Talk about an odd couple. Will the unlikely creative alliance between BMW and, er, Steinway strike a major chord or a jarringly false note, asks Jonathan Bell
CREATIVE COLLABORATIONS HAVE steadily gained currency throughout the Noughties, as manufacturers from a variety of industries get paired up by that eternally optimistic matchmaker, the PR industry, in order to ‘build partnerships that celebrate and advance their brands’. At least that’s what the press releases would have us believe.
Fashion and the auto industry have always dovetailed their twin obsessions of technology and trends, with each eyeing up what the other has and wanting it for themselves. These concentrated doses of self-interest have occasionally come up trumps, but more often than not they were superficial and perplexing (Cadillac’s ill-starred Seventies’ specials with Pierre Cardin and Gucci, for example).
Today the consumer is smarter. Superficial sticker jobs are frowned upon, and the way that manufacturers have evolved into brands means that contemporary collaborations have to have a bit more substance. The increasingly bespoke nature of modern car manufacture allows even the humblest of saloons to be given an entirely unique set of trim according to a customer’s precise wishes.
BMW’s Individual service is a case in point. Not content with simply offering an options list, Individual is described as ‘a set of scrupulously selected enhancements that allow you to make your own distinctive mark and to find your own ideal aesthetic balance’. To this end, a team of six operates out of BMW’s Munich design studios, dreaming up ways of bringing custom colours, trim and personalised touches to life.
In order to push the talent and skills of its Individual team, BMW’s design department dreamt up a suitably grand collaboration, venturing away from fashion and into the apparently static world of grand-piano manufacturing. Steinway & Sons was established by Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg in New York in 1853, before reverse-emigrating from the New World to the Old in 1880 and setting up a factory in Hamburg.
Steinweg brought back with him the quintessential American skills of self-promotion and self-belief and spliced them with cultural benevolence in the form of the Steinway Halls, the first of which had opened in New York in 1866. These corporate concert venues were a marketing masterstroke, featuring self-financing demonstration sessions of their products, as well as establishing a close relationship with many of the most important performers of the day (efforts the company continues to this day).
So why partner with Steinway? Perhaps BMW’s designers experienced a twinge of nostalgia when they toured Steinway’s Hamburg factory? When we visited, way past clocking off, a few hand-picked employees had clearly taken overtime in order to sit dutifully at their stations and demonstrate some of the enormously laborious and skilled tasks that go into building a grand piano. Illuminated by little pools of light among rows of dark, empty workbenches, the factory had a Dickensian character, the air thick with sawdust and chemicals and the hefty, half-finished cases of grand pianos and skeletal iron frames hanging around on chains.
This might have been what an early car factory felt like — not the dark, satanic megastructures of Dearborn, but the smaller coachbuilder’s workshop, where skilled craftsmen bent iron, steel, wood, canvas and rubber into the machines that would shape the century. A modern car factory is equally exciting, perhaps even more so, but the direct link between the creator’s hand and the hand of the craftsmen is long gone, especially for a volume manufacturer such as BMW.
A CONCERT GRAND piano is an object for which there are no shortcuts. Typical build time is nine to twelve months, and each hugely labour-intensive stage of production requires workers to spend years becoming adept at their craft, from polishing the black lacquer on the great curved case to tuning each individual hammer so that the damping action and weight is precisely right. Maple, spruce, beech, birch, fir, walnut and macassar are painstakingly cut and shaped, mixed with cast iron, countless yards of piano wire and artificial ivory to create something with an indefinite lifespan — the very antithesis of a disposable object.
While the vast majority of Steinway’s output is finished in the rich, glossy black that is best suited to the concert hall stage, the company is more than happy to indulge more adventurous customers. Steinway’s Art Case series pre-dates BMW’s own Art Cars by a century or so, harking back to Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s paint-saturated piece of high Victoriana, created in the 1880s. Since then, artists such as Eric Gugler, Dale Chihuly and Wendell Castle have transformed instruments in ways that would have made Liberace look rather strait-laced.
This collaboration was a more sober affair. The BMW Individual 7 Series Composition inspired by Steinway & Sons (to give the car its official title) is a subtle piece of design. Taking the ActiveHybrid 7 Series as the base (a model not currently available in the UK), BMW’s Individual design team has walked a fine line between subtlety and cliché. Most obviously of all, the limited run features cars with black coachwork and white leather interiors and vice versa, a rather predictable response to a brief involving pianos.
BMW has side-skipped accusations of ‘ebony and ivory’-style kitsch by emphasising the extremely complex paint job, which was base-coated, layered and polished many times, going far beyond the norm. On top of this, Individual has inlaid a slender gold line running the length of the car, a neat piece of coachwork-style detailing that sets off the 7 Series’ deep flanks to good effect.
Inside, there’s an over-reliance on Steinway’s golden lyre logo, which adorns the tread plates, head rests, dashboard and accessories such as the rear passengers’ cashmere blankets. A line of piano wire set into the door tops and dashboard, deep lambswool rugs, a leather wallet filled with Steinway artists’ recordings (again, logo-embossed) and an enhanced audio system complete the 7 Series Composition’s extras list. The price is 150,000 euros (around £126,000), a fairly hefty hike over the standard car, and a lot to pay for the classiest use of black and gold since the John Player Special Lotus.
Is this simply a case of stamping a symbol of high culture on an executive car? From the Art Cars onwards, BMW has a long history of patronage. Thomas Girst, BMW’s ebullient and intellectual head of BMW Group Cultural Communications (he’s a published authority on Marcel Duchamp), says that BMW has a ‘40-year history of cultural engagement’.
