5 Car Designers Talk the Future of Automotive Design

Credit: Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images

We asked five car designers for their take on current and future automotive styling trends. Here’s what they had to say.

Shaping Swedish Luxury for All: Tisha Johnson, Volvo senior interior designer

On developing the outward-facing view of Swedish luxury, beyond the car market: I certainly think we are a natural representation of Sweden. The thing that many Americans don’t fully know yet is that Swedish life, by nature, is a bit of a luxury. There are less than 10 million people in the country; that, right there, makes it a special experience. Their aesthetic and natural design sensibility is just at a very elevated level. Swedish luxury is somewhat innate to the Swedish cultural experience. It’s very easy for us to access that. IKEA, to me, is more of a representation of the democratization of design and the really strong commitment that Swedish people have to making sure all people have access to things that are good. That’s what I admire in a brand like IKEA. It’s definitely with that kind of accessibility for all.

On function following form: On the S90, in particular, I’m very proud of this element on the instrument panel that we refer to as the “metallic spline.” That element wraps from door to door and, really, visually, holds up the theme of the instrument panel, and it’s also meant to celebrate the touchscreen technology. What is so fantastic to me is that, from the very first sketches, we talked about how this, visually, was going to hold up the design. When we began the industrial process, we worked with the engineers, and the challenge was so significant that they themselves had a rethink of how to approach this. Normally, with metal, you would snap that on as the last piece. Their decision was to actually make it a structural element that emerges from that sub-structure, and then mount the other things to it. Lo and behold, it actually, physically, holds up the design. 

Defining What Beauty is for Korean Cars: Peter Schreyer, chief designer for Genesis, Hyundai, Kia

On minivans: Even when you do something like a minivan, which is not a very attractive project, because it’s not a sports car — if it turns out like what we have in the Sedona, you suddenly have something that is aspirational. This is something that I would love to have, and take it to go skiing, or whatever. Last summer, I went to Pebble Beach and drove up PCH from Los Angeles to Monterey, and I saw many of them. It really looks supercool. It’s a wanna-have minivan. It’s almost like a painting from Rene Magritte, a surrealistic painting of a pipe. [draws on napkin] Underneath, it says, “This is not a pipe.” This is not a minivan. It only turned out that way because we started the project with this kind of ambition to really make the coolest minivan that there is.

On defining a luxury brand: Luxury is not always to have the most of everything. Maybe it’s also a reduction. Time is luxury. In a car, maybe it’s good materials and perfect quality — a feeling of well-being and feeling safe and secure. We are trying to find other ways to approach this kind of thing [with materials]. It’s quite interesting that we work for not a traditional company, but a new company that is born in Korea. Korea has a very sweet-and-sour taste of having a fantastic history of craftsmanship in art and calligraphy, and the art of leaving an empty space. The other thing is the innovation, the electronics industry, and the speed [the country has]. These are influencing us a lot.… I don’t want to play on this too much, but it’s something that influences us a lot, and in a good way. This is what differentiates us, as well.

On innovation in trend and material types: There are always color trends, and of course, we look at that. It’s important to follow your gut feeling. For our designers, it was to be interested in other things that are going on, in fashion, architecture, art, [sporting] goods, furniture design. We visit the furniture fair in Milan, and not only to motor shows. Motor shows are probably the least inspiration that we actually need, because we see the cars on the street, anyway, all the time. For us, of course, it’s important to see what’s new and going on, but as an inspiration, there must be other things.

Keeping GM Authentic: Ed Welburn, General Motors vice president of global design

On China’s influence on Buick: We’ve found the tastes to be quite similar. They love Buick, the form vocabulary of a Buick, and the essence of what a Buick design is all about. I think it’s more than that the emperor [of China] used to drive one. The whole feel of a Buick just works in that country. Our research shows that they just love it. That same feeling works in the States as well. We have this great alignment between Buick China and Buick North America as well as we have a relationship with Opel in Europe.

On his greatest challenge right now: Each brand needs to have a very distinct look that is separate from the others, and you recognize that. We need to keep it fresh. There’s not a moment to rest and take a deep breath and say, “We’ve got this nailed.” That is the absolute time when you have to continue to move it forward. Now, I don’t see a radical shift in any of it. It was a big shift to go, basically, with the grille that’s in the [Buick] Avista and Avenir — to move away from a strong, vertical grille.

Supporting a Brand in Transition: Alfonso Albaisa, Infiniti executive design director

Can you talk about how your SUV portfolio is going to transform? Do all of your SUVs need to look alike?
No, we don’t imagine that, because our SUVs are quite different. We go from QX80 and start working on a new one, that’s frame-based. Then we have our crossover SUVs, which express something different. The good thing about Infiniti is that they don’t all have to look alike, but they have to feel that they’re all tied down. We’re going to maintain that. We’re not going to follow a company like an Audi, that is very good, but their brand is about a certain type of manufacturing. Our brand is probably more of a cultural mindset of inventing segments. We don’t want the language to not allow you to do something like that.

Have you considered a pickup truck — maybe something Titan-based?
Actually, I haven’t, now that you mention it. It’s the first time I’ve heard about that. Lincoln used to have one —

Blackwood, and Mark LT.
— and Cadillac. That’s right. I haven’t thought about that. Mercedes has something in Europe, based on the G-wagen. No, we don’t have anything like that.

Reviving British Style: Ian Callum, Jaguar design director

On F-Pace being the defining (and only) Jaguar SUV: Potentially. I can’t say too much about future product, but if this car works for us, and this is what the world market wants, then yeah, we’ll have to look at other ones as well. I have a good idea of what we might be able to do, but nothing’s defined yet. Something that I’ve discovered being a sports car person, I see that this is what people want. They want sports car drivability, but practicality to take their 2.7 kids in the back. And the luggage space, as well. I can understand that. I drive an F-type. There’s times when I don’t have enough room in the trunk to take two full-size cases, and there are moments when you need a car like [the F-Pace]. I always say, “It’s the Jaguar you need, not the Jaguar you want.”

On a defining color for a Jaguar: Caesium blue: That’s my defining color. I like metallic gray, on this car [points to F-Pace] in particular, with a black pack. It looks good in silver, too. My favorite all-time color for the F-type, though, is bright red. I’m a bright red guy. It’s very subjective.

On alternative powertrains: We’ve been working on electric. You’ll see an electric car from Jaguar eventually. Can’t tell you any more than that. We just joined the Formula E racing circuit. … It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but it’s on the radar.… We don’t need long bonnets anymore. We have front trunks, and call them “frunks.” It gives you so much more freedom. The battery packaging is demanding, but they’ll get through all that.