Heidedesign 2.0 – Is Volkswagen in Danger of Repeating History?

Non-German readers may not be familiar with the term Heidedesign. It’s a historic one. New contributor Christopher Butt sheds some light.

Volkswagen’s stylistic output has been subject to repeated boom-and-bust cycles for almost five decades. Right now this directly leads to the question of how to assess the tenure of current VW chief designer, Klaus Bischoff.

Modern Volkswagen design was established by none other than Italian maestro Giorgetto Giugiaro in the mid-1970s. Prior to the hiring of his services, VW had labored hard and comprehensively failed at adapting and modernizing the form language created by Erwin Komenda for the Volkswagen Typ 1.

The original Golf, Passat and Scirocco designs combined the prevalent stylistic trends of the 1970s with the Giugiaro touch and a prerequisite air of Teutonic sobriety. In short: these cars not only made up for 20 years of absent stylistic progress but immediately established a coherent form language for the ailing German giant.

Despite this obvious success, Giugiaro’s services weren’t utilized once it was time to replace these models. Instead, Volkswagen preferred to establish a design department of contemporary standards at Wolfsburg. Herbert Schäfer, a man who notably claimed that he and Giugiaro were ‘the only two people who know how to design a Golf’, was designated to head the effort.

Schäfer’s interpretation of what ‘Golf’ was differed significantly from Giugiaro’s. His Golf II was significantly more substantial looking, with far less delicate surfacing and a blatant focus on conveying a sense of solidity. This lack of subtlety would become a Schäfer trademark. It also resulted in the coining of the term Heidedesign, which stands for a rather dreary and very petty bourgeois stylistic approach.

The Heidedesign era came to an end when Ferdinand Piëch arrived at Wolfsburg in 1993, his trusty Audi chief designer Hartmut Warkuß in tow. Warkuß did away with the clumsy ornamentation and simplistic details that had come to define Heidedesign, replacing them with a technical, clean form language that suggested superior quality of materials and manufacture through rather more sophisticated means.

Volkswagen Concept R (2003)

This sophistication was immediately banished however when Murat Günak and Peter Schreyer took over from Warkuß in 2002. Clinical precision and sober quality were out, ostentatious decorum and awkward proportions were now in. The most obvious sign of this drastic change of attitude was the introduction of the garish Plakettengrill – an ungainly, chromed cladding that was supposedly intended to add a touch of class around the front grille, but really added a thick veneer of Rocher-like false aspiration.

Wreaking havoc on the stylistic values of Volkswagen in a fashion not dissimilar to the disastrous ‘shark front’ period of Peugeot’s styling, the Günak/Schreyer years marked the nadir of modern Volkswagen design.

The spread of the Plakettengrill was thankfully cut short when new Volkswagen CEO, Martin Winterkorn, arrived from Ingolstadt and instructed his Audi combatant, Walter de’ Silva, to quickly undo the damage that had been inflicted upon the VW range. This not only spared the public a truly misguided facelift of the brand’s Phaeton top model but also resulted in one of the most successful automotive makeovers in recent times – the Passat B7.

Whether facelift or clean sheet design, de’ Silva hardly set a foot wrong during the early years of his tenure by the Mittellandkanal. The Volkswagens he and his team created were almost as clean as the Warkuß-era cars, yet also possessed a sharpness that was reminiscent of Giugiaro’s 1970s designs.

But at Wolfsburg, every boom is inevitably followed not by simple stagnation, but outright bust. This immediately leads straight to the most current offerings from Lower-Saxony: the T-Roc and the Arteon.

The T-Roc and Arteon are new additions to the VW range. While the T-Roc is a fairly traditional small SUV, the Arteon is a large fastback with ‘premium’ pretensions that’s supposedly not a successor to the (Passat) CC. Both cars’ appearances are certainly not clean. Instead, they are afflicted with a plethora of character lines, creases and bulges that are not just overly busy, but downright irritating. It’s obvious that this kind of ornamentation is intended to add stimulus or even create desirability. But in truth, it’s just a case of faintly desperate emulation of tropes catering to a perceived craving of the customer for more ‘expressive’ forms.

The new corporate grille that ‘adorns’ the frontal aspects of both T-Roc and Arteon is all the proof one could need that the spirit of Heidedesign is back with a vengeance. Its outline may be far less clean than the more significant grille designs in VW history, but its size (supposedly) suggests prestige and aggression, which is what the market (supposedly) craves. And in the Arteon’s case, it also offers all the space required to add the abundance of chrome the budding (probably Chinese) non-executive corporate officer could possibly desire.

Historically, VW design was always at its best when the stylists tasked with finding forms had a clear understanding of what the Volkswagen brand stands – and doesn’t stand – for. Right now, VW wants to stand for a lot of things at once. Adding premium pretensions to such a diluted set of brand values doesn’t result in true desirability though. It creates Heidedesign.


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