By Gloria Nicola
What do the Smart Car, Batmobile, Hot Wheels and Kaenon sunglasses have in common? The same designer: Harald Belker. Born in Krefeld, Germany, Belker received a degree in industrial engineering from Georgia Southern University, but then decided he wanted more creative work. “I saw an ad in a German car magazine for a course in automotive design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. At that point I didn’t know such a program existed. It sparked my interest. Cars seemed like a good way to get into the complexity of design,” he explains.
After finishing the program, Belker began his career in 1991 at Mercedes Benz Advanced Design in Irvine, Calif., and became part of the team working on the Smart Car. But he found he didn’t like the corporate world. “I didn’t want to be in management and manage design. I wanted to design,” he notes.
By accident, Belker discovered entertainment design through a friend. His first project was designing all the vehicles for the film “Batman & Robin,” including the Batmobile and the Redbird motorcycle. “It was fantastic. The most fun and gratifying project I ever worked on. It’s a child’s fantasy of the perfect job, right up there with being a fireman. There were no limitations. Nothing was too over-the-top. They just let me roll with my ideas,” he says.
Belker has continued to roll with his ideas, creating an extensive and impressive array of fantasy vehicles, futuristic gadgets and environments for films, including the Lexus Tom Cruise drove in Steven Spielberg’s film “Minority Report,” ships and weapons for “Battleship,” race cars for “Iron Man 2,” vehicle armor for “Death Race,” the S.L.O.W. Car in “The Cat in the Hat” and the Pumpkin Bomb in “Spider-Man.”
In addition to entertainment design, his portfolio runs the gamut from sports equipment to furniture, toys and apparel. He was recruited by Lee Iacocca to design the first electric bike; he created a variety of Hot Wheels models for Mattel Toys; the Solar Monkey electric car design; an entry for the Porsche 966 model; the Hydrapak hydration backpack line; and Maxelle, an award-winning chair. In 2011, his book “Pulse: The Complete Guide to Future Racing” was released. An illustrated action story, it focuses on Belker’s vision of travel in 2035.
How did he get from the Batmobile to eyewear? Steve Rosenberg, CEO and co-founder of Kaenon Polarized, was a friend of a former roommate of Belker’s and came to Belker’s home to see his other designs. “Steve looked at my designs and asked me if I would consider designing eyewear. I liked the challenge. With my style and training, I felt I could add something to the collection,” he notes.
“Harald has designed every piece for Kaenon since he started working with us more than eight years ago and has worked on every product in our current offerings except for Kore, which was our very first product,” Rosenberg says.
Belker has found similarities between eyewear and his other designs and also challenges specific to eyewear. “When I was studying car design I didn’t look at the car, I looked at the details. That’s important with eyewear too. Specific details make all the difference,” he emphasizes. “My philosophy is clean, wearable designs. I’ve always been oriented to ergonomics, probably because I’m 6 feet 7 inches tall and I’m never comfortable in chairs or anywhere. As a result I’m very conscious of the comfort/wearability factor. With eyewear, for example, I add larger temple tips so the pressure points are distributed equally. Designs can be every bit as beautiful and still be comfortable.”
In addition to learning how to design individual product categories, Belker says one of the biggest challenges with trend-oriented fashion designs such as eyewear is communicating your thoughts and objectives to the people who will be selling the products. “When designing this type of product, it’s essential to reflect what you believe is going to be trending in two or three years,” he continues. “When I present a new fashion design, people are still thinking about what’s selling today. So the initial reaction is hesitation. I always tell them ‘don’t react right now.’ Take a week or two to think about it,” he advises. “With any type of fashion design, we all must accept we can’t sit back and enjoy what’s selling now. Before the current season releases are even in the stores, we have to be working on the next season or even further ahead.”
Additionally Belker notes that unlike the Batmobile, there are some limitations when designing eyewear. “We can’t be too far out because it has to be wearable and have wide consumer appeal.”
When it comes to presenting eyewear, he believes retailers and consumers should be better informed about smaller, more specialized brands. He would give the following advice to retailers selling Kaenon products: “Get it on people’s noses and get them to walk outside so they can judge the comfort of the frame and the quality of the lenses for themselves. Once they are wearing the product and standing in the sun, they see the difference and are sold. It’s a win-win situation for the retailer and the consumer.”
When Belker is designing eyewear, he always starts with sketching until the proportions are right. With some products, he has utilized 3D computerized work. But with eyewear, he does the sketches and measurements and then sends them to Kaenon’s model makers in Italy. It usually takes two or three rounds before everyone is happy, he notes.
When designing, Belker always keeps the environment in mind. “I look at magazines and do research. I need to be aware of what’s out there, but I don’t want to copy. When Steve gets back from a trade show, we talk about what’s going on in the eyewear product world and I get a sense of what the next hot colors and shapes might be. I’m not always sure where that sense comes from,” he notes. “But I do know what colors work with people. And I know when I was doing car designs if I showed a group of cars in neutral colors and one in red, people almost always went for the red.”
The product category Belker most enjoyed working on was furniture, primarily chairs. “Unfortunately, I got into the high-end segment of the furniture market not long before 2009 when the market went down and took the demand for luxury furniture with it. But I will get back to furniture someday.”
He’d like to have a chance designing watches. “It’s mind-blowing how expensive they have become and all the stuff you can do with watches.” Based on his terrific eyewear designs, 20/20 thinks it’s time. ■