Legendary industrial designer Frank Stephenson talks about his history with the world’s top car manufacturers and his more recent ventures in innovative design.
Written by: Zheran Chen
Frank Stephenson has his vision. With his name to designs from the iconic New MINI to the exciting McLaren P1, at 62, he is still passionate about design and curious about all things natural. He has risen to become one of the most influential automotive designers over the past three decades.
Frank Stephenson sketches all the time, it’s almost a tradition for him to pick up a ballpoint pen and let his creativity flow over any surface he can find. Even during this interview, Frank sketches, it didn’t take long for a clean sheet of paper to become something truly remarkable.
Frank lives in a beautiful, quiet country house in England and is also the design director of a studio in London that bears his own name. Some would say it’s almost hard to match Frank’s past and present persona, from the illustrious design boss who ran Ferrari and shaped McLaren’s future, to the frankly speaking founder of Frank Stephenson Design (no pun intended), and even YouTuber. He is now using his creativity in almost everything: futuristic eVTOL aircraft, innovative baby protection seats, and even a supercomputer.
But there is a connection. For many people, Frank’s work has been in touch with their lives for many years, whether it was love at first sight for the lovely Fiat 500, the sheer excitement of driving a MINI through the countryside, or even the surreal feeling of seeing a McLaren P1 for the first time. Today, wherever you go, there’s bound to be a product with which Frank has some sort of involvement.
He was born in Casablanca, the same place where Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman shone on the big screen. Camels, fragrances and the vibrant yet romantic culture of Morocco influenced Frank’s upbringing in many ways before the family embarked on a series of moves, first to Turkey and then to Spain, diversifying his understanding of different cultures.
It was in the year he finished high school that his life took its first turn, which, surprisingly, had nothing to do with car design. Anyone who has come into close contact with Frank will notice his muscular build, which comes from years of motocross racing in his early days. Yes, he used to be a professional motocross rider. First, he won the Junior Championship in Spain and began racing in the National Series.
But when he turned 22, his father told him to find something else to do for a living. “It was sad to end it, but my father had a point. I was good but not winning, there’s a big difference between being good and winning. I didn’t want to be done at 30, I needed to find something else I was better at”.
When Frank first heard about the Art Center College of Design (ACCD) in Pasadena, California, he immediately decided it was the place he wanted to go. “A school dedicated to automotive design; I applied without hesitation”, Frank considers his college years to be the most memorable despite the daily pressures.
“I’ve lost track of how many nights I’ve stayed up, it’s just so hard. You will always think you are gifted, but there are so many gifted people there, so I have a lot of respect for my classmates.
I think I learned more from my classmates than I did from my teachers”.
Frank is not exaggerating, there were 30 young students enrolled with him in 1983, while only six graduated in 1986. Frank was offered a Ford scholarship during his sophomore year at ACCD, which eventually became a job opportunity.
He chose to work for Ford Europe in Cologne to be near his family, and what was his first job at Ford? Designing the wheels of the new Sierra!
BMW was his next target. In July 1991 he took his portfolio to Munich and they hired him on the spot. It was a great transformation time for BMW, which had so much potential for a young designer like Frank.
A line-up of only 3, 5, 7 and 8 Series was not enough for BMW’s ambitions. Since their acquisition of the Rover Group, the German giant was considering an unprecedented expansion with new additions such as Land Rover, MINI, Triumph and Wolseley.
Frank’s supervisor at the time asked him to present an off-roader prototype using the technology of the recently acquired Land Rover in six weeks. From the current point of view, it is almost impossible.
“Time is too short, you can’t make a full-size prototype from scratch in six weeks, at least not in Germany, because we have to work overtime on weekends and the union won’t allow that”, Frank said, “So my design boss sent us to Turin, where there are a number of studios who can turn design sketches into clay models in a very short time and will work non-stop every day”.
With determination, talent and some all-nighters, Frank got the job done. “It became the X5”, Frank says proudly, “It laid the foundations for the design language of the future BMW SUV, or SAV, Sports Activity Vehicle”.
It’s the MINI that really pushed Frank to the pinnacle of design, alongside other legendary designers of all time. Recreating an icon is not an easy task, such pressure would be too much for many people. But not for Frank. “Honestly? I wasn’t stressed at all”, says Frank, “because there were 15 proposals from designers and I didn’t realise I’d end up winning the bid”.
Like the original Mini, the new MINI is considered to be a modern icon. “BMW didn’t place any restrictions on the design at the time, it didn’t say that the new MINI had to look like the old one from 1959, so your work ended up being your interpretation of the ‘MINI of the 21st century’. Instead of starting straight away with the 1999 MINI, I designed a car that never existed, the 1969 MINI. If the MINI was to be revamped in a 1969 facelift, what would it have looked like, based on the technology and culture of the time? Then in the second week, I designed the 1979 model, in the third week the 1989 model and in the last week I designed the new 1999 MINI”.
The success of the X5 and MINI naturally led many to believe that Frank would rise through the ranks of the BMW Group, until things changed one day with a phone call. It was from Italy, and the job was the Director of Design for Ferrari and Maserati.
