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Dec / Jan 2011
Driven to Design

Writer: Nadine Khalil

Master designer and artist of cars, Karim Habib not only dominates his domain but he is busy through his team, making future kings of the road. Perhaps he was just at the right place at the right time but as he says to Bespoke, sometimes life turns on a single sketch.

 

Although born in Beirut, 41-year-old Karim Habib spent his formative years in Canada. Graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering from McGill University in 1993, he went on to specialise in automotive and transportation design at the Art Centre College of Design, initially at the college’s Swiss campus and later at the main campus in California. 

“I always knew that was what I wanted to do, even when I was an engineering student,” Habib reveals. “I used to take fencing very seriously when I was in school, but at some point, I understood that I wasn’t going to go to the Olympics.” In 1998, the opportunity arose for him to do what he had always wanted. During his final year presentation, a couple of automotive sketches he’d made caught the eye of one of the visitors, Chris Bangle, who was then the chief of design at BMW. 

Bangle hired Habib straight out of university and put him to work designing for BMW in Munich. He remained there for 10 years before briefly moving to Mercedes-Benz in Stuttgart in 2009. The reasons for this hiatus go undiscussed but given that he is now back at BMW, perhaps it doesn’t really matter. Still, Habib’s move did coincide with Chris Bangle’s resignation, a man he regarded as a kind of mentor figure. 

Earlier this year, BMW managed to win Habib’s heart back and he returned to Munich in March as head of exterior design. “Designing for the interior is very different from working on the exterior, which is more sculptural in nature,” Habib explains. “The interior can be both more sensitive and complex. Where the screen should be placed, what kind of materials should be used, how the cup holder is placed in respect to the gearshift, are all considerations. A millimetre difference can mean a lot.” The exterior is another ball-game altogether. “Here, there are other factors to take into account,” he continues, “aerodynamics, for instance.”

Habib’s very first project at BMW was designing the interior of the 5-series but the first time his name really began to be heard outside of industry circles was in 2007, when his design for the Concept CS, which gave a preview of many of the features soon to be used on other BMW models, was unveiled to acclaim at Auto Shanghai.

Habib’s later work was on the BMW 7-series including the body for the latest model. The look of the 7-series came out of an experience Habib had at an event in Munich, where there was a fleet of black BMWs arranged in a row in front of an old royal palace. “It was sunset, he recalls, “and this magical light was falling on the cars, lined up by this grand castle. This is the feeling I was trying to capture with the 7-series, a natural presence, a form of sovereignty. The 7-series has an amazing status attached to it, a sportiness and dynamism. Strength and finesse at the same time. There’s a masculinity about its surfaces and the perfect execution of its lines. It doesn’t shout loud. I would say it almost doesn’t have anything to prove.”

Habib comes across as both passionate and proud of his work but it’s a mark of his character that he’s happy to give credit where it’s due. “I don’t design by myself now,” he adds. “I work with a talented team of designers and that dialogue is an essential part of the design process. We discuss what direction we want to go in, the manufacturability and what we would like to achieve with a particular model,” Habib explains. “Even before we begin, we have to factor in the potential buyer and define the character of the car with strategists accordingly. It is this character, which we work on developing, which represents the premium part of a vehicle’s soul.” He pauses for a second. 

“You cannot design something that doesn’t work, but at the same time, what you are really offering is an experience,” he continues, his experience as an interior designer coming to the fore. “You see, designing a car is very much about the way you live in it, which is a reflection of what you put in it. It is not just what you see. A car has to feel as good as it looks. It is all about this subconscious feeling you experience when you get into the car. The other matter to consider is how it functions ergonomically, of course.”

After working for so many years for one of the world’s most powerful brands, Habib has a great sense of pride in what he describes as BMW’s “authenticity” and ability to be “critical with forward thinking”. ”It’s a company that tries to innovate and redefine what the automobile industry is,” he says, clearly thinking of BMW’s work with electric cars and 4-cylinder vehicles, “with the ability to question, to look ahead and be open to progressive proposals.” 

That forward thinking is vital because from the first ideas and sketches until its wheels are on the road, it can take Habib and his team 3 to 4 years to complete a car. Which is probably about as long as it is going to take this highly sought-after, passionate and innovative artist of cars until he stuns the world, once again.

 

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