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It’s my dream to combine aesthetics with the highest possible degree of functionality.

Jozef Kabaň

Jozef Kabaň squints in the bright sunlight coming through the tall windows of the Villa Česana, and gazes at the sculpture in the garden. Angular, with clear but curving edges, it juts into the sky. The team around Kabaň has designed it as a reference to the angular design of the tail of a car. Next to it is a white Octavia on a disc made of stone. The young artists at the design villa are allowed to experiment, to push back a little at the boundaries between design and art. Later in the interview, the ŠKODA Head of Design will say, “It’s my dream to combine aesthetics with the highest possible degree of functionality. To weave the opposite poles together in such a way that you can no longer speak of two separate things.”

Jozef Kabaň’s inspiration: The future

Skoda_Kaban_Superb
Jozef Kabaň’s success is reflected in the modern creative energy of an entire country. Modern Czech design is once more conquering the world. The Edge Chair by Petr Novak, door handles by M & T and various vehicles from ŠKODA have won the Red Dot award – a prize for outstanding design. International designers and other creatives get together every October at the famous Prague festival Design Blok, largest design show in Central Europe. At the same time, worldwide trends are also on display at Architecture Week and Fashion Week. The Czech Republic’s influence has a broad reach: Designer Jaroslav Bejvl Jr, for example, has earned international acclaim for his light designs in places such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Hands as a communications tool: Jozef Kabaň likes to describe what inspires him with gestures.
Hands as a communications tool: Jozef Kabaň likes to describe what inspires him with gestures.

Kabaň’s design team reaches decisions surrounded by modern photography in an art nouveau-style villa with stucco trim, close to the company headquarters around 50 kilometres northeast of Prague. Large-format pictures with distorted car details in bright colours decorate the high walls of the big conference room. Some images show how automobile details emerged from the artistic approach.

EMOTIONS ARE FRONT AND CENTRE  

Kabaň doesn’t have any problems with large rooms – he deliberately chooses a seat at the middle of the long table. He is preceded by his reputation for exhibiting an excellent mixture of teamwork and decision-making skills in his role as Head of Design. Kabaň is someone who unifies opposites within himself, and his main responsibility at ŠKODA is to reconcile the poles of the brand. The aspiration is to develop something ground-breaking out of the tradition and emotion that are inherent in the ŠKODA brand.

He runs the fingers of both hands through his dark, chin-length hair, the chronograph on his wrist briefly catching the light as it peeks out from under his dark blue shirt cuff. Kabaň also plays with colours in his clothing. The suit is a brilliant blue; the shirt a somewhat darker shade. Whether it is art, craftsmanship or fashion, Kabaň constantly takes on new worlds. He designed the Tour de France winner’s trophy in heavy crystal glass. His fascination with Bohemian crystal is apparent in many places.

I can imagine that the taillights of a car look like a fine red wine in a beautiful glass.

Jozef Kabaň

Sheet metal, glass, fabric, leather or crystal glass – the team spends a lot of time with different materials and their functionality. But emotion remains the primary focus. “I can imagine that the taillights look like a fine red wine in a beautiful glass,” says Kabaň, “light and colour possess incredible depth.”

Kabaň is absolutely certain that everything needs a soul and a certain charisma. The designer’s task is to provide people with the space for their dreams. “It’s like a beautiful book. Once it has been made into a film, then everything already exists, but without the film you can build spectacular worlds in your mind – a little imagination in the cars, that’s what I want to convey.” The headlamps of the new Superb and Octavia models are an example. “There we found a point in the eyes, the headlamps, where you would look. The eyes have lashes, actual lines. They have been inspired by people and not machines,” Kabaň says, describing the lines with his hands. Throughout the interview, he exemplifies the passion that distinguishes both the man and his work.

The 43-year-old design director doesn’t think that much about technology. He is interested in people above all.
The 43-year-old design director doesn’t think that much about technology. He is interested in people above all.

 

Kabaň switched from Volkswagen to ŠKODA more than eight years ago. During that period, the 43-year-old Slovak has redesigned all the models piece by piece, and placed his own stylistic stamp on them. The Octavia now sports clear edges in a nod to the Bohemian crystal glass tradition. The logo is also new. The winged arrow is no longer green, but a shiny chrome on a black background. With last year’s introduction of the third Superb generation, Kabaň succeeded in making a quantum leap to a new dimension in design. The brand’s flagship became wider, flatter, edgier – and exceeded all expectations with regard to sales.

Flagship of the brand: You can easily recognise the new ŠKODA Superb based on its silhouette. The car has become wider, flatter and edgier – an elegant saloon car with short overhangs.
 

The car is not the main focus; the family is the most important thing.

Jozef Kabaň

The Head of Design’s creative spectrum ranges from a toy car to the most exclusive serially produced automobile in history. When Kabaň joined Volkswagen in Wolfsburg more than 20 years ago, his first task was to design a new Beetle – but in the form of a Bobby-Car. While all the other young designers worked on actual cars, Kabaň used a toy to show what he had learned at the Academy for Art and Design in Bratislava and proved successful. His Bobby-Car went into serial production.

