Interview: Bentley Design Boss Stefan Sielaff Talks 30 Years in Car Design
Bentley’s director of design, Munich-born, self-professed Anglophile, Stefan Sielaff, has spent more than 30 years in automotive design. In this interview Stefan explains why his lifetime dream was to work for a British brand, and how he got here.
What came first for you, was it design or cars?
When I was a young boy I was not the classic car designer, I wasn’t sketching cars at four years old. I was more interested in doing fine arts, sculpture. I was driving my parents crazy by working with huge marble blocks in their garage when I was 14 or 15. I was always very interested in cars but I never was able to combine these two passions, so it only started when I was doing my high school diploma – I had to ask myself what I was going to do for a living. At this time I was getting interested in product design and I started to study product design in the early ‘80s, that’s when I learned it is possible to do fine arts, design and car activities together, and this is called car design.
Can you define where your passion for cars originated from?
It started when I was four years old in front of my family’s tobacco shop in Munich. A customer of ours, a film director, arrived in a brand new Porsche 911. I was just able to look over the edge of the window. I have to say this was the moment my passion for cars began. Later on, like all car aficionados, I started to buy cheap, old cars so I learned a lot about mechanics and technique because I had to repair these cars all the time. My very first, really beloved car was a Triumph Spitfire, which gave me a huge passion for British cars. I also acquired old Volkswagens. I think it is essential as a car designer to understand cars on a technical level.
What appeals to you about designing for Bentley?
It has been a lifetime dream to work for a luxury car brand. I find it extremely satisfying to transform the expectations of luxury customers into an exterior sculpture and an interior living habitat.
What is great about Bentley is that we have the opportunity to do bespoke things – we can create extraordinary products and also tailor-made, custom-fit solutions for the customer. We still have a small team, and have great access to the customer – we often speak directly to the customers. They talk to us, they want special solutions and we can deliver this – it is really enjoyable. It is ‘cooking to taste’ and that is what I like.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Earlier this year I was in London, looking at the Vogue exhibition for fashion. Fashion is definitely a place I find inspiration, it is changing rapidly, much faster than car design. I also love to look at fine art, architecture and aircraft design.
Less conventionally, science fiction movies. It happens frequently that we watch an old film from 20 years ago, something they envisaged is now a reality, in our normal life. Therefore this dream of the future is sometimes encapsulated in these movies and provides a big source of inspiration.
Do you see interior and exterior automotive design as different disciplines?
Exterior and interior design for me in the car industry are different disciplines. You have to be expert on the one side or the other. It’s really a big difference especially when you look at the more sculptural work you have to do in the exterior design. Dealing with lines, with surface qualities and proportions, all the while taking into consideration how daylight reacts on the sculpture. This is one part of a story.
The other story is interior design. You need to deal with a lot of different details. It’s also the combination of materials and architecture on the interior. A lot of surfaces can be covered with leather, normally more convex surfaces, and then dealing with the defined amount of space and getting a lot of details and information in the interior, so they are two very different disciplines.
Do you believe that practicality should lead the design? Or should design challenge practicality?
‘Form follows function’ – I think that is the famous sentence in German design education. It is true to a certain extent, everything has to work at the end of the day. Personally I think humankind is not living only from water and dry bread, we need more flavour. With Bentley as a luxury brand, we need to make an extraordinary statement and we need to combine function with fine art, with the architecture of fashion. All these things have to come together in our cars and make so much more than just a practical statement.