Interview with Marc Lichte,
Giving the brand a face – that’s what drives Marc Lichte. The head of design at Audi talks about his career path, how to express technology in design and the perfect simplicity of well designed furniture.
Normally the confidential design concepts for the coming years are presented to the Board of AUDI AG in the design hall. There are no windows, and the overhead lighting is capable of imitating different light moods. During meetings to make decisions about the models, the cars are rotated on turntables in the floor. This is a maximum security facility, a fact made clear by signage as soon as you approach. Cameras and cell phones are strictly prohibited. Usually. Today, however, the hall is filled with designer furniture and all kinds of camera equipment.
The furniture was selected by Marc Lichte personally. It represents what he considers to be good design. And everything he and his work stand for. But before Marc Lichte gets into position in front of the camera, he pulls out his iPad. “If we’re going to talk about design, take a look at this,” he says with a hint of pride. The picture gallery contains a yacht he helped create, cutting through the water. And that segues perfectly into our interview.
“My journeyman’s piece: When I submitted my design for a chest of drawers to the Chamber of Skilled Trades, the reaction was: ‘Fine, but where are the handles?’ Back then, that in itself was unusual. Most of the 30 works presented were absolutely traditional compared to my idea. Knobs, handles, some of them fairly ornate. I only wanted to work with shadow gaps, for example, that you open by reaching into them. I would have preferred to leave out the lock in the door, but that was an explicit requirement. In the end, it won the examiners over: I had the best journey-man’s piece and I got an A.”
“I like surrounding myself with things whose design is ingenious and simple.”
Audi Magazine: Mr. Lichte, cars and sailboats don’t really have that much in common. How did your affinity for both of them come about?
Marc Lichte: My father is a passionate sailor and a car freak. He used to compete in hill climbs, and I would go with him whenever I could. That was how I experienced both very early on.
Did the creative streak you need as a designer also run in the family?
My grandfather was a fabulous artist. I often went to his house after school. He taught me not only how to draw but also other techniques such as oil painting and pastels. That leaves its mark.
Was that how your career plans took shape?
As I said, I got interested in cars from a very young age. When I was 13, I saw a report on TV about the brand new degree program in Transportation Design at Pforzheim University. After that, I knew that was what I wanted to do. The following week, I went to Pforzheim with my father. I couldn’t wait to find out what I had to do to study there.
So your father gave you plenty of support?
Yes. But to be honest, he was a little sceptical. He was a businessman, and he couldn’t quite get his head around an artistic profession. Even though I had already won a couple of competitions by then, he was still a bit concerned right up to the time I got my degree. He never told me that until years later, though.
Did you explore other types of design during your studies as well?
Of course. My first four semesters were all about general industrial design. Fruit bowls, tables, chairs. I have always been fascinated by truly good design, whatever the item.
What would you say makes a good design?
When it manages to unite flawless aesthetics with outstanding functionality. Take my glasses: a delicate titanium frame, no screws, no hinges, and so light you can hardly even feel them. There is nothing superfluous about them. I like surrounding myself with things whose design is ingenious and simple.
Two modes of transportation play a key role in Marc Lichte’s life. When he was in school, he would take every opportunity to sketch cars and sailboats in his notebooks. At the age of five, he went sailing on the Möhne Reservoir with his father. Years later, in 1994, Lichte won a design competition and used the prize money to buy a boat with which he entered – and won – the Kiel Week regatta. Still, there were many early signs that a career in the automotive industry lay ahead of him. Training in a skilled trade was a requirement for admission to his design degree program. Lichte chose carpentry. But when he kept building cars, his fellow students realized: “He’ll never be a carpenter.”
When Marc Lichte talks about design and his career today, he does so with a mixture of calm and emotion. His optimism and enthusiasm about what he does make listening to him a pleasure. At the same time, however, the clarity and ambition that drive him shine through. His view is that design must have a logic. He launched his career in 1996 at Volkswagen and, since February 2014, he has been “where I always wanted to be.” As head of design at Audi, he is responsible for the face of the brand in every respect.
“It’s especially exciting time to be designing cars right now.”
With furniture, you like designs by Mies van der Rohe and the Castiglioni brothers. Do you have comparable role models in the automotive industry?
I have a lot of influences, but only one role model in the traditional sense: Harmut Warkuß. He was head of design at Audi for 25 years, and he played an instrumental role in catapulting Audi to its position as a premium carmaker in the 1980s. Warkuß was the first ever to make progressive technology visible through design.
How did the technology become visible?
You can see it in the third-generation Audi 100, for example. Its design was guided mainly bay aerodynamics, which generated an entirely unique aesthetic. It was also clearly recognizable in the Ur-quattro, where the all-wheel drive was expressed visually in the blisters that emphasized all four wheels.
Where does Audi stand today in terms of design?
Audi stands for progressive and sustainable design development, as it always has. That said, right now we are taking a huge step in terms of form. The show car Audi prologue, as the name says, was a prelude. A timeless design that expresses the underlying technology. It provides a glimpse of what Audi will be bringing to the streets in the coming years. That’s definitely something to look forward to. There will be models designed mainly in the wind tunnel, and that alone will generate a new and unique basic body. I see a lot of potential in using aerodynamics to develop new proportions. That yields a very special character, a new face. It was already apparent in the Audi prologue, and it will be even more striking in our latest show car.
...which is on display in Geneva. Speaking of which: how does it feel to unveil your work for the first time at a trade show?
That is a very exciting moment, when you can finally show the world what you and the team have been working on for months or even years. Of course, you also become more proficient at it. For me personally, the conversations you have afterwards, when you can talk about your ideas and the visions, are the real highlight.
One main topic of conversation is the Geneva show car’s “fast D-pillar.” What is that all about?
Our show car’s roof is completely straight up to a certain point. With the fast D-pillar, we then pull I back steeply. That way, we have created an entirely new body shape. It combines a strong expression of aesthetics and sportiness without sacrificing anything in terms of practicality. That shows how attractive functional cars will be at Audi going forward.
What else does the future hold?
For one thing, as I said, we will be systematically driving design forward. For another, developments in areas like alternative drive systems present completely new challenges as well as opportunities for design. In my opinion, it’s especially exciting time to be designing cars right now.
Interview: Hermann J. Müller
Photos and film: Mierswa & Kluska