Manfred Lang is responsible for some of the most innovative and successful projects in the recreational vehicle sector. He designed for Knaus, Hymer, Bürstner and Niesmann+Bischoff. Today he works for Concorde and Carthago. We met him to discover a little more about his style and his approach to design.
Words Jörg Nullmeyer
Aboutcamp BtoB: Mister Lang, please tell us something about yourself, your history and your caravaning projects.
Manfred Lang: I studied industrial design in Wuppertal, in parallel with automotive design at the Volkwangschule in Essen. There Ford had a guest lecturer with Uwe Bahnsen. The petrol crisis of 1973/74 prevented my employment as a car designer.
I financed my studies with the design of television studios at Westdeutscher Rundfunk WDR in Cologne. A major project (Radio Bremen) led me unintentionally into self-employment. In 1977 I founded the office for industrial design “pro industria”. When designing well-known consumer goods, I learned to create product lines and that the brand is more important than the subjective sense of design of a Manfred Lang.
A supplier recommended me to Knaus. Their managing director, Mister Burkard, perfectly understood the importance of design which in turn enabled me to introduce industrial design to this industry with the 1987 Knaus Traveller. The subsequent Knaus product line remained unique and unmistakable until 2000. Those 14 years with Knaus were followed by 13 years of Hymer-Group with the brands Niesmann+Bischoff, Bürstner and Hymer themselves. Shaping entire product lines over years gave me a lot of satisfaction in the realization and cooperation.
Up to the year 2000 we produced all prototypes in GRP with a modelling staff of 12 and the results entered mass production. In 1995 we introduced 3D modeling, which later replaced model making. From 2002 all motorhomes were modeled in 3D and developed to the manufacturing data – Engineering and Design. Starting from the year 2000 not a single exterior design has been displayed in illustrattive models. The 3D visualization possibilities and the ability to perfect proportion development and evaluation on the computer make any sample construction unnecessary – it goes directly into the tool. Even very complex product details like the two Hymer headlights come from our 3D development. Today we are happy to work for two truly exceptional brands, namely Concorde and Carthago.
Aboutcamp BtoB: You succeed in capturing the historical style characteristics of your customers’ DNA in new projects. How much time is spent developing lines, shapes, and ideas for studying historical models, and how important is it for you to respect the past?
Manfred Lang: It is very important to respect the mostly successful history of the products in order to build on it as successful as possible. The customer seeks to recognise himself in the new vehicle, because he has ever made the ‘right’ decision, stands by this decision and is willing to repeat it. For old and new customers a clear further development should be recognizable and create incentives. This ability to capture the style or design features of the customer’s vehicles does not require long-term analysis. The DNA of a brand that has been on the market for a long time, of course, is known – you have to build on that.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Your first camper was a revolutionary vehicle. On the Knaus Travel-Liner you introduced a front bumper monoblock in 1996 like in the automotive world and a windscreen without pillars. When you start a project, how much space do you allocate to the design and how much to the functionality?
Manfred Lang: The design should emphasize functionality and reflect the function in a contemporary design context. The design must not suffer from the function and vice versa. New technologies are not so easy to implement in this industry, which requires a lot of manual labor. This is always a matter of quantity, so the comparison with the car industry is inappropriate.
Aboutcamp BtoB: You design vehicles of all sizes: a small Class B Hymer, a large, three-axle motorhome, a huge luxury liner such as the Niesmann+Bischoff Clou or the latest Concorde Centurion and Liner Centurion. In any case, how do you establish the right relationship between style and proportions, between outer shapes and dimensions?
Manfred Lang: It should be in the blood of a good designer to develop the right proportions for the particular product – no matter if designing a humble writing instrument or a huge Centurion Liner.
The ‘subjective/objective’ right feeling, despite thousands of alternative options, must be there. One good alternative is enough – but it must be appropriate!
Aboutcamp BtoB: As a designer you should always be innovative. You have succeeded in implementing bold solutions in a semi-manual industry, such as the panorama windscreen of the Bürstner Grand Panorama. What are you inspired by? How do you work out a new concept?
Manfred Lang: Ideas and thus innovations are ‘God-given’. It is much more difficult to persuade decision makers to implement them successfully. Fortunately, I often had those open minded people around me. It is, of course, regrettable that, for example, an innovation such as the Bürstner Grand Panorama could not be completed and brought to a conclusion for political reasons.
It’s a great experience to sit in the front seats and enjoy the Grand Panorama. Similar, but much simpler, is our current work on Group RVs with large roof windows in the front and the living room.
These are earlier ideas from my years with Knaus, but the time was not ripe by then but with the first Heki (for Seitz then) they became reality. New concepts are children of the zeitgeist, which then have to be tailored to the target group.
Aboutcamp BtoB: What relationship do you have to the design of the car, and do you have models or brands that you consider to be the source of inspiration?
Manfred Lang: I like to absorb the zeitgeist and inspiration at Geneva Motor Show and the Milan Furniture Fair. There courage and sparkling creativity can be felt. Two years later most innovations from Milan got through the „Teutonic Funel“ to be recognized again at a rather boring Cologne Furniture Fair – absolutely boring – supported by presentations of polytechnics and universities in this subject area.
It is a great pity that some design colleagues are now cleaning up their motorhomes, for example in the automotive sector – whether the Mercedes-Benz prototype truck in the luxury segment or the mid-priced segment features the design elements of the VW Passat.
