HARMAN’s audio brands are found in some of the most iconic automobiles. Launched earlier this year, the Bentley Continental GT features a tailor-made Bang & Olufsen sound system with specially manufactured elements and speaker grills. We spoke with the creative mind behind it all, Mikkel Venge, Design Manager, Automotive, for Huemen, about his team’s creative process with Bang & Olufsen and Bentley, and the importance of taking multiple approaches in design.
Q: You were part of the team that designed the audio experience in the Bentley that debuted earlier this year. How did you work with Bentley to design an experience that matches the brand and the lifestyles of a Bentley owner?
A: I had the privilege to lead the team responsible for the Bang & Olufsen sound system in the Bentley Continental GT. It was a very exciting process which involved a deep dive into the heritage of the two brands. On one side, the distinguished British auto company with a legacy of racing and luxury touring, whose design tradition lies in its rich dimensions and attention to detail. On the other side, the minimalistic Danish design icon with roots in the Bauhaus School of Design and understated Scandinavian culture. When you examine the brands from a distance, they appear to be vastly different. However, as we looked deeper into the traditions and the essence of the brands, the similarities became more obvious. Both companies share a fundamental focus on performance, uncompromised quality, genuine materials, and pride in industrial craftsmanship. The overall process was so unique – like a tango for three. I had the Design Management team of Bentley in one hand and the Design Manager of Bang & Olufsen’s brand partnership team in the other. This resulted in a design where every detail was evaluated by multiple sides.
Part of the design concept came to me many years ago, when I challenged one of the engineers at Bang & Olufsen’s aluminum production facility to create an oval hole in an aluminum plate with a round drill. He looked at me in the typical way engineers look at designers when we have crazy ideas, as if he thought, “You are kind, but it cannot be done!” However, he agreed to test the process on some spare plates that were used in the anodization process, and we caught a glimpse of what could be achieved once the process was perfected. We chose to use the anodized plates because the material would make the holes sparkle and stand out – a trick I picked up from an earlier consumer product design. Years later, Rhodri Jones, Lead Designer HMI at Bentley, tasked me with creating a new design for the forthcoming Bentley GT. The automobile was inspired by their latest concept car, the Bentley Speed 6, which had a speaker grill with a center hole. Bentley liked this design, but had difficulties mass-producing it for their vehicles. I recalled working with the engineer at Bang & Olufsen years ago and knew that we would be able to achieve the design they were looking for. Our teams worked back and forth over several weeks, before presenting the final prototype to Romulus Rost, Head of Interior Design, Color and Trim at Bentley.
My favorite feature of the speaker is the illumination it provides at night, almost like a small solar system due to the special hole pattern we created. I’m also proud of the branding, which is not in the grill itself, but debossed next to it in the leather trim. This way, the Bang & Olufsen presence is seamlessly integrated into the Bentley, and yet the speaker still stands out like a piece of jewelry for the car.
Q: Can you tell us more about the process of working closely with Bentley, including working on site and embedding yourself in their culture? What specific benefits do you think this provides your processes? What do you think you would lose if the companies took a different approach?
A: Strong relationships are crucial to the work we do on the Huemen Automotive team. Each team member needs to understand the essence of the brands that we work with, and know who the right people are to talk to. The better the communication flows over the course of a project, the better the result. This isn’t only limited to working across different companies, it’s also a key factor within our own organization. Our colleagues on the Acoustics team, the Epic team, across Engineering, Sales, Marketing, and even Logistics – their roles and responsibilities can all be influenced by the way we design a product. The better we understand the needs of our colleagues, the more holistic we can make our designs. I sit next to an acoustician during the day, eat lunch with mechanical engineers, and I commute to work with a project manager. If I don’t consider their needs during the design process, you can be sure I’ll be hearing from them directly. Designers have a great responsibility towards their colleagues. They rely on us to do our part correctly so that they can succeed in their roles as well.
Q: How do you work with your team to get inspiration?
A: During the design process, it’s important to be open minded and consciously reflect on what you see no matter where you are. For example, I was inspired to create the previously discussed oval holes when I was hundreds of miles away from my desk, staring at an aluminum fishing wheel for hours. The Huemen Automotive team regularly attends auto shows, as well as fairs and exhibitions in related fields like architecture or furniture design, to see what elements are trending and gain inspiration. Our customers are another vital source of inspiration. I prioritize events where dealers and customers interact with our products onsite and provide their immediate feedback.
We rely on our partnerships with universities to foster relationships with the next generation of talent. These bright, young designers are the future – bringing fresh ideas and a new vision to the world of design. We also perform studies with our OEM partners, where we look ahead to focus on impending trends. It’s very fruitful to apply creative working methods from consumer brands on design projects, and vice versa.
HARMAN is committed to designing premium sound systems for the world’s leading luxury automakers. Huemen is the design agency created to realize brands through design of meaningful experiences. Learn more about the immersive Bang & Olufsen audio system in the Bentley Continental GT here.