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 TAG Heuer 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…
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.
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.
C11: Which of your TAG Heuer designs are you the most proud of?
CB: The list is long. I am very proud of the Grand Carrera collection and the way it opened a new premium market for the brand, Carrera Day-Date, Carrera 1887, Aquaracer 500, Formula 1 Grand Date,….I honestly cannot choose and I wear them all- today I’m wearing an Aquaracer 500 on a rubber strap; on my summer holidays I was wearing a Formula 1 watch; on the weekend I went running and wore the Golf Watch; sometime for work I’ll have the Calibre 36 (Grand Carrera) on, so in terms of what I wear, it totally depends on my mood and the situation- and they all resonate with what they were designed to do.
But probably the freest expression of design and the very best we can do are the concept watches: Pendulum, Monaco 360 LS, Carrera Calibre 360, V4, Grand Carrera Caliper 36, Monaco 24 and Diamond Fiction. These products push us to the limits and demand many, many late nights in the studio, but it is very much worth it. They are not only important references in watchmaking but also our guiding stars for our work on the main collection.
But of the production series, probably the Grand Carrera …there are so many things to it, not all of which are immediately visible…we worked so hard to get it to work perfectly on the wrist. The amount of variations and prototypes for that watch was insane, so that Grand Carrera holds a special place, and it’s probably the best “tailored” chronograph on the market. Watches and especially performance chronographs are worn daily and should fit and be well balanced. We worked for over a year on the perfect case and bracelet to flow and balance perfectly.
I am also extremely proud of the disc system and its performance. It does show time in a new, better, clearer way. On a more philosophical level I like the representation of the flow of time on a disc without end or beginning. Introducing an innovation like the RS system was a risk but the response since the launch has been amazing and its uniqueness and refinement make it one of more best bets to be a future classic.
C11: My favourite of the Grand Carrera range is the Calibre 36 RS. I love the design of the Calibre 36, but I’m not sure if I like that distinctive metal bridge- it’s a real feature of the watch today, but I’m not sure how it will look in 5 years time..
CB: You can take the approach as we did with the Carrera 1887… quite cool, but also quite restrained. If you do something like the Caliper, we struggled with it for a little bit longer. For me it’s a very honest product- a very interesting, honest product. I’m 90% sure that it will be a classic and it will demand prices much higher than its original price – but of course, there are two ways that it could go, it could be either a classic that will evolve, or it could just be seen as a representation of this particular period, but I think it will stand out.
C11: Speaking of the 1887, I understand that the Carrera design has changed again- small changes. That watch has changed twice since it was first shown, why is that?
CB: there is an intense focus on the Carrera 1887 because we are so proud of the movement and so we want to get it 100% right and sometimes what happens is that the design intentions are well-meant, the prototype looks promising, but somehow certain details get a little bit lost in production- you get back the first production examples, and something is missing. So, we optimise it- and then we optimise it again and I think that all the improvements were definitely worthwhile. It’s a little like a person’s face- – you make one small change and somehow it looks like a different person..all the pieces have to fit together, and part of the changes to the 1887 are about that…you have it and you know in your heart what it should feel like…but somehow, something is missing.
C11: Yes, the original prototype was a lot flatter and the new one is more 3-dimesional…
CB: …The first one had all the right intentions , we wanted to stay true to the spirit of the original Carrera…we wanted it to do…just enough, we didn’t want to create more details that were needed, but then in the press pictures and the close-ups it was all fine, but in person it just felt a little bit flat and left you a little bit cold, and yes it was pure, but somehow it didn’t touch you, so we increased a little the depth and the drama of it. The tachy on the flange brings back a hint of what Carrera’s racing heritage is all about and at the same time it increases the “density” of the face by moving the minute indication between the indexes. The applied counters balance the face and enhance the “well loved” 12 – 6 layout. It probably sounds strange but version 3 looks in reality the way version 2 looked on paper.