Motorhomes should have an independent language of form and gestaltpsychologisch positively occupied form components on the way. Do a motorhome or a caravan really need a diffusor under their tail?
Aboutcamp BtoB: Is it desirable to consider the family feeling of the entire portfolio when developing a new vehicle, or do you prefer each series to be based on a unique personality? In the first case, how can you avoid each model being considered as a remake of already known models?
Manfred Lang: The product brand itself is the historic element in the design of the various series. Of course, the individual model series must differ in their valence and function ratings, but as a whole they must form the brand and the image. The automotive industry is (not always) a good role model here.
We do not want to avoid that a new edition of a series is recognized as such – on the contrary.
One good, very successful design is the Bürstner Elegance series; evolutionary yet with just the right amount of innovation and zeitgeist applied – the VW Golf (aka Rabbit) principle or, to put it into a nutshell: just look at the Porsche 911.
Sure, sometimes you need to have a “revolutionary” approach to a topic, if it has previously “run dead” – the step from the VW Beetle to the VW Golf (Rabbit). For some motorhomes that would be appropriate.
Aboutcamp BtoB: You have been active in the industry for a long time. Isn’t it frustrating for a designer that most of the vehicles are very similar, white is the dominant color, and the Fiat Ducato (aka RAM Promaster), with around 70 percent market share, is the dominant face of vehicles in Europe?
Manfred Lang: This is by no means frustrating! This is the challenge of design. The reason why the Ducato and Promaster are so popular is their price-performance ratio, its industry-practical package and its acceptance by the buyers.
For a Class A RV, it does not bother to use the Ducato because design options begin above the cowl. In addition, the Ducato has changed its face three times in the 32 years we design camper vans.
Needless to say the shaping of a 26-ton truck like the Mercedes Actros got its very own appeal.
As soon as all those „white goods“ get colored goods, they will turn out significantly more costly. If I want an icon brand as chassis, then it will be even more expensive. Here the courage and risk-taking of the manufacturers are required. The market is receptive to more color and differentiation – I’m sure.
Aboutcamp BtoB: There is the design principle “form follows function”, which means that the design should be based on the utility value. How well is this guiding principle, also with regard to ergonomics, implemented in the caravaning industry? Is not there serious deficits in interior design?
Manfred Lang: Of course, as a user and customer, humans should be the measure of all things. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Various reasons on the manufacturer side sometimes prevent this. Lack of ground plan concepts, wrong priorities such as “six meters total length for the ferry” or constraints on production and cost optimization. Ultimately, the customer decides with acceptance or rejection. “Form follows function” is OK, but a recreational vehicle also has an emotional design factor. This should not get reduced to „Bauhaus“ style.
Aboutcamp BtoB: In your opinion, what are the major design flaws of motorhomes and caravans that need urgent attention?
Manfred Lang: Your questions lure me from the reserve! I want to try to stay factual: One design flaw is the lack of or uncoordinated arrangement and sizing of the windows and flaps between the interior and the exterior. These seem to be arranged randomly scattered sometimes what looks very unprofessional.
Cab ergonomics often suffer from poor viewing angles, hampered by too wide A-pillars, too low windscreen upper edges, poor exterior mirror insights, and less than optimal wiper fields. These are security-relevant defects!Unfortunately, designers do not always have the necessary influence on the product. Design mistakes also happen again and again in motorhomes – for example by forcing „automotive design“ on a RV. Good design must create buying incentives for the second and third owner.
Aboutcamp BtoB: If you had no limitations to develop a motorhome, what would it look like? What would be most important to you?
Manfred Lang: A Hummer H1 pickup truck camper – as both width and ergonomics for a transverse bed are there!
No, seriously: the electric drive with its space-economical package offers the motorhome a completely new, attractive base. In the commercial vehicle sector we gained initial experience. The currently limited ranges and long loading times are less relevant in a recreational vehicle as in a business car.
It would be a matter of personal importance to me to eliminate the “rabbits’ doors and flaps” (outer frame, joint, inner frame), because they have already shaped the side walls of almost all RVs and caravans for half a century. Almost no matter in which price range you look around. This would require a completely new production technique, possibly with other materials – that’s clear to me, as well. An entirely new production technique for sidewalls needs to get established, both competitive economically as well as ecologically. An innovative modular flap system would lead to significant improvements in design.
Of course this does not work out from one RV show to the next. Perfect design of a relatively complex product, also under the aspect of perfect ergonomics and function, garnished with some special recreational use ideas, requires longer development times and a larger investment. In a nutshell, the product will be successful.
Aboutcamp BtoB: Vehicle weight is an important criterion, especially in Europe. How much can the design influence the curb weight and how?
Manfred Lang: Completely new thinking, new materials, more integrated functions would reduce curb weight and increase payload. Acceptance for a new lightweight design will increase because the target groups change according to contemporary thinking. Back in 1998 we developed a lightweight construction concept for the Knaus Schwalbennest, an innovative small caravan for the 40th anniversary of the brand. It lacked only the courage to implement. Thus, I was probably a bit ahead of the zeitgeist. Similar concepts would be easier to implement today with adequate materials.
By innovative design of interior and furniture future generations of motorhomes could gain a higher payload. Even with a 26-ton motorhome, lightweight construction as already demonstrated by the Centurion brings many benefits not only in a contemporary ecological perspective.