Nothing was going to stop Calvin Luk from being a car designer. Not even a high school art teacher who rejected Luk’s proposal for cars to feature as his major body of work before graduation.
“I eventually chose to do a comic book,” he explains when CarAdvice caught up with him a recent visit to Sydney. “But if you notice in the… background of many frames… there would be the character in the front, then the main character of the story, and in the background would be an extremely detailed [BMW] M3 driving past. So, yeah, I was always trying to find a little excuse to put a real cool car in the background.”
The fact it was a BMW isn’t lost on Luk who has worked for the company since 2008, joining the German manufacturer straight after graduating from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. How the Sydney native got there is a story in itself, one we’ve already detailed in an earlier interview here. It's well worth a read if you believe the direction a life can take can hinge on one pivotal moment.
Since then, Luk has applied his talents as a member of BMW’s exterior design team, using his Bic ballpoint pen and Copic markers to good effect, penning the design for the second-generation BMW X1, 2015’s BMW 1 Series (F20) facelift, and the third-generation (G01) BMW X3.
But it’s his most recent creation that has brought him home to Sydney, turning his own BMW Z4 concept of 2017 into the production 2019 BMW Z4 roadster.
Taking a concept and turning it into a car ready for production is an exercise in compromise. The designer’s original vision, unshackled from engineering and financial constraints, is often diluted once the tinkerers and bean counters take over. And that’s something always in the back of Luk’s mind whenever he picks up a marker.
“I think the engineering is always done hand in hand,” he says. “So often, when we're sketching, obviously we can't refer to the engineer every line we do, but it is in the back of our heads.
“We know generally the package, the wheelbase. We know the overall height of the car and the width. So, we know in our heads and we can picture it in 3D.
“So when we are sketching, even though it's a two dimensional product that we're making on paper, we're thinking in 3D, we're thinking already, ‘if I do this line here, that means this on a model, on the clay model and that means this for the package and that could mean this or that or that in terms of the engineering’.”
Luk admits there are sometimes robust discussions over the direction the design is taking, but concedes these are born of a passion and a desire by everyone to produce the best possible car they can.
“I think what's really important to realise is… we're designing [an] end product, a car for usage. Right? And a lot of these discussions come out because everybody at BMW is a highly trained specialist in their field. Everybody is actually trying to make the car the best they can. When you're in that sort of environment, then everybody's extremely emotional and passionate about what they do.
“So, in terms of what I do, the exterior designer, I want the car to look the absolute best it can. And the interior designer wants the space to feel as best as it can. Perhaps it's to give the most driver orientation possible or the sportiest cockpit… with the best materials.
“Then we have the engineers as well who want the best performance it can have. And… aerodynamicists wants the best [aero] efficiency with the best down force, or the best airflow for the engine cooling.”
That symbiotic relationship between the designers, the engineering team and the aerodynamicists is the fundamental difference between pure art, form for form’s sake, and the pragmatism of design, according to Luk.
“I think at the end it's all about making the best product that comes out together,” he says. “So, I think as a car, you can't really have one without the other. I think at the end of the day, that's… the difference between art and design, because art is pure expression, I think, or a statement about something. Whereas design involves a lot of problem solving and thinking through things, and problem solving, especially in the sense of let's design a shape
“Let's design a sculpture that speaks to people artistically and emotionally and represents what the car can do and empower the customers or the drivers to feel something special.
“But then it has to be sold. If it has to be sold, it has to be manufactured. And if it has to be manufactured, it has to account for things that happen in the factory, stamping processes, but also being sold.
“Where is it being sold? In which market? And typically, BMWs are global products, which means they have to fulfil global regulations, and every market has a different set of regulations to fulfil conveniently. So, it becomes as much problem solving as it is creative and artistic.”
With the BMW Z4 already in showrooms and on the streets, Luk is already working on future projects. And while he can’t reveal too much – or anything – about those projects, he speaks with and undeniable passion and enthusiasm for the future.
“There's a lot of questions about the future now,” he says. “You can already see a lot of thought going into the more recent show cars and concept cars about what is the future of mobility and autonomous or not autonomous future.
“What does that mean for people if they have the choice of driving or being the passenger, what are they going to choose and what does that mean for the interior space? And also, we're looking at, further on that topic, what does that mean for the car? Like what does the car see? How do radars play a bigger role in vehicles where they can see more of the road and drive more by themselves?”
And then there are the design challenges Luk faces as the automotive world continues its inexorable march towards electrification.
“I think it's very exciting,” he says. “It brings along with it some challenges, especially some cars where we are in the process of electrification and every market is a bit different.
“In some markets, we are offering these options for the engines, and some markets we're offering these options for the electric drive. These two elements still have to combine into one design at the end for one car. And how do you deal with that? It's a very interesting topic.
“So, we're looking at what is the future of the BMW ‘i’ brand and at the other end of the spectrum are extremely successful M products too. What is the future of extremely high-performance driving? And then [integrating that] under the complete umbrella of BMW? So, it's a really interesting time to integrate all these new things as we're moving towards the new drivetrains.”