Robert Lešnik was probably born with a love for car design. Otherwise, it is impossible to explain his tenacity and perseverance to follow his dream. Even after the third unsuccessful attempt to pass the talent tests at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in his native Slovenia, he did not give up on his intention.
He emigrated abroad, obtained a prestigious degree in vehicle design in Germany and perfected his practice in three different world-class car manufacturers. Today, he determines the design of Mercedes exteriors and, as he says himself, he is far from tired of designing the appearance of cars. On the contrary, he is looking forward to the new challenges associated with the advent of electric cars.
Where did this overwhelming love for car design come from?
I always loved him. I knew he was the one for me, even though it wasn’t easy at first. It was a completely different time then than it is today. The beginning of the nineties in Slovenia meant many changes and chaos, there was no internet or mobile phones. I had a hard time looking for information on where to study car design at all.
The closest to this was the Slovenian Academy of Fine Arts and Design, but the field was not developed there. However, I tried it there. When I was rejected, I studied engineering technology for a while – that knowledge is still useful to me today, technicians can’t just tell me something. (laughter)
But I never felt like I was really a technician, I liked sketching from an early age. After the third unsuccessful attempt to study design here in Slovenia, I said to myself – enough, if I want to prove it, I have to go abroad. Otherwise, I will never do what I really want.
Where did your steps lead?
First to Italy. Slovenia is close, there is sun, good food and they make quality cars.
But you studied in Germany after all…
These are the coincidences that matter in life when you are prepared. A friend told me about the prestigious field of vehicle design taught at the University of Phorzheim. I immediately set off and my dream came true.
The field had an excellent level there. Of course, I also had to study the designs of machines other than automobiles. My colleagues laughed at me that I only like cars, while they are much more versatile. Today, some work as my subordinates. (laughter)
So that’s the way to success – targeting?
Yes exactly. I see too much distraction in young people today, and that is never a good thing. You can never be good at many things at once. Choose your beloved field and devote yourself to it if you really want to succeed.
What exactly fascinates you about car design?
You make useful things beautiful. If we emphasized only the best technical characteristics of the cars and took into account the best aerodynamics, the lowest fuel consumption and so on, all the cars would look exactly the same.
So is it a trade off between beauty and function? How are the discussions with the constructors going?
It’s a struggle. I say that the success of a designer is to assert yourself as much as possible. The more techs get involved, the more you lose. On the other hand, I have a technical background and I understand that the final product can’t be from the realm of dreams, but it has to be safe on the road. I don’t come up with the impossible, but I won’t let myself be told that something can’t be done when I know it can be.
I spend most of my working day discussing with technicians and finding a compromise. We adjust the details, discuss variants and stare long into giant monitors with 3D designs. It is a clash of two different points of view. Sometimes the devil is hidden in the detail.
What good would a super technically useful car be to people if it’s going to be ugly? Would anyone buy it? Certainly not enough people to make it worthwhile for us to make such cars. Mercedes would lose its spark. That’s my vision.
Is it better designed for the luxury Mercedes than for the previous automakers?
Yes, I have more space for the beauty of the design. Especially for luxury cars, where production costs and consumption parameters are not considered so much. Every car company has its flagship elements, I have to respect them. And of course, the type of car and the market for which it is intended play a big role.
With luxury cars, it’s much easier, you have more creative freedom because you’re not as limited by your budget. You don’t have to pay so much attention to client demand surveys. International tastes in luxury goods are more or less the same. The rich usually know what is beautiful, whether they are from Europe, the USA or China.
You can also afford to experiment more, to anticipate what may be liked in four years, because you are not designing a car for the mass market, where there is huge pressure to sell.
In four years?
Yes, that’s how long the entire cycle takes to turn the original sketch into a car. It’s not good to rush it, you won’t make a good proposal in two weeks. A lot of things can’t be figured out in such a short time. Although some car companies are trying to shorten the production cycle to three years or less, I am definitely not a fan of it. Quality takes its time, and beautiful design is always timeless in a certain way, even if it contains elements of innovation.
And how is the design of A-types accessible to the upper middle class?
The opposite of what I said about luxury cars actually applies here. Our discussions with technicians are more focused. We have to fit into a certain budget. Clients look much more at practical utility than appearance. Nevertheless, as Mercedes, we want and must guarantee a certain quality of design.
We monitor demand trends in individual countries much more. Europe, America and China have different preferences, and when we want to sell a certain type of car globally, we have to compromise. Make a model suitable for the city and for weekends, which can fit shopping, skis and a dog, but it is not a problem to park it in the city. And so that you, as the owner, could sit comfortably in the back, work on your PC and be driven by the driver.
How is Chinese, European or American demand different?
You don’t sell a convertible in China. Opening the roof in nice weather and driving a car, enjoying the sound of the engine and the wind in your hair, is not their culture. On the contrary, if you have a Mercedes in China, even a lower class one, you will already hire a driver.
Therefore, we have to design the interior of the car for comfortable seating in the back seats, including smart screens, connections, a table or a coffee stand. Tinted glasses are a matter of course. When someone in China sees you driving a car, you are automatically their driver.
Aren’t you afraid that you’ll ever stop enjoying it?
As technology, customer requirements, consumption parameters change, there are always many new things that you have to take into account. You have to accept the assignment, its limits, and then you try to make the car as beautiful as possible. By 2030, we are supposed to switch from classic fuel-powered cars to electric cars, and a new era awaits us, which brings with it additional design challenges.