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Profiles: Mercedes' Peter Pfeiffer Takes a Bow

After forty years of service-nearly 10 of them spent at the helm of Mercedes design-Peter Pfeiffer is preparing to leave his drafting table later this year and hand the reigns over to Gorden Wagener-current head of Mercedes' strategic design department.

His imminent departure doesn't mean Pfeiffer's influence won't be felt for years to come. In fact, quite the contrary. Having led Mercedes design through some of its most challenging times as the brand expanded its reach into sport-utility vehicles and city cars-including the development of the smart brand-Pfeiffer's designs had to help rebuild trust in the storied marque, even as it faced nagging quality problems. His steady hand has been both reassuring and secure, not so much breaking new ground as tilling it in a more modern but evolutionary way. Unlike his counterparts at BMW, Pfeiffer has tried to stay true to Mercedes' heritage, which he calls "conservative and status-oriented." While he acknowledges the importance of emotions being evoked by the design, he knows that for the Mercedes customer, there is more to it: "When a customer stands in front of the car and just looks at it and says 'I like it,' then we as designers have done a good job, but our next step is to take the brain and help the customer study how affordable the car is through perceived quality," he says. The design must lead the purchaser to understand that they've made a wise decision.

One of the challenges that Pfeiffer and his team have faced is trying to advance the design language while maintaining respect for the past: "Every new Mercedes has a long lifecycle, so we must have the next one take a more dramatic step forward in terms of design, but without breaking the connection with history." The first vehicle to bear Pfeiffer's full influence was the '05 S-Class, which ushered in a sleeker, more sculptural design. He also points to the '08 C-Class, as well as the CLS- and GLK-Class designs as clear signals of his vision of what Mercedes design should be in the future: "You must have the same design language for all of the cars, but you have to give each car its own character. When you see a Mercedes SUV and a Mercedes sports car, they must have the same design language." A signature Pfeiffer cue: the crease that progresses from the front grille into the hood through to the A-pillar, which he cites as a core piece of future Mercedes vehicle designs. Bodywork will continue to have more of a "sculptural" feel: "not like architecture-it's always surface interplay between bold, taught lines and 'silent' surfaces."

To assure the continuity of Mercedes design, Pfeiffer says that when designers join the company, he makes sure that they spend time at the Mercedes museum "to give them a proper feel of what Mercedes is." (In his estimation, the quintessential model is the 1958 300SL.) He explains, "We have to make a Mercedes, and that's a task different from a company like Lexus. We have to make a car that shows the character of our company and not just make a good design for the moment."

When it comes to the future of vehicle design, Pfeiffer expects automakers to spend more time developing distinctive character for each of their brands. He also thinks interior design will take on increased prominence as consumers look for more simple, functional interiors-interiors that are as engaging and intuitive as the interface on the Apple iPhone: "One of the tasks we have as designers is to make vehicle interiors so simple that the driver will not have to read 100 pages of instructions before they can work the electronics in the car; the consumer should just have to sit in it and drive."

 

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