I think what most people are really shocked about when we show them what really happens with designing the product is the amount of variations, the amount of prototypes that go into making one product. It’s less about a single designer, because it’s true team development..there is me, there is Giorgio Sarne and his team, there is Marc Walti the brand manager and everyone is so engaged with the prototype- every detail gets taken apart..the variations on just the hands, or the crown or just the curvature of the horn…it’s insane and even educated people who know about watches, when they see the variations they think we’re all insane because they all look the same, even from a distance of 10cms…but of course they’re different.
And that’s why I love watches, because it’s those sorts of things. I wonder who will ever notice them, but we do them because otherwise it wouldn’t feel right…we’re a group of people who wouldn’t have it any other way.
C11: There seem to be two approaches that have been taken with the Re-editions- a modern copy of the original (like the Silverstone) or an approach like the Autavia, which I guess is a modern interpretation of the original. Somehow the Autavia didn’t seem to work, but when you designed the Silverstone, it must have been tempting to try and modernise the design rather than just copy the old one?
CB: Yes, but I think you’ve put your finger on exactly the right learning. As a brand it’s amazing that we can revive the past that we can do it with today’s quality and people love it. When we did the Autavia I think we confused the consumer and confused ourselves- it wasn’t clear what it was, because it wasn’t a true re-edition nor was it a true modern 2000s watch, so there was something a little uncomfortable about that. So, what you see now is if we are going to use the Heuer heritage, we will try and be very true to the past. And if it’s a TAG Heuer, we still might be inspired by the past, but we make it very clear that it’s a 2011 product.
Evolution of Design
C11: The look of TAG Heuer watches today seems to have changed from say three years ago when it was- very technical with complex dials and lots of writing on the dial. But this year’s collection seems more classic…more minimalist
CB: Yes, now we try and develop both looks- we have the very avant garde- the Monaco 24, the Pendulum, which are very technical products which push the boundaries- and then in parallel, what you pointed out about the trend towards the more minimalist look is true. We started the technical look with the Monaco V4 and then a lot of other brands started showing these overly complicated and over-sized products, and as a designer I didn’t really like that period because in a way it was very easy to make headlines- you just needed to make a product that was al little bit bigger and looked more complicated- it wasn’t necessarily very refined. I think that consumers now have woken up and they can tell the difference between a truly technical product, like the V4, and a product that just looks technical. And I think consumers today are looking for greater longevity in their watches. And as a designer I like it, I think it’s much more quality-driven, more refined. It is exhausting and tough, but also a great compliment to Jean Christophe and Jack Heuer, who keep on pushing for great design and perfection at all times. I guess it part of it is the “sportive” attitude of the brand which hates to be second best in anything.
C11: The current range also makes good use of vertical, horizontal or diagonal patterning across the dials…
CB: Yes, it’s there to give depth- most people don’t look closely enough to see the lines, the hour-indexes come out just a little bit more…for some products it’s a bit louder and for some it’s a little bit quieter, it’s quite subtle and depends very much on how the light hits it…its more for your own personal joy, it’s not that someone will notice it on your wrist.
C11: We talked about how the designs have changed from three years ago. I think that you said that you were now working on the 2013-1014 models, so without being specific, where are things heading in terms of watch size, materials, design themes?
CB: We are currently finalising the concept watch for Basel 2011 which always pushes us to the very limit. Over the years these annual concepts have won all the most respected design awards and have a huge following, so that sets the bar every year higher – especially after last years amazing Pendulum concept. This year will be very, very different, but I think it is one of the most beautiful concept watches we have ever designed. It has the most astonishing movement which needs to be seen in motion to be believed. The design is a very subtle interpretation of the past, very pure and clean – yet it gives a glimpse of what the future might bring. You will see the first design end of Jan, the next in Basel and then…
In parallel we have designs on the drawing board up to 2014. Some very cool racing inspired limited editions, new innovations and materials which will cause quite a stir and some great designs for ladies. It is the most exiting period in terms of design we had so far. I love going to the TAG Heuer Museum at the headquarters, picking up a unique piece together with Jack Heuer and brainstorm on how we could keep that original spirit but in a totally new way which is only possible with today’s technologies. Trying to capture the best of the past and challenge the future at the same time.
My sincere thanks to Christoph for taking the time to be interviewed