Jozef Kaban is the newly appointed head of design at BMW. In 2012 we sat down with the designer while he was at Skoda to find out how his experience with the Veyron helped him define Skoda's then-new design language.
Jozef Kaban works for Skoda, in the Czech Republic. Growing up in a part of Czechoslovakia that falls in modern Slovakia, his parents drove Skodas, and now his own family does too.
At the age of 18, he came second (to a professional car designer) in a Skoda design competition run by new owners, VW Group. As Skoda’s design chief, he’s the man leading the brand’s design revolution that starts with the Rapid saloon-profile hatch that goes on sale later this year. But he’s penned a few jalopies in the past, too, including one Bugatti Veyron.
Joining VW after graduating from the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava, Kaban was involved in projects including the Seat Arosa and VW Lupo superminis. A more recent stint at Audi culminated with Kaban being made exterior design chief, and he then became head of Skoda design in 2008.
He has an MA in Automotive Design from the Royal College of Art in London, where he won the Giorgio Giugiaro award for innovation; Kaban now counts the Italian master among his VW Group colleagues.
But it was 1999 when the call came to create the Veyron’s exterior, which he saw through to production. A single wheel for the world’s fastest production car costs the same as Skoda’s new 999ccc Citigo urban terrier; a routine Veyron service buys two.
The free tax disc won by the cleanest Citigo is an alien concept to the Bugatti, which serves up over half a kilo of carbon dioxide every 1000 metres: that’s more than the average man’s weight within 100 miles. As for power, it’s a 20:1 ratio in favour of the Veyron in Super Sport trim.
Yet for all their technical differences, perhaps the design philosophy differential between these two is no more than that between the Rapid and the elegant but distinctive, Skoda-sketched wine glasses that Kaban shows us at the company’s Mladá Boleslav design centre outside Prague.
For parallel extremes, see the late Ferdinand Alexander Porsche’s original 911, and his equally functional everyday creations such as pens and sunglasses. Or Gordon Murray’s McLaren F1 of 1993 and his prototype T25 and T27 city cars of today – all lightweight three-seaters.
Kaban says he was able to draw on his experience with the Veyron to define Skoda’s new design language, which he calls “elegant, to the point and practical”.
“There is similarity in the simplicity… both are reduced to the minimum,” he says. It’s an ethic that aligns with his former charge, Audi (which he describes as “proud and motivated – a perfect brand to work for”), too.
But Kaban thinks there is room for manoeuvre within that philosophy: “I like Audi designs, but we are concentrating on our own route, which will produce a different kind of simplicity.”
Kaban cites Apple’s clean, minimalist products as great examples of design and technology working together perfectly, unencumbered by excessive detail. “Complicated is easier to do,” he says.
This stance very much agrees with F.A. Porsche’s credo that “a formally coherent product needs no embellishment,” and that “good design must be honest.” (Incidentally, in 2008, Porsche’s studio designed the sleek ‘109 E’ electric locomotive for Skoda Transportation (estranged from Skoda Auto since 1991).)
“There is always a certain process behind the design,” Kaban continues. Understanding the brief is half the battle, it seems, and while a designer’s values show in his work, he must be guided by the marque and the customer.
“The designer’s ego is not the most important thing: each brand has its own history,” he says, “And it’s important to understand the dreams of the customer. We must ask, ‘Who will buy this car?’”
With the relatively understated Veyron, that meant recognising that buyers would shy away from the aesthetic loudhailer offered by most supercars with their aerodynamic addenda. “If you are rich, you don’t need to tell everyone that you are rich,” says Kaban. “Your aura and the things you do show that you have power.”
And, in some ways, it’s easy to reconcile the Veyron’s composed look with Skoda’s new design language, which Kaban says defines sportiness as “well-balanced and healthy, rather than like a bodybuilder… Skoda customers don’t want a look that’s too powerful.”
An emphasis on practicality prescribes long wheelbases, high rooflines, and clever but simple extras (such as shopping bag hooks in the boot), but Kaban says he starts with a handsome form, then works backwards, encouraging early negotiation between designers and engineers.
Without flourishes to differentiate cars, he intends to use overall shapes to express model individuality across a range that will eventually span from the tiny Citigo to a large, 7 or 8-seater SUV that's being considered for production. “Proportion costs nothing, but gives character,” he says, adding, “A bigger car doesn't necessarily need more detail.”
And as Audi’s success proves, less is moreish.