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Bentley's Luc Donckerwolke on what makes good design

A big year for British car manufacturer Bentley is being led by its director of design, Luc Donckerwolke. Boat International meets the man charged with keeping the brand at the top of its game...

Luc Donckerwolke is not an easy man to shop for. Bentley’s director of design is a self-confessed designaholic and can sometimes be found in department stores reproaching his wife for suggesting they buy an appliance merely because “it works”. “I say, do you really want this in your environment? There’s so much bad design out there. I have the same problem when a friend shows me their new car,” he admits. It’s not snobbery, he insists, just a faithful appreciation of what constitutes good design – in short, something that will look as good in 10 years as it does today. “Most design isn’t design – it’s marketing,” he says. “Most cars are only trying to make a visual impact. Without a strategy behind it it’s just show business.”

We meet in Bentley’s new CW1 showroom near its Crewe factory, home of the luxury marque since 1938, and are surrounded by Continentals, Flying Spurs and top-of-the-range Mulsannes. Donckerwolke beckons me over to a plum-coloured Continental GT Speed. “Look at the perforations in this seat,” he says. “They run parallel to the stitching and stop before it. We are the only ones doing that.” The quality is indeed impressive but you’d expect it to be when forking out up to £250,000 for a top-spec Mulsanne. But it’s more than just a commitment to the best: you feel with Donckerwolke that it’s something integral, part of him – in his veins.

Peripatetic is the best way to describe his upbringing. The son of diplomats, he spent his youth between South America and Africa. Ten schools before he was 18, from Paraguay to Rwanda, got him hooked on culture shock and gave him a yearning for the “new”. “I love new places, new smells, new noises,” he says. “New cultures always make you question who you are and what you are.” It’s led to a process of constant examination, something Donckerwolke has used to great effect with the big Bentley rollout for 2015: its first SUV, the Bentayga. “This car creates a whole new niche, which as a designer is very challenging. It has to do everything you expect of an SUV, but with a level of luxury and serenity that you’ve never seen before. Every day I’m thinking, ‘Is it sporty enough?’ ‘Is it luxurious enough?’”

You can’t call the Bentayga a complete Donckerwolke, since he joined the company in 2012 when the concept was in planning, but the big surprise Bentley’s planning for this month’s Geneva Motor Show is all him and his team’s work: the Crewe company’s first two-seater since the 1940s. Known by its project name, the EXP 10 Speed XI will lay down a marker for the car maker. “The show car is directional. It’s not contradicting what’s gone before but it’s a new projection of the brand’s DNA,” he says. “We’re working with a richer palette of form – there’s a more muscular and sexy language and it’s more expressive. It’s going to be interesting seeing the reaction!” 

Cars are Donckerwolke’s medium – “I’ve always been a car fanatic” – but he casts a designer’s eye over the watercraft he sees from the balcony of his holiday home in Sitges, to the south of Barcelona. This isn’t a part-time interest, either. When asked to name his favourite yacht designer, he doesn’t hesitate: “ Luca Bassani”. Bassani is the brains behind Monaco’s WallyYachts and some of that company’s sharpest output. “Wallys make a really strong statement. They’re not things that have been designed and then furnished. The exterior and interior make a single statement – and what a statement.” The Riva Aquarama is another favourite, but the boat he sees every day (he’s got a big model of it in his home) is a tiny hydroplane from 1953, called the Arno XI. The fastest boat ever in its class, clocking more than 150mph back in the 1950s, the boat “has a sculptural quality”, says Donckerwolke. “It’s provocative.”

There’s a certain synergy between these boats and the furniture that he most admires, mostly from Konstantin Grcic. Donckerwolke owns a number of Grcic pieces, including Table_B and a number of Chair_Ones. He loved the chairs so much he reached out to Grcic and told him he would have loved to have them for the Lamborghini projects he was working on at the time. “Then he said, ‘I was thinking of your Lamborghinis when I was designing it!’” Donckerwolke laughs. “It inspired me, but I inspired it.” Another fellow designer he admires – and counts as a friend – is Apple’s almost demi-divine Jonathan Ive.

Ive, it turns out, is a Bentley owner. “He drives a Mulsanne,” Donckerwolke says. “We configured it together. All the people around him are car fanatics too.” With Ive’s famous love of the curve, it’s a sure bet he’ll be a fan of the concept two-seater Bentley being unveiled this month in Geneva. And if you’re looking for a congratulatory present for Donckerwolke, perhaps he’s not so hard to buy for after all. But get the chequebook out – those Grcic chairs and Ive iThings don’t come cheap.

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