Interview with TAG Heuer Designer Christoph Behling

Posted by: C11   |   12 January 2011   |   10 Comments  

While the name Christoph Behling may not be immediately familiar to all, his work certainly is. For the last few years he has led the TAG Heuer design team and is responsible for most of the current collection and all the concept watches.

Christoph works from his London design studio, where in addition to TH he also runs SolarLab Research & Design, a company focused on solar-powered transport and architecture.

I was keen to interview Christoph to get a better understanding of how new designs were developed and how they changed over time. In particular, there has been a lot of focus on the changes to the design of the Carrera 1887, a topic which Christoph addresses in the interview.

Fascinatingly, he is currently working on watches for 2014, which shows the lead-time in getting the more complicated designs just right. Wouldn’t it be great to take just a peek at the sketches for 2014…

Getting Started

Calibre 11: Christoph, when did you begin working with TAG?
Christoph Behling: When Jean-Christophe Babin joined TAG Heuer 10 years ago, I was a young freelance designer working on TAG Heuers eyewear, obviously always dreaming of the opportunity to design watches for TAG. I was born in Geneva and I guess I caught the watch virus early. So when I started my own design studio in 2003 I got the chance to support the design for TAG Heuer’s team on two speculative projects: one turned out become the award-winning Golf watch which was co-designed with Tiger Woods; the other was the Monaco V4. It goes without saying that I was hooked forever and since then we designed all the Concept watches and about 90% of today’s collection.

C11: Do you find advantages in being based in London rather than Switzerland?
CB: I travel to Switzerland every 2 weeks to meet with the watchmakers, the research and development team and Jean-Christophe. Part of my brain is based in Switzerland, deeply involved in today’s watchmaking challenges and the future evolution of Heuer’s heritage. My “other” half of my brain needs London and the creative stimulus it provides. The Studio is on Portobello next to Stella McCartney’s studio and London’s creative hub. Most cultural trends are today either created in London or they are seen on the streets a week later. On the side I teach design master classes at the Royal College of Art and there is a constant stream of the best product designers and artists and architects around us. I need the mix of Swiss serenity and craftsmanship in contrast to cosmopolitan creativity and modernism of London.

For TAG Heuer, which is a brand that is looking forward to the future, for the latest technologies, the latest materials, the latest trends, well they’re not all happening in the Swiss Valleys. There is no way that all the great designs and all the design awards accumulated over the last 6 years would have happened if I would be based in Switzerland. It is the best of both worlds.

Design Process

C11: What is the process for creating a new watch? Does the design come first, or does your team design to a brief that comes from the technical team?

CB: A bit of both. The work on the core collection is developed very much driven with everyone involved right from the beginning from Giorgio Sarne’s product team, to production, to Guy Semon and his genius innovation team. Others, like for instance the Monaco 24 are developed in our design lab and evolved together with the innovation team.

C11: And when it comes to design, is there a team that you work with, or do you prefer to work alone?
CB: I lead the design and I am slightly worryingly obsessed about every detail. If it was 1960 then probably I would work alone, but today there is a fantastic experienced team here in London supporting all design and CAD which is constant communication with the engineering team in Switzerland. The UK team creates the 1st 3D file and once we have a file that from a design perspective is perfect, then we send it over to Switzerland and then Switzerland comes back to us with views on what is technically possible, things to be adjusted- maybe they will say, “we love the watch, but the crown is horrible”, and so we optimise it until we all are 100% satisfied.

C11: And what is the typical lead time on a new design?
CB: It depends on the complexity. We have some projects like the Formula 1 Grand Date with the printed dial which can come to market in just one year, but something like the Grand Carrera collection took four years, with the challenge of the rotating system and other complexities….
C11: OK, so let’s take the example of the Grand Carrera Caliper Calibre 36. Did TAG Heuer decide that the watch would use a caliper to measure 1/10th second, or did they leave that challenge to you?
CB: The briefing of the GC caliper 36 was short– use Zenith’s great El Primero movement to make the best Grand Carrera yet. Zenith had this great movement for 40 years being able to measure a precision of 1/10th of a second but they could not show it or read it. I thought this is crazy – what is the point of precision if you cannot measure it. So we thought of many ways how to visualize it, but the best idea was staring at me right on my desk – the caliper scale which I use the measure and check prototypes. The rest is history. I love this design, the idea is beautifully simple, the first Calibre 36 to display 1/10th and very true to Grand Carrera’s spirit of finding new, better ways to read and display time. The caliper is one of the most used tools in watchmaking it is great to find it on the face of this future classic serving a real functional purpose.

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