170 miles per gallon on diesel fuel.
  • VW’s sprightly Milano Taxi runs on batteries.

Design maestro Walter de’Silva blends form and function in his plan to steer Volkswagen Group to the mountaintop

A cheeky 1960s ad for the Volkswagen Beetle encouraged consumers to “Think small.”

“Think medium and large, too” could be Walter de’Silva’s deadpan contemporary rejoinder. As global head of design for Volkswagen Group, the 59-year-old Italian sets the aesthetic agenda for one of the world’s few remaining automotive leviathans.

VW Group comprises 10 passenger-car brands, including volume-oriented Volkswagen and the more upscale Audi, as well as exotic marques such as Lamborghini, Bugatti, Bentley and a significant stake in Porsche.

Preserving these distinct bloodlines is central to de’Silva’s work, but reverence alone does not guide his efforts. “You have to steer brands toward modern,” he says. “With a company like ours, you also have to define and defend the differences between them, and this is complicated.”

However tricky the juggling act, de’Silva betrays no strain. Since his 2007 appointment, he has expanded a personal portfolio already brimming with emotional, sophisticated yet emphatically functional designs, including Audi’s hypermodern 2007 R8 supercar, the 2005 Audi A6 midsize sedan and, dating from his tenure with Italy’s Fiat Group, the 1998 Alfa Romeo 156 sedan.

Today, de’Silva’s judicious hand is visible across VW Group’s product lines as much for what it touches as for what it leaves alone. The temptation to spread luster down the food chain to generate sales—perhaps, say, by grafting a $1.4 million Bugatti Veyron’s taillight array onto the rump of a $17,000 Volkswagen Golf—never possesses him.

As de’Silva sees it, his job is to ensure that each brand relates as an intuitive part of VW Group under what he calls an “overall design umbrella.” He qualifies, however, that “priority is still given to maintaining each brand’s specific identity.”

That fragile equilibrium will be severely tested as VW embarks on an aggressive global-expansion plan. The German conglomerate expects annual production across all of its brands to reach 10 million cars by 2018, which would leave current industry leader Toyota gazing up at the world’s largest automaker.

De’Silva knows that no single automobile he conceives—not even a daringly muscular Beetle redesign hitting showrooms in 2012—can deliver VW to the mountaintop. Rather, his teams will divide and conquer, bucking the car-industry cult of the lone “world-beater” model to design vehicles that suit the unique tastes of regional markets.

“We call this global localization,” he says. “And it’s not just about importing some cars to the USA from Germany and building the new Beetle and NCS [VW-speak for the redesigned Volkswagen Jetta compact sedan, unveiled last month in New York] for the North American market and the NMS [the Volkswagen Passat midsize sedan’s successor, also debuting this year] in our new Chattanooga, Tennessee, plant. We actually design cars differently for the north of China and the south of China.”

Such finely tuned customer sensitivity requires a strain of cosmopolitanism and diplomacy that de’Silva possesses in quiet abundance. Born outside Milan, he is a product of Italy’s historic car-design culture, yet he is not beholden to it. “I was just reading a book about the Alfa Romeo 33,” he notes, referring to an ultra-rare ’60s sports car. “And it’s not that I get an impulse to design something similar to that car, but looking at its history, you find some flesh, some moment that can translate into a future idea.”

To his credit, de’Silva indulges infrequently in pure nostalgia. Unveiled at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills in 2006, his Lamborghini Miura Concept paid formal tribute to its 40-year-old, lust-inducing namesake—often mentioned among the most beautiful road cars of all time—and to a casual eye the homage was nearly total.

Asked why he chose such a literal interpretation, de’Silva clarifies: “All along, we were intending to reproduce the Miura, just in a modern way. But in general, though, I am not a fan of retro design.”

“As vehicle components change,” says de’Silva, “there is an opportunity to develop architecture that provides more space and eventually a different vehicle shape altogether.”

Just as well. De’Silva does not make shiny baubles for museums; he makes trendsetting transport for humans. That very exercise, however, is rapidly changing. Automakers must radically curb their products’ carbon emissions in coming years, and as chief stylist for the world’s would-be largest car company, de’Silva feels his designs should reflect that evolution. “As vehicle components change, there is an opportunity to develop new architecture that provides more space and eventually creates a different vehicle shape altogether,” he says.

VW Group’s future can be glimpsed in concept cars like the Volkswagen Milano Taxi, a battery-powered cab with a cheery, breadbox-like shape, a clever forward-sliding passenger door and endless interior configurations.

The electric Audi e-tron repurposes de’Silva’s brilliant R8 lines for a smaller vehicle, also battery powered. Volkswagen’s L1, set to enter production in 2013, floored 2009 Frankfurt Auto Show attendees with its glider-fuselage shape and flamboyant efficiency: 170 miles per gallon on diesel fuel. New architecture? The L1 looks like a new discipline altogether.

These latest projects have prompted de’Silva to ponder his legacy as both a designer and, frankly, a salesman. “I would like to help make things simple,” he says. “People may alter their relationship to their cars, but I am convinced emotions will always be an important part of the experience.”

Like all great industrial designers, he has a gift for capturing hearts while addressing the sober calculations that inform consumer decisions—a talent VW will depend on dearly between now and 2018. “The cars of the future may look different,” he says, “but they will still be cars, after all.”

JONATHAN SCHULTZ writes on car culture for the New York Times, designobserver.com and Intersection, among others.