The latest conceptual visions of Mercedes-Benz – from the futuristic and tech-driven AVTR to the retro-inspired ‘hyper-analogue’ Simplex – reflect a creatively free approach from a design team on a roll. 

In uncertain economic times some might question their short-term purpose – especially when they bear little relation to current production cars – but for Mercedes they project a confidence about a future where its brand is as relevant as it is today. It also allows its designers to imagine longer-term production models perhaps decades away in order to hopefully stay ahead of the pack on the products it will launch in-between. 

To find out more Wallpaper* recently attended the opening of the newest of the company’s three global advanced design centres in Nice, France. Within the 50-metre long metal, glass and concrete tube-shaped building covering 3000 sq m, up to 49 designers can work on everything from traditional exterior, interior and colour and material design to the increasingly-relevant user experience (UX) and user interaction (UI) disciplines. 

Vision Simplex

One scale model in the exteriors display room featured a dot-printed spray technique to suggest new ways of shading to emphasise a car body’s curves, while in the interiors room conceptual cabins showcased the brand’s ideas about ‘progressive luxury’ as a mixture of analogue, digital, sustainable and experiential. In a third UX presentation room, interiors that change colour via projections to match a user’s outfit or mood were mooted as a more sustainable way of upgrading a car, rather than buying a new one.  

The Vision AVTR shown at the January 2020 Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show is Mercedes’ latest example of this human-centric vision. Developed in collaboration with the makers of the Avatar film the AVTR envisions new relationships between people, vehicles and the natural environment. The driver connects to the car by placing their hand on the control unit to bring the vehicle to life, after the vehicle has confirmed his or her identity through their heartbeat or breathing. The concept’s powertrain employs a compostable and recyclable graphene-based organic cell chemistry that avoids the use of rare earths and metals, and the vehicle itself communicates to the driver and the outside world through 33 bionic flaps that create naturally-flowing movements to act as confirmatory gestures. Inside the AVTR, vegan-friendly leather by Dinamica is employed while the Karuun flooring is made from fast-growing and renewable rattan-style wood. 

Merc Vision AVTR cabin

While Mercedes wants to stay relevant with such future-facing concepts, it’s also proud of its long history as the inventor of the first ever car back in 1886 and this is reflected in another recent concept, the Simplex. Unveiled at the same Nice studio opening, the charmingly simple concept honours of one of Mercedes’ oldest cars – the 1901 35hp – which set the template for modern car design by moving away from a high motorised carriage to a flat vehicle design where the engine is positioned low in the frame with an integrated front radiator. Acknowledging this heritage through design cues like the long-nosed bonnet, uncovered and freestanding ‘open’ wheels and even leather tie-down straps and exterior luggage, the Simplex balances these retro nods with modern references, from an LED-lit grille, ultra-smooth surfacing and modern fit and finish. 

Unlike Mercedes’ approach to concepts in the past, there’s an evident fun and charm to this design which expresses the broader desire from the brand to show and take a more human approach. As such it chimes with chief design officer Gorden Wagener’s wish to be name-checked in the same breadth as fashion brands Chanel and Hermès rather than traditional carmakers like Bentley and BMW. As Wagener concludes: “I don’t see Mercedes as a car company but as a luxury brand, one with the aim to be the most-loved.” With concepts like the AVTR and Simplex, the company would seem to be heading in the right direction. §