I spent yesterday afternoon down at the Rolls-Royce factory, which is just outside Chichester. It was also one of first opportunities to chat with Giles Taylor, who was appointed head of exterior design for Rolls-Royce in April.
Taylor has been best know for leading the work on the Jaguar XK and current XJ models and is now working in what might be described as an even more quintessentially British company. British despite the fact that the Rolls-Royce design team is based on Munich.
I asked him the same question I used to ask Gert Hildebrand when he was boss of Munich-based Mini design: ‘How you can keep the Rolls-Royce brand British, when the design team is in a steel building in central Munich?’
According to Taylor, of the 15 designers at the Rolls studio, eight of them are British, which is a significant improvement on Mini’s zero Brit count. He also says that the Rolls’ studio is self-contained, so clay models are not being shaped alongside future BMW models.
Interestingly, Taylor also revealed that the initial design development for the Rolls-Royce Ghost was carried out over a few months in rented rooms at West Stoke house, a large hotel and (Michelin-starred, interestingly) restaurant near Chichester. Presumably, the Brit-infused design concepts could then safely be taken back to Munich.
A similar technique was used when BMW embarked on the Phantom project, the company taking space in an old bank overlooking Hyde Park Corner in central London. The designers could watch the passing traffic - as varied a procession of old and new as anywhere in the world - and absorb the cultural vibe. Though I suspect they also spent the evenings watching re-runs of Thunderbirds….
Taylor also told me that he believed there was a cultural inheritance evident in designers and that a Brit would simply draw a line or section in a different way to a German designer.
You could hardly fault the way BMW re-created Rolls Royce from virtually nothing into the highly impressive four-model line-up that exists today. But it’s a crying shame that Rolls and Mini do not have a design presence in the UK, even if it was a very small studio in the capital where designers could spend a couple of months soaking up the trends.
A while ago I had a chat with a senior BMW group designer about a plan he had to rent space within the Royal College of Art, allowing his designers to mix with the cream of the world’s design students, right in the heart of the capital. We even came up with a logo: Mini@RCA. The plan, sadly, came to nothing.
I understand that BMW’s ownership of Rover Group was a particularly traumatic experience, but it’s time to repatriate some of design work for the company’s British brands. The risk of falling into a sort of pastiche design - Britain observed from abroad - is real.