Forget about faux.
Auto interior designers want to drop the imitation wood that has been slapped on dozens of vehicle nameplates in favor of a more honest use of materials. Rather than trying to create a leather pattern on the urethane, polyolefin or PVC skin on an instrument panel, they instead want to tap into a growing consumer acceptance of plastics as plastic.
``We're working with polymers, with plastics, with rubber-based materials,'' said Joe Dehner, director of exterior/interior design for DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler product design office. ``What can we do to really elevate the appearance, rather than make it look like something it's not.''
Dehner believes both buyers and auto executives are ready to accept cars with decorative touches that provide an alternative flair beyond the fake wood and false leather finishes that have been the norm. They are ready for what he has termed ``synthetic luxury.''
``The time is right now to do it,'' said Dehner, who was part of a June 21 conference on auto interior design in Detroit. ``There are opportunities and ideas we maybe haven't taken advantage of.''
Chrysler is not the only auto design house expecting a change in what interiors can look like, and the role plastics will play.
Consider the iconic design images of today, said Terence Duncan, design manager of product strategies for color, trim and product design with Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, Mich. There are the desktop and laptop Macintosh computers, sports watches and shoes from Nike, multicolored cell phones. Herman Miller Inc. changed the image of a luxury executive desk chair with its plastics-intensive Aeron chair.
Those ideas are crossing over to the auto industry.
Eyes on design
``We're at the furniture shows. We're looking at the same things as everyone else in design,'' said Mark West, director of auto supplier Visteon Corp.'s design office.
The design concepts also are filtering beyond studios into everyday life, West noted. Oxo International generates real interest in its kitchen utensils. Michael Graves' design line at Target department stores brings high-end concepts into middle-income reaches, with an aesthetic flair that often features plastics.
``They've created an aspirational product that's still available to the masses,'' Dehner said. ``People get something that they're proud of and that they're going to showcase.''
Mark Schuchardt, design leader for DuPont's engineering polymers and performance materials, works with customers on a variety of consumer goods, but he is receiving increased attention from Detroit.
``Over the last year-and-a-half, I've been getting an increased number of calls from automotive, from auto interior at that, people I'd never heard from who say that they've got this plastic, and they want to know what else they can do with it,'' he said.
They are asking about what else they can do with the grain, with the texture and the general look of the material.
``It'd not just about fake cowhide or fake marble,'' Schuchardt said.
Real wood grain will not go away, Dehner noted. True veneer will continue to have its place, but the expense of the real thing - one set of wood veneer can cost more than $100 per vehicle, and the material has a high scrap rate - means that the industry wants an alternative that combines high appeal with lower costs.
The first contenders already are in the marketplace, with plastics leading the way.
``While metallic surfaces are the rage right now, we can't for cost reasons put chunks of aluminum in the car,'' Dehner said. ``We can do things with films and paints and plated plastics that have a platinum quality to them. They're very convincing.
``Now we're looking for new discoveries. If we've walked away from the fake wood grain, and now we're on the satin silver, what's next?''
For Chrysler, what's next is on the 300C sedan, which made its debut earlier this year using a tortoise-shell look on interior accents.
The tortoise shell itself is another imitation, Dehner admitted, but it's one that consumers recognize in other plastic products. For the 300C, the company uses a hydrographic drip process to treat the amber plastic, the same system used for sunglasses and other products.
``It's really convincing, and you're being true to the material,'' Dehner said. ``Plastic can be translucent. It has a real luminescent quality to it when the light hits it. This is a really interesting use.''
Chrysler intends to put the style in other vehicles, using it as a specific design imprint for its brand. Other vehicles in the DaimlerChrysler stable, such as Dodge and Jeep, will have their own aesthetic cues, he said.
Carmakers also intend to work with plastics suppliers to develop new looks and textures for the skins that cover door panels and instrument panels. Volkswagen AG's Audi line already intentionally uses grains and textures in the mold to give a technical look to the cover skin.
The new look will not take hold immediately, Duncan said, but it is on the way. Dehner expects the first in-roads will be in limited accents, such as the small trim touches on the 300C, rather than a sudden shift to huge components.
Early hints as to the changing nature of interiors and acceptance of plastic on its own merits are making their way onto concept cars now, Dehner said.
Chrysler used a translucent acrylic on a steering wheel for a 2001 concept vehicle. A Volkswagen concept microbus had a urethane floor. Environmental experiments at Ford placed a soybean-based resin in a tailgate for the Model U, and used Corian cast acrylic for accents on a Lincoln sedan concept earlier this year.
``It gives you an idea what parts you can play up and what parts you play down,'' Dehner said. ``We've touched on show cars in the past with what we can do and we're becoming even more inventive with materials and usage. It is influencing with what we're doing for production.''