Amko Leenarts, Ford Motor Co.'s director of global interior design, sees himself as a sort of chef. Not only does he lead the team that must choose the proper, high-quality ingredients; he has to ensure they assemble, prepare and present them in an appealing way to customers all over the world.
And that's no easy task, as an ever-increasing array of electronics takes over the dash and as many luxury-car features and materials migrate to nonluxury models.
Leenarts, 43, a native of the Netherlands, has been in charge of Ford and Lincoln interior design since joining the company from Peugeot in 2012. He holds a master's degree in vehicle design from London's Royal College of Art. He spoke with Staff Reporter Richard Truett in October near Ford headquarters in Dearborn, Mich.
Q: What is your view on creating polarizing designs? Will Ford take chances or play it safe?
Leenarts: I don't think we will play it safe. I think we will be characterful both on the exterior and interior. We will never make mediocre designs, but the risk is always there for global cars because you have input from all the regions. But that's the quality that we have as a design organization, that we are present in all regions. We have nine studios in the different regions. And getting that input helps us make the design stronger and stronger.
Q: With electronics, is the way to present information to the driver the real challenge from a design point of view?
Leenarts: The difficulty is multilayered. It's got to do with the way it looks; where it is positioned; the way it is reacting to you; the speed of how it works, so you are not waiting. But in any of those stages, I think we want to push the emotional sense, somehow. There are different ways of doing that. When we talk about the digital content, we want to get to the familiarization phase; do we want it to be the same as an Apple iPhone or an Android phone?
Q: There are younger buyers raised on plastic-bodied electronic devices and older buyers who like traditional materials such as wood and leather. How do you make interiors that appeal to both?
Leenarts: We have a good process in Ford Motor Co. where pretty early on, we get a good idea of who our target customers are. And that is a range of different profiles, but at the end of the day, there is a more advanced profile we are focusing on. