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BMW’s Look Is About More Than the Kidney Grille, Design Boss Says

Proportion and precision, not kidney grilles and the Hofmeister kink, make a BMW's exterior according to Adrian van Hooydonk.

Every brand would probably love to have a signature design element that makes it instantly recognizable to everyone in the world. Owning an icon that customers can immediately spot in a crowd is priceless for marketers. BMW doesn’t just have one such cue—it’s lucky enough to claim two. But BMW design boss Adrian van Hooydonk believes that there are other, more cohesive characteristics that must visually define the company’s products.

During a recent interview with BMW Group Classic’s JP Rathgen, van Hooydonk was asked about BMW leaning too much on its two major design elements: those iconic kidney grilles and the Hofmeister kink, the little C-pillar/window slant that’s been on almost every one of the automaker’s cars since the 1970s.

“I would say it’s not just the grille, or the lamps, or Hofmeister kink that makes a BMW,” van Hooydonk said. “It’s about proportion, it is about precision, it’s about the treatment of surfaces and lines.”

2024 BMW X2 | BMW

Totally. Whenever someone sees a new BMW on the road, they inevitably say “I’ve never seen that car before, but I knew it was a BMW from its treatment of surfaces and lines!”

Kidding aside, I see van Hooydonk’s point. As a designer, you can’t remain stagnant and you can’t use nostalgia as a crutch. “In order to move forward, you can’t just keep repeating what has been in the past. You have to sometimes add new elements to it and also sometimes that means changing some of the iconography,” he said.

While he isn’t wrong, I’d argue that the evolution of beloved designs doesn’t need to be as radical as BMW has done recently. And van Hooydonk’s argument could be construed as a defense of recent controversial work that’s happened under his leadership, such as the BMW XM. Designs, even iconic ones, can change and evolve without losing sight of their heritage, which BMW has been guilty of recently.

BMW Neue Klasse | BMW

The only other brand with a grille design as recognizable as BMW’s is Jeep, and all of its modern grilles have evolved slightly but still aren’t offensive or obnoxious. The kidney grille and Hofmeister kink aren’t shackles holding BMW back. The opposite is true. If used properly, those iconic design features can anchor the manufacturer’s latest cars in history, and connect designers with a beloved body of work even as they experiment and push boundaries.

Thankfully, it seems that BMW is moving in the right direction. The Neue Klasse concept has a unique kidney grille that encapsulates the headlights as well. However, since the kidneys are wide like wings, rather than tall, the fascia looks far more like that of a proper BMW. In fact, the Neue Klasse’s overall exterior comprises shades of different cars from BMW’s past, such as the E12-generation 5 Series. Hopefully van Hooydonk and his team have more designs in the works like it, and less like the XM.

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