Frank Stephenson designed the evocative Ferrari FXX and the McLaren P1 hypercar. He shaped what the MINI should be under BMW ownership. He re-imagined the Fiat 500 Italian icon for modern life. In a career spanning over 30 years, Stephenson has led design teams at Ferrari, Maserati, Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Lancia, Mini and McLaren. His next mission is to create the world’s first completely electric, vertical take-off and landing aircraft – the Lilium Jet.
“Chasing Perfect” offers a glimpse into the creative mind of the maverick vehicle designer who has sketched some of the most celebrated cars in modern motoring. Released on 20 May and available from Lionsgate Home Entertainment, the documentary traces Stephenson’s quest for pushing the boundaries of design. With the film, he says, he wanted to “throw open the doors to the creative process”, peeling away some of the mystery of car design as we learn of Stephenson’s inspirations and are treated to a tour of Jay Leno’s legendary garage.
Most interestingly we learn of his next venture in air travel. Since 2018, as head of product design at the German firm Lilium Aviation, Stephenson has been working on the Lilium Jet for 2025. “What you see in the film is a genuine working prototype, and is designed to be taken to the skies, providing affordable flying taxi services around the world,” he says.
This is a highly progressive product, a quiet, all-electric flying hub with 300km range and Formula One speeds on air. The complex construction involves individual electric jet engines embedded into the aircraft’s wing flaps. “The design of the tilting flaps with their electric jet engines allows for a fixed wing aircraft that provides much more lift efficiency and higher straight-line speed than a drone type aircraft,” he tells me. “This translates into a faster, further and quieter journey.”
The interior provided an opportunity to explore a whole new direction in design that could only be imagined as a conceptual or futuristic study in the past. “So many new advances in materials, lighting technology and smart electronics are now allowing us to create interiors that will suit this innovative means of travel,” he says. “It is exciting to be able to redefine what is the current state of transportation interiors and to set the course for a new wave of experiences for future customers.”
With a back catalogue mainly in car design, I am interested to know how Stephenson’s automotive experience helped shaped this project. After all, projects like the P1 are exceptionally progressive involving highly advanced technology and material.
He offers: “The things I’ve learnt from automotive design apply to aircraft design in that the best design is always a direct result of what works well. Good design is a consequence of understanding sound engineering principles and pushing the limits of what is currently possible. It is the job of the designer in any field to think of new ways to raise the innovation bar with each new design. Otherwise the designer is an artist.”
Stephenson admits there are fundamental differences though too. Car design tends to be centered mainly around brand identity and aesthetics, interior comfort, luggage space and performance. In aviation, he says, these elements will also apply, but the focus will be mainly on safety and weight reduction. “The objectives now are to create a jet design that provides the best performance and most exhilarating experience to customers who need to get from one place to another. The aesthetics will fall into place accordingly.”
His team are involved with all aspects of the of the customer journey at Lilium. The landing pads, lounges and integrated services also need to introduce simplicity to the world of travel. “Customer satisfaction is at the center of our core values and this requires that we put our efforts into the humanization of the experience of flying with Lilium.”
He reveals that he is currently also involved in a project even more advanced than the Lilium Jet. “I am convinced transportation like this will become reality sooner than people tend to think.”
I ask Stephenson if he purposely set out to be part of the dialogue in forming the next stage of mobility. He replies that he took this opportunity precisely as “it feels like the next intelligent step in solving many of the problems with today’s age of mobility.” He says even though designing cars is definitely a dream job, especially the projects he was involved with, “after 30 years it is dawning on me that there has to be a much more efficient way of getting from A to B”, he says. “The great minds of our team at Lilium are intent on improving mobility for the masses and the positive effects of this on our society are undeniable. Hence it is an irresistible challenge for a designer to be a part of this mission.”