‘These are long-term and sustainable and therefore more authentic engagements,’ he continues, ‘where rule number one is to never meddle with the content’. As well as overseeing the Art Cars project, Girst also enthuses about the company’s architectural patronage, working with Zaha Hadid in 2005 and Coop Himmelb(l)au in 2007 on the Leipzig factory and Munich BMW Welt respectively. Interestingly, he is also refreshingly straightforward about the company’s motives: ‘BMW is doing this for reasons of good corporate citizenship and to create a good public image,’ he says simply. This enthusiasm and honesty is certainly a company characteristic. I’ve always come away from BMW events thoroughly disarmed by such comments, which undermine any sniping about cultural largesse cloaking corporate self-interest by simply admitting it.
ON THE FACE of it, the car/piano collaboration feels unusual; far better to partner with a watchmaker or hi-fi manufacturer where there is more natural synergy between products. Nonetheless, only 18 months ago Audi was tantalising the world’s press with its radical re-working of the shell of a Bösendorfer concert grand, following in the footsteps of Porsche Design, which had also swathed the distinguished Austrian manufacturer with a modernist, contemporary shell. In 2009 there was the techno-baroque extravagance of transport designer Luigi Colani’s Pegasus piano for Schimmel.
Surprisingly, the BMW/Steinway hook-up also has historical precedent, albeit a slightly more tenuous one. Back in 1956, BMW unveiled the 507 Roadster, a naked attempt at creating the perfect car for the burgeoning American market. Although the 507 was not a sales success (just 252 were built), it was a remarkably elegant car, styled by the maverick New York-based German designer Count Albrecht von Goertz, an associate of the American industrial designer Raymond Loewy.
Happily for BMW, Goertz’s very last design project was for Steinway, for whom he created the 125th anniversary piano in 2005. Half a century separate the two, and it’s fair to say that there’s little BMW design DNA apparent in the Model A-188 piano, which is handsome, four-square and rather Seventies in appearance.
Nonetheless, it’s a precedent, and one that BMW made the most of by presenting both a Model A-188 and a jet black 507 at the launch event in the Steinway factory; both looked sensational. These objects certainly speak of luxury, as do the hefty pair of ActiveHybrid 7s with their boot-load of bespoke extras. But talking to Adrian van Hooydonk, BMW’s chief of design, it’s clear that future luxury is still a nebulous concept, the definition of which hasn’t yet been nailed down. Van Hooydonk is emphatic that what he describes as ‘emotional attractiveness’ will always be at the heart of everything BMW makes.
I suggest that there’s an element of nostalgia — even jealousy — at the way Steinway can operate: slowly, meticulously, and with an open brief and budget for a lucky few designers. Van Hooydonk agrees, up to a point, calling the Steinway project ‘abstract inspiration’ for the BMW Individual team.
Ultimately, BMW Individual is escapism. As a studio within a studio, it’s most likely to offer monogramming, stitching and spraying for very high-end BMWs so that they match exacting customer standards. BMW Group has plenty of experience in this field; at Rolls-Royce in Goodwood, some 70 per cent of the output is totally customised, but the BMW Individual customer is more impatient and focused on the very latest technology.
Van Hooydonk acknowledges this. ‘Through Individual we can do a limited amount of vehicles with hand labour — it’s like the bespoke section of BMW and the service has been around for twenty to 30 years. But customers also want guidance and advice, so that’s why we set up this design team,’ he explains. ‘Depending on the project we can be more involved, but you have to be careful of caricature — you have to stay on your own territory. [With Steinway] the colour scheme is an obvious connection, but we didn’t want to do piano keys, for example.’
Underpinning all this effort and carefully phrased mutual respect is BMW’s current obsession with emotional design. ‘Drivetrains don’t sell vehicles. It’s the first glance, the first touch, that really draws people in,’ says van Hooydonk, perhaps (understandably) overstating the influence of the designer.
Regardless of the handshakes, shared logos and celebratory launch event, with its dancers, pianists and speeches, the two companies are poles apart. Steinway has manoeuvred itself to a clever position — it need never change its stock offering, but special editions and creative collaborations allow it crucial cultural wiggle room, meaning it needn’t appear stuck in the 19th century. Although BMW isn’t making an explicit parallel between its cars and these pianos, besides the fact that both look good in black and both fetishise the inessential curve (Steinway in deference to tradition, and BMW in pursuit of a point of difference), the collaboration speaks more of brand extension than it does of a genuinely shared ethos.
‘Extending the brand’ is the mantra of the modern car manufacturer. The more sophisticated companies have gone beyond mere merchandise catalogues and begun to actively court brands from unrelated fields, united only by a loose affinity with their own product. This collaboration felt like it was driven firstly by nostalgia for craft, with the end product a secondary consideration — perverse, given BMW’s general disdain for nostalgia. With a city-focused sub-brand poised for launch in 2013, together with a 700km range plug-in hybrid based on the 2010 VED concept, the company is one of the most progressive and avant-garde volume manufacturers in the world.
The BMW Individual 7 Series Composition inspired by Steinway & Sons is as hard to swallow as it is to say, a bridge between two quite different cultures. But it is an undeniably successful demonstration of how the culture of car design can be manipulated to satisfy every nook and cranny of the marketplace. Our tip? Take the lambswool carpets and that slimming line on the coachwork but leave the rest. Happily, BMW Individual exists so that such a request can be honoured.
Illustration by Femke de Jong