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Reshaping one Bimmer at a time

Karim Habib’s mission is to reinvent and retain automaker’s classic styling

Published September 21, 2012

All cars have names and logos on them, but designers also depend on consistent styling cues that immediately identify a brand.

That’s something Karim Habib must always keep in mind. As head of BMW Design in Munich, the 42-year-old designer must create cars that move the company forward, while still retaining the signature styling.

“We feel it’s important that there is a family thread between all products,” Habib says. “But we also believe that each one should have a different character.”

Habib was born in Lebanon, but grew up in Montreal. He dreamed of competing in fencing at the Olympics, but following high school, he studied mechanical engineering at McGill University.

“I wasn’t too sure if I wanted to do architecture, industrial design, or engineering,” he says. “I always drew cars, but I also drew furniture and things like that and that’s why I wasn’t too sure. At the time I didn’t even know where you could study car design.”

He initially studied auto design at the Swiss campus of the Art Center College of Design and then at its Los Angeles campus. Out of school, he went directly to BMW in 1998.

“I had a couple of teachers who were working for BMW at its California studio and I did a project with them, as they were my mentors,” he says. “Through that, I got to know Chris Bangle, who was head of BMW design at the time. I showed him my work, and he said, ‘Come and show it to us in Germany’ and that’s how I got the offer. I love Munich now, but it took me some time. I miss Montreal.”

Habib left briefly to work at Mercedes-Benz, but returned and moved up through BMW, heading up advanced design and interior design.

Last June, he got his current post, which puts him in charge of overall design.

“The first project I did that made it into production was the interior of the previous 5 Series,” Habib says. “That was literally my first project when I came to BMW and I was quite lucky because there was a need for people in interior design.”

He worked in advanced design and later in production design. “Advanced design is before a production phase starts,” he says. “Before we in the production team start sketching, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done with engineering, packaging, product strategy and marketing strategy. At the technical level, it’s how high, how long, how wide and also looking at the interior and what kind of features it needs to have.

“Things are not jelled into what the car will be at the end, but it has to have a certain maturity so it can get to market. That has to be done before we start the core design phase. It’s not micro details such as what shape the headlamps will be, but where they will be positioned.”

Once the design is finished, engineers create the packaging, which Habib says can also be a difficult task. There are technical restrictions, which range from incorporating safety features, to ensuring the car can be built on an assembly line.

New technologies must also be worked into the vehicle and these must be included early in the design process so they will be ready in time for production.

Habib helped to shape the design of the current 7 Series, the company’s top line. The challenge was to evolve the design while maintaining the familiar styling cues that customers expect: big wheels pushed to the corners of the car, double round headlights, the passenger cabin positioned far back behind a long hood, L-shaped tail lights and the bend in the C-pillar where it meets the rear door window, which the company calls the “Hofmeister kink” after its creator.

Of course, there has to be the iconic twin-kidney grille in front. “That’s something every BMW has,” Habib says, “but we want to be able to vary it and we do. Some are wider, some are higher, some are rounder, and some are square. For me, it’s more fun to play with that element than create a new one every time. There’s a challenge to that.

“It’s somehow more rewarding when you have a few more restrictions, but you still manage to do something that’s creative. It has to be satisfying for us as designers, it has to work within the brand values and customers have to like it, as well.”

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