From fan to creator: Aussie Calvin Luk explains his start at BMW
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It started with a cheeky letter to famed BMW designer, Chris Bangle, when he was a teenager but ended with Australian Calvin Luk joining that German brand and quickly rising to star status.
Luk was in Sintra, Portugal last week for the global launch of his X3 mid-size premium SUV, and he spoke to Driven about his start at BMW and his design process.
The 30-year-old joined BMW Group nine years ago after graduating top of his class at the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.
But his relationship with the brand started when he was 16 and at the Sydney motor show where the new Mini was launched. He asked a BMW head office representative if he could give Bangle a letter from him. Bangle replied to Luk, giving him advice about a career in car design.
They kept in touch and when Luk finished his degree in the USA, he had multiple job offers - more than anyone else in his class - with BMW top of his list.
During the video conference job interview with BMW honchos, Bangle popped his head into the room and cheekily asked Luk what other brands had offered his a job.
Luk reeled off a list of top car manufacturers, with Bangle giving a cheeky reply about the quality of the other brands before nipping out of the room.
It was no surprise that Luk headed to Munich to join BMW.
He won the internal competition to design the new X1 (launched in 2015) and the face lift 1 Series. He was also picked as the external designer of the X3 plus the X4 concept seen at the recent Frankfurt motor show.
Luk was drawn to the brand as kid as his parents had a BMW.
“We had a 3 Series when I was 10, and that was so cool. When I saw a few design sketches as well, I thought they were so amazing because that was what got me into it, was the artwork side of it. Because the artwork is extremely emotional,” he told Driven.
“For example, when you see car design sketches, there's so much power in them, because that's all the character. That's all the proportion. That's the emotion doubled, in a sketch, before it starts going into the model.
“That's one of those things that drew me into the field because I loved art and sketching and drawing mostly cars. When I saw those sketches and that this is actually a career, I was so captivated.”
The design sign off process takes a year from the moment when BMW designers puts pencil to paper to when the board signs of one of two full-size clay models of the vehicle.
“We have a few phases (in the design process). We have the sketch competition, where designers submit their impressions, their interpretations based on the brief that we'll receive,” said Luk.
That brief includes the technology that must be included in the vehicle.
“We have a few goals in mind. We know roughly how we want to place the architecture of the car, what sort of room we're looking for, what sort of things must this car be capable of,” he said.
“Then we'll do our sketches with that in the back of our minds to communicate mostly character, what sort of character are we looking for. For example, the X3, the very upright nose was definitely something I wanted to get across, at least through the sketches.”
After sketches, the designers move to computer models before management makes selections which are developed into three dimensional computer models with the modelling team.
“From there it might get narrowed down and eventually full scale clay models are developed with a team of sculptors sculpting it by hand. This whole process running toward a final design selection between two clay models will take one year.”
The two clay models are first presented to BMW Group head designer, Adrian van Hooydonk, then the board of management.
“Together, decision is reached on which direction to take. It is a selected design, but it is also a milestone, because there is a lot of work to be done after that point,” he said.
When it comes his winning X3 design, Luk says the design aspect he’s most proud of is the kidney-shaped grille.
“I always gravitate towards the ‘kidneys’, because that's essentially how we communicate the brand BMW and everything is stands for, which is the amazing driving dynamics, it's the premium-ness, it's what this car can do and the engineering behind the car.
“It's air intake, so it's functional, but it really gives the character of the car. This one you can really see it through the scale, through the chunkiness of the chrome. That is that raw power coming through.
“Then on a secondary level, I think that wheel arch gives it a bit of a new effect, so I'm really proud of that.”
One of his BMW colleagues joked with Driven at Portugal that Luk “was just winning everything, and his colleagues in Munich are like ‘oh, no, Calvin's into that competition, I give up!’"
Driven repeated the remark to the affable Aussie who modestly just smiled.
“It's been an amazing time. This has always been such a a dream come true sort of a job. If you call it a job. Since I was really little, I always wanted to do this,” he said.
Like his mentor Bangle, Luk is set to shape the look of BMW products in the future.