Kabaň grew up as the son of an auto mechanic in a small city in what is today Slovakia. Even as a child he only drew cars, and left the technical details to his father in his workshop. The designer’s career began with a disappointment. As a student, Kabaň entered a ŠKODA design contest, but didn’t win; however, he landed in second place. That was and isn’t good enough for him, Kabaň still says today. He wants to avoid crossing the finish line in second place. Still, the contest brought him some luck. He made an impression at Volkswagen, and the company supported him during his remaining studies with a scholarship to the renowned Royal College of Art in London, then offered him a job as Junior Designer.

Having grown up in Czechoslovakia, Kabaň was influenced by ŠKODA from an early age.
Having grown up in Czechoslovakia, Kabaň was influenced by ŠKODA from an early age.

The period that followed had the biggest influence on Kabaň. Hartmut Warkuß, then Chief Designer at Audi, came to Wolfsburg with Ferdinand Piëch. That launched a new era at Volkswagen, and Kabaň was part of the successful team that designed the Golf IV. At the end of the 1990s, Kabaň was responsible for the super sportscar Bugatti Veyron project – a prestige project headed by Hartmut Warkuß – from the first drafts to the beginning of series production. The project was worth millions and led to his promotion as Director of Exterior Design at Audi and the subsequent summons to Mladá Boleslav.

The Czechs are true devotees of technology, but they are also family-orientated. My values are similar.

Jozef Kabaň

It was exactly the right time to return to his roots: ŠKODA had been the defining auto brand in the Czechoslovakia where Kabaň had grown up. The models lined up in his father’s workshop and the family also drove a ŠKODA in the 1970s. The origins of the car should be clearly apparent in the design, he says. What characterises the country’s mentality? A passion for functionality and technology, according to Kabaň. “The Czechs are true devotees of technology, but they are also family-orientated. I took up the challenge with great enthusiasm, because my values are similar.” The designer, his wife and his two school-aged children live just outside the city and therefore know what a family requires in a car. Space and functionality are important. “The car is not the focus; the family is the most important thing,” is Kabaň’s creed.

Jozef Kabaň’s inspiration: glass

Skoda_Kaban_Kristall

It isn’t only the combination of material (24 percent lead oxide in the glass) and craftsmanship, that explains the fame of Bohemian glass. It is primarily the power of imagination that is evoked by brilliant works of art from the studios of Bohemian glassblowers and glass cutters. The Jizera Mountains region around Jablonec nad Nisou, where the jewellery business is centred, used to be compared to California during the time of the gold rush – only here it was “glass diamonds” that people were digging for. The world-famous businessman Daniel Swarovsky comes from this area.

We humans have a wonderful gift: always initiating our next search.

Jozef Kabaň

The 15 years he spent in Germany have strongly influenced Kabaň – he speaks the language almost perfectly, although now and then has to search for the suitable word. But it is also his manner to speak in metaphors, to focus the person he is talking to and make his meaning clear. Kabaň wants to be understood. When asked about the brand’s image he becomes passionate. He dislikes categories because, “Boom! You are then stuck in a box – and it takes forever to get back out of it.” It’s about reflecting on origins and daring to make changes at the same time. And all that without a hint of radicalism. Kabaň is certain that he was successful in managing this balancing act. The new Superb is still the “son of its father”: the model and brand genes are always clearly recognisable. Kabaň: “In principle, it’s not a matter of how far you can jump, but how far the jump is right for the customer.”

Jozef Kabaň’s inspiration: art

Cubism, shaped by painters such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, was arguably the most revolutionary innovation in 20th century visual arts. The only country in the world where this new form of perception was also applied to architecture is the Czech Republic. The play with geometrical forms, with light and shadow, can primarily be seen in particular buildings in Prague, such as the House of the Black Madonna or the Grand Café Orient. Unadorned forms, edges and patterns that you can lose yourself in, and that can also be found in the furnishings. Exhibits in the National Gallery or the cubist Villa Bauer in Libodřicea are dedicated to Czech cubism.

What is ŠKODA’s significance? Where in the world is the brand present? Where lies the opportunity to do something special? These are questions that Kabaň and his team, which comprises 20 nationalities, keep asking themselves. “We all have dreams, but first we try to build a ŠKODA – not just a mirror of each person. We build a world that we share.” Kabaň’s latest coup will be presented at the Paris Motor Show in autumn: a fully fledged SUV with seven seats. The design team has already done pioneering work on the Yeti; now the new A-Plus takes on a symbolic role. Kabaň describes it this way. “The A-Plus has to demonstrate considered behaviour on the road. This model should exude life experience and the aura of success.”

Once someone asked him how he would design the perfect car, Kabaň tells us. What a question! Perfection means fulfilment, and that in turn means stagnation – a notion that doesn’t fit into the thinking of this grounded philosopher. “There is no stagnation,” he says, “because we humans have a wonderful gift. We always succeed on initiating our next search, over and over again.”

Jozef Kabaň won’t tolerate stagnation: His team of designers from 20 countries is consistently developing new products.
Jozef Kabaň won’t tolerate stagnation: His team of designers from 20 countries is consistently developing new products.

Biographical information

JozeF Kabaň

Born 1973 in Námestovo, Slovakia

2008: Head of Design at ŠKODA Auto

2006: Director of the Centre for Exterior Design at Audi AG

2003: Move to the design department at Audi AG

1999: Development of the design of the Bugatti Veyron

1997: Volkswagen AG fellow at the Royal College of Art in London

1991: Studies in product and industrial design in Bratislava

 

 

Photo: Andreas Pohlmann, ŠKODA AUTO a.s.