At 45, Stefan Sielaff has been working on automotive design for German marques—Audi, in particular—for quite sometime. He joined Audi AG in 1990, the year he obtained a master’s degree in vehicle design from the Royal College of Art in London, which he attended on an Audi-funded scholarship. He initially concentrated on interiors at Ingolstadt. Then it was to a studio in Munich, where he worked on interiors for Audi and VW vehicles. Next it was Sitges, Spain, to work on the development of the Design Center Europe in 1995, then it was back to Munich in ‘97, where he ran the Audi Design Centre, before moving back to Ingolstadt that year to become head of Interior Design at Audi. He switched companies in 2003, when he became design director of the Interior Competence Center of DaimlerChrysler in Sindelfingen. But it was back to Audi a few years later, and he is now head of Design. He acknowledges that throughout his career his approach is predicated on a “very German way of doing car design, the philosophy of form follows function. Very clean, very precise, which is still, today, a significant factor of Audi design.” A Modernist approach, where details trump ornamentation.
The Bitter & the Sweet
Sometimes being a designer is bittersweet. That is, he recalls his first big break: working on the Audi quattro Spyder sports car study, a concept vehicle that appeared at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1991. He says that the vehicle, although finished in orange paint, was made out of aluminum. He believed that it was important to show what the car is made from, to show it both inside and out. “So we did the fuel cap outside and trim pieces inside with aluminum.” This approach has been deployed on other Audi vehicles, like the TT. “This relationship of aluminum and Audi and how to show it was a very important step for me at the beginning of my career in design.” He says one of the characteristics of Audi design is “If that was sweet, how about the bitterness? The quattro Spyder never made it into production. He calls it a “very disappointing experience.” But there is, to mix metaphors, a silver (or aluminum) lining: he suggests that the recently launched R8 has “the genetic code of the original idea.”
Then there’s the frustration. While there is something to be said for having a job as a designer, there are things that are frustrating. Like tussling with the engineers (e.g., he says that one of the design aspects of an Audi is a roof that’s sporty and low, which “Always gives us a lot of discussions with the engineers about head clearance and entry clearance”), then once things seem to be resolved, to discover that the cost target will be exceeded with that solution. “At the end of the day I am a designer”—and he says that designers “always want to have the best”—“but I am also a manager of the company and I have to guarantee that we earn money.” He acknowledges that throughout automotive history there have been companies that “produced fantastic cars—but the company went bankrupt.” Which is not the course he will pursue.
Then there’s another kind of frustration. Like many companies with multiple design studios, at Audi there are design competitions. “When the designers work against each other, one guy wins and the other guys or directions lose. This is something that happened to me many times.” But it is part of the game. How does one overcome that particular frustration born of losing a competition? Starting another project. Working on the next one. One interesting comment from Sielaff is that up to this point he has no vehicle he’s worked on that is his favorite or in some way definitive. “Whenever you finish a project, you are convinced the next one will be the better one. This is the thing that drives us forward.”