Clay, Cars, and Design Pt. 2: Market pressure & 40 years of BMW Evolution

1972 3.0 CSi

Mid 1990's 5 Series

The 2011 Alpina B7. Comes standard with a 4.4-liter, V8, 500-horsepower, turbo engine. Try over looking the embarrassingly low gas mileage- 14 mpg city, 20 mpg on the highwayClick here for a Bloomsberg Business Week's review.

One question that I didn't get to ask the BMW design team is how it feels to work within one of the greatest design traditions of the modern era. You might not have noticed from the pictures but all of the designers are under forty, probably closer to thirty. BMW is harnessing the creativity of a new generation while maintaining a look that originated more than eighty years ago. (BMW started manufacturing airplane motors in 1916 before moving onto motor cycles in 1923. Cars were introduced five years later in 1928. Click here for more BMW history.) Reviving the same thread of design must be a challenge. On one hand, BMW has to maintain a signature style to ensure the customer stays loyal to the brand. On the other hand, those same customers might become disinterested if there is not enough change.

Looking at the pictures above you can see how the need for change manifests in the brand's evolution. I have included cars from 1972, the mid-1990's, and 2011 to show change in roughly twenty year increments.  Look at the front grill and headlights of the 1972 and 1990's models.  While the body of the car has changed these essential BMW characteristics look strikingly similar. Now fast forward another twenty years. The 2011 Alpina at the bottom of the page displays a greater evolution in a similar amount of time. The proportions, detailing, and overall body design have changed. It is not exactly a fair comparison because all three cars are not the same model but it makes the point that innovation can increase or decrease over time. In Staying Alive: Survival tactics for the Visual Artist Robin Hopper suggests that a small business production line change about 10% every year. This can be new forms or new glazes but the core of the line remains similar to last years version. At first glace this number seems small but in contrast to the innovation of BMW this number is huge. If we could statistically plot the change needed to evolve from the 1972 model to the 2011 model BMW the change per year would be in the 0.001% range.

In car design the speed of innovation depends heavily on how the market reacts to the brand. Market pressure is a natural biproduct of a supply and demand economic system. As artists we are subject to market pressure even if its affects are more subtle. Think about how you choose the forms you make in your studio. Isn't it natural to make more of the things you sell and slowly change the things that don't sell as well? The difference is that artists aren't driven only by the needs of the buyer. We are motivated as much by emotional factors (creative pleasure, aesthetic expression, success within our peer group, etc.) as we are financial factors (security, accumulation of wealth, success within the larger economic system, etc.). Our emotional motivations often lead us to the outer edge of economic norms. How many times have you heard a question like this? "So your an artist...Are you a starving artist?" This stereotype is so common that it has a wikipedia definition. Genius has even been tied to the poverty level of famous artists. This has created the misconception that financially successful artists have "sold out" by dumbing down their artistic vision. Individual artists can learn from design brands that market pressure is a useful tool that can lead to financial success.

To further contrast the design brand vs. artist comparison lets look beyond our motivations to the concept of time itself. Can you imagine someone telling you that you will make the same basic pots for the next 40 years? Sounds a little overwhelming doesn't it? Long duration design continuity is the norm for car design. Idea have evolutionary curves that can be plotted chronologically. Only recently have I become aware of the timeline of innovation in my work. The nature of my studio practice is that I work intuitively letting forms/decoration percolate for about a few years at a time. I change small elements until I feel the design idea has been created in the best three dimensional form possible. It is ironic that once I reach a state of completion I often loose interest. The process of innovation is more interesting than the end product itself. Selling the versions that it took to complete the idea comes from a necessity to fund the overall process. In contrast design companies often spend large amounts of money and time on research that the public never sees. This is true in science as well. Think about the miracle cure-all WD 40. The name comes from the fact that there were 39 unsuccessful versions before a suitable water displacement solution was found.

To wrap this post up I challenge you to think about your artistic motivations (emotional vs. financial) and the affect time has on the evolution of your ideas. As an mental exercise try researching your favorite design brand and then compare their evolution to your own studio practice. I find looking at non-ceramic design helps clarify my own ideas and progress as an artist.

This post is the companion to Clay, Cars, and Design: BMW stops by the Pottery Workshop Shanghai. I want to thank the Munich-based BMW team that came to The Pottery Workshop Shanghai. The conversations we shared have provided much food for thought. 


  1. Those early BMWs were ahead of their time for sure, they're real collectors items now. I'm with you on that loosing interest part of the clay making. I need to take up your challenge, another great post, thanks.

    No photos were allowed at the Appelton for the Persian pots, but it was well worth the visit. And there was African, South American and Mexican pottery in their permanent collection, so glad I went, want to go back and do some sketching.

  2. when i first moved to Carbondale i totalled my hand me down '92 Camry and replaced it with a '72 BMW Bavaria. She was so good looking - i couldn't help myself.
    I've since vowed to never again buy an automobile that is older than myself - but it was fun while it lasted.

    Always interested in looking at what motifs, currents and trends will define current artistic production from a twenty-five year perspective. Today's pots, my own included, seem, often, to be straddling the fence of studio pottery romance and design-techno production.

    Suffering thru school i'm tempted to take the opportunity to make work about my own work for awhile - go in and not out - deep but not wide.
    I only wish i liked my work more...

  3. Ah Steven, the doldrums of grad school. It gets much better when your finished and your brain is taken out of the intellectual blender.

    Your new pots on the blog are looking good. I like those big jars and the basket is a really nice form. Have you thought about intricate line work as a contrast to the runny glazes? A nice change in scale could provide that with these pots. Maybe iron oxide laser decals or sgraffito. Penn State's very own Liz Q. told me I needed deep space in my surfaces a few years ago so I started drawing really small motifs that push the back ground way back in space.

    The 72 Bavaria sounds like a classic. How long did she run?