Clay, Cars, and Design: BMW stops by the Pottery Workshop Shanghai pt 1

One of BMW's design teams stopped by the Pottery Workshop for a day of clay last month. They were on assignment in Shanghai doing market research for three months.  I am impressed by BMW's dedication to their employees. They support their designers by sending them on extended trips to analyze current market trends. In a world of downsizing and hyper efficiency I respect BMW's commitment to creating the necessary space for an idea to develop.

The group of eight designers are part of a world-wide group that is four hundred strong. They were energetic, detail oriented, and focused. We frequently host corporate events that focus on team building but we rarely have actual designers in the studio. They came prepared, some even with auto cad sketches, and we spent six hours changing their ideas from two to three dimensions. This level of professionalism was a refreshing contrast to the birthday parties full of screaming 10 year-old girls that frequent our studio.

In their daily work these designers have very specific jobs. A pair of designers might work on interior trim but one works solely on seat upholstery while the other designs only handles. I think they appreciated the creative freedom of clay. They had no preset assignment except to respond to the medium. It was interesting to see the way interior designers worked as opposed to designers that worked on exteriors. The work I found most interesting was exterior driven. They had a keen sense for line that could be a welcomed addition to the ceramic world. For complete beginners they took large leaps into the medium. It was a great challenge to help them complete their ideas. Check out the elaborate support system we came up with to bend a slab on multiple axis (third to last picture above).

This class was as much fun for me as it was for them. I spent a lot of time asking them about their design practice. I talked at length with an interior designer about the relationship between mug and car handles. They work within preset perimeters but have many choices to make based on the variables of scale, proportion, material, and cost. It was good to hear that they agonize about angles and comfort the same way that potters do.

The invisible variable car designers work with/against is time. At this moment they are working simultaneously on the 2015 model year while still fine tuning next years 2013 model. Design breakthroughs and changes must be communicated up and down the production cycle to insure continuity. There must be 1000's of meetings between the preliminary design and the road model. The ability to change designs must decrease significantly as the deadline for production approaches. To build a car you would have to be absolutely certain your idea can be produced on a large scale and will be marketable to the public.We are talking about major factory production that takes tremendous amounts of financial and intellectual capital just to get the assembly line up and running. Thinking about that makes me grateful for the fluidity of my design process and equipment. I can switch my practice from hand building to throwing at any time with very little setup. I can even change temperature ranges and clay bodies with relative ease when compared to the energy that is expended to change the bumper of any mass produced vehicle. I'll have to remind myself of that next time I'm hunkered down in the glaze lab trying to stop my favorite liner glaze from crazing.

Stop by later in the week for part two of this post. It focuses on innovation in the BMW design tradition. 


  1. I'm always looking for innovative support systems for pieces I envision in my mind, fun to see the freedom the BMW designers expressed in clay.

  2. Linda, You would have loved the experimental contraption we came up with to bend that slab. We where stacking wood and clay to get the angle he wanted. It was the house of cards method. A great challenge. Have a good night.