Thomas Ingenlath is probably the most talented and influential car designer you’ve never heard of. Yesterday, making his first public appearance as the head of design at Volvo, he also unleashed a brilliant – if politely delivered – broadside against the prevailing Germanic view of luxury and premium design language in the global car industry.
Ingenlath and his team (including interior designer Robin Page, recently recruited from Bentley) rolled out the Volvo Concept Coupe, a clear signal as to the shape of future Volvos.
Within a few seconds of Ingenlath unveiling the Concept Coupe at Volvo’s studios, the penny dropped: this was classic Ingenlath. Beautifully measured, with big, sophisticated surfaces and restrained and super-tight detailing. A few murmurs about the Audi A5 ran among the gathering. Indeed, maybe this is what the A5 might have looked like if Audi had not cleared out the thinkers behind the ’97 A6 and TT?
I got to know Thomas a little back in 1990-91, when he was a car design post-graduate student at the Royal College of Art. I used to visit friends at the RCA studios and was in awe of Ingenlath’s student work. Sponsored by Audi, he was clearly a rare, possibly even generational, talent.
Ingenlath disappeared into the bowels of Audi in late 1991 until 1994 and was rarely seen in public. But I’m pretty sure Ingenlath was one of the prime movers in the work that resulted in the 1997 Audi A6 and the original TT. He was at VW from 1995 until 2000. His 1995 VW Noah concept MPV – noted for its teak decking floor – was a seminal example of the era’s super-clean, Bauhausian, styling.
Ingenlath was the design boss at Skoda between 2000 and 2006, which was last time I saw him, when he was presenting the Skoda Superb. Between 2006 and last year, Ingenlath ran VW’s Potsdam studio, which both works on both advanced design and competes against other brand design studios internally at VW Group.
In Ingenlath’s somewhat sparse office at Volvo’s design studios, he has a large model of the radical VW XL1 on the shelves behind his desk. I asked Thomas about the model and he admitted that he was ‘proud’ to have worked on the car. I should have guessed. The XL1 has all the hallmarks of the pre-big grille Audis: clean, beautifully measured and beautifully detailed.
Yes, I do think that Ingenlath has his own very distinct approach to car design. It isn’t a dogmatically one-dimensional theory (as he proved at Skoda) but his approach has, I reckon, stood the test of time.
What was even more impressive was Ingenlath’s slap down of the prevailing Germanic grip on the idea of premium and luxury. Just before the unveil he flashed up classic ‘mega city’ images and laughed at the idea that living a crowded, polluted, mega city was synonymous with ‘luxury’.
The clean air and wide-open spaces of Sweden was much closer to luxury, he said. He also mocked ‘overdetailed’ German design and expressed exasperation with idea that a car’s styling should be influenced by the image of ‘by a crouched animal waiting to pounce’.
He also panned the idea that classic Swedish furniture should be seen as a major influence for Swedish car design. Ingenlath has not only chucked out the chintz, he’s also consigned the bent wood chairs to the skip.