When was the last time you shared a coffee with the designer of your office chair, or a pint with the chap who sketched your laptop, or a stir-fry with the team responsible for your favorite kitchen knife? Great industrial designers are invisible, sublimating Self in the service of Object. As consumers, we're not expected to pull back a curtain and glimpse the wizard feverishly working the levers, nor are we expected to witness - let alone acknowledge - these individuals' humanity; the things that give them flesh and blood; the intangibles that transcend their rendered objects; the qualities that make them just like us.
Well, Gert Hildebrand is an industrial designer - MINI's chief designer, in fact - and he wants to share something very personal with the MINI Space community. "Outside Grand Junction, Colorado, I had a fabulous rib-eye steak cooked medium rare with a side of fresh green beans, paired with a really good Napa red wine and a plate of the local... the Colorado Rocky Mountain oysters, yes?" Colorado, the Rocky Mountain State, is landlocked. How could he eat "local" oysters, then, you might ask. Hildebrand would tell you, but you might lose your appetite. Suffice it to say, he found them "very interesting."
This was only one new experience that MINI's design guru recollects fondly from his first MINI Takes the States rally week, which concluded on the 15th of August. Hildebrand, along with hundreds of the West Coast MINI faithful, motored for eight days, beginning in San Francisco and making stops in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and the Bonneville Salt Flats, before crossing those oyster-bearing Rockies to Denver, where they rendezvoused with their Pacific Northwest, Northeast, Southeast and Midwest motoring contemporaries.
From the very beginning in San Francisco, Hildebrand knew his trip would be distinguished as much by enthusiastic company as by staggering scenery. "Right from the start, it was as if everyone had known each other for a long time," he says. "It was just so interesting to see this mixture of the owners' personalities and their cars."
Hildebrand is no stranger to Mini rally culture, having participated in Oldtimer GP races in his native Germany. Even so, traveling in MINI formation was entirely new. "When you're driving in the group, it's quite an outrageous feeling because they're all buzzing around you like bees," he says. Being swarmed by cars of his creation made things feel even more outrageous for Hildebrand. Although former MINI designer Frank Stevenson helped redefine MINI for the 21st century, Hildebrand has plotted the way forward for the past nine years. For him, it was immensely satisfying. "When you see these cars, when you see what you and your team have achieved, the remembrance of every little detail comes back," he says. "Seeing it all come to fruition is amazing. You become happy when you look at this or that detail that you fought hard for, like the Hot Chocolate color or a particular wheel design."
Then there was the customization. "Almost all the cars on the route had some customization going on," he recalls. Hildebrand does not like to name favorites, but there were a few standouts that he couldn't resist mentioning. "There was this little red devil Convertible done by a California girl, with the shiny chrome wheels. She changed it a lot but she loves it," he says. "There was another, very elegant one that went black, black and black - something a designer would do - and other owners made really bold style decisions like green bonnet stripes on a grey car. I have to say I really love this customization, because it reflects the pride of ownership when people treat their cars nicely."
Hildebrand is similarly diplomatic, though no less enthusiastic, when picking his favorite locations from the West drive. "In San Francisco, it could be a kind of foggy, dark town, but I loved the effect it had on how the cars looked, in different kind of light," he says. "On the outside of Phoenix and Las Vegas, there's just empty countryside, which made the cars appear so vibrant. Here in Colorado, there's been more of a Black Forest, alpine feel, which I love."
When hundreds of MINIs attack an interstate or a stretch of twisty, bendy county road, MINI Takes the States morphs into camaraderie in motion. Still, everyone needs alone time. Hildebrand got his chance amid the eerie rock formations and scrub brush of Western Colorado. "We took an alternate route out of Grand Junction," he says. "From there I drove my car alone to check out a national forest, and along the route there was a thunderstorm that lasted one or two hours. And it was just this very romantic feeling, slightly surreal, to be in such a violent storm surrounded by these red rocks. Just you, alone, with your car. Great feeling."
Of course, it helps when that car is a MINI. That is the lesson Hildebrand carries home to his design team: Getting out there, on the road, with the people who truly motor, cannot help but lead to better design. "This was really invaluable, spending time with people and learning from them, how they use our product," he says. "You can learn more in this one week driving than from reading all the marketing studies in books and presentations."
And for MINI Takes the States 2010 drivers who once only saw their cars as extensions of their own personalities, they might now look deeply into their chrome grilles and see there reflected the people who, as Hildebrand says, fought hard to win such details. And if they train their eyes even harder, they might even glimpse the vague outline of a bespectacled, bald German fellow, his wily grin urging them to motor on. Ever on.