“Ford and BMW are all fine and dandy, but Ferrari is up there. Ferrari hires new design director, quits after two months, I don’t want to be that guy”, Frank said. Luckily, he had enough ammunition in his armoury, and not only did he resist the pressure of the role, he also designed several legendary models, such as the F430, FXX and Maserati MC12.
Four years later, he was seen as the lifeline of Fiat, the struggling Italian company that needed a new model to survive, and his Fiat 500 became another instant hit.
In 2008, McLaren found it increasingly difficult to run an F1 team, and without a road car, they would soon not be able to sustain their operation. Frank joined McLaren in 2008 as the Design Director. Then came the 12C and P1, the foundation of Ron Dennis’ famous three-pillar strategy — an entry-level 911 contender, a Ferrari competitor, and a McLaren hypercar. The P1 is a milestone not only for McLaren, but for all hybrid hypercars in terms of design, aesthetics and engineering.
Frank left McLaren in 2017 and set up his own Frank Stephenson Design studio in 2018.
Over the years, this independent design company has carved out reality-changing solutions with world-class dynamic talent and clients from around the world.
As with Frank’s previous work, FSD’s design philosophy emphasises the use of innovation through the fusion of art and science, using the latest technology while caring for the environment. With the help of virtual reality, autonomous driving and mobility, Frank Stephenson Design is shaping the future
“I love designing supercars, but at the end of the day, only a small percentage of people actually have access to them. Through Frank Stephenson Design, I no longer have constraints and am able to better use my imagination so that more people can make their lives better through improved designs”.
In the last five years, Frank’s creativity has no longer been limited and he has arrived at the golden age of his design career. He has worked across different industries to share his vision through a variety of products to make people live better with his design and new technologies, such as Atmo, a weather forecasting supercomputer with a sleek, metallic shape and a spatial processing power of 500Km²
Atmo builds AI-enabled hardware and software systems that solve weather prediction for any city, state, or country. Combined with Numerical Weather Prediction techniques (NWP) and Deep Neural Networks (DNNs), Atmo creates a next-generation architecture for weather forecasting. It looks like an outdoor sculpture but has the ability to predict the weather for four billion people and 180 countries, can operate anywhere from -30°C to 45°C and does not require a data centre, or even a roof, to provide forecasts.
Frank Stephenson Design is working hard to create a strong brand by offering an utterly new experience and the absolute highest standard of products. One of their latest projects is the BabyArk, the world’s safest child car seat which relies on patented, state-of-the-art technology which will potentially save hundreds of children’s lives around the world.
“We achieved safety for BabyArk seats primarily using the technology called military-grade spiral technology. That technology allows us to absorb energy in a way that no other seat up to now has ever done”, Frank added, “My inspiration always comes from the science of biomimicry. The shape of the BabyArk is pretty much inspired by the shape of the egg, and the egg is in itself a protective form”.
Biomimicry remains the key to Frank Stephenson Design, capturing the wisdom of nature and staying relevant through innovation. “Biomimicry is my design philosophy and I always have nature in my mind when I design”, Frank said, “Nature’s creations have gone through hundreds of thousands of years of evolution and are still around, and therein lies the beauty of perfected design”.
Take Lilium’s eVOTL Jet for example, one of Frank Stephenson Design’s latest projects. It is an electric vertical take-off and landing jet intended to accommodate six passengers and a pilot, and uses the representation of how nature approaches the design of organisms reflected in industrial design.
“The hammerhead shark is pretty intimidating when it’s coming toward you”, Frank says, “it’s got these wings in the head design that makes it incredibly efficient in turning, and the way its head comes back to a neutral position, that’s influenced aircraft and race car design with canards and wings at the very front of the vehicle”.
“It also has the elegance and the flow of a manta ray”, Frank added, “Why not use that as the inspiration for the rear wing and rear fuselage structure? When you see it, and we’ve developed it a lot further than what people have seen up until now, it’ll take your breath away”. Archer Aviation from Palo Alto just took a billion-dollar eVTOL order from United Airlines.
From eVOTL aircraft to baby seats, the creativity never ends, and cars will not be absent from Frank’s vision. Frank Stephenson Design is working with Praga Cars, a Czech car company originally established in 1907, and manufacturing race cars since 2011.
Frank has recently sketched a never heard of hypercar from the year 2030. “It will be like nothing you’ve ever seen before”, says Frank excitedly, “It’s a supercar designed with 2030 in mind. How will the technology evolve? What kind of energy should the car use and how will aerodynamics play its part? It’s all intriguing to unveil. It’s not science fiction, it’s really happening”, exclaims Frank, “That’s why I like design, to put one foot in the present and one foot in the future”.
Talking about putting one foot in the future, Frank Stephenson Design is also planning to build the Frank Stephenson Vehicle Exploration Centre in the Metaverse. Watch this space!
Frank’s YouTube channel has gained over 200,000 subscribers since 2020 with over 12 million views. His design stories and design reviews are well received by different generations in various countries, and have been translated in different languages.
At the end of the interview, Frank was still with the ballpoint pen, sketching. It was the Praga hypercar from 2030. Ferrari, McLaren, Maserati, BMW, MINI, Alfa Romeo, Fiat and now Praga, Frank has created so many iconic products, and he has a way of creating designs which always endure the test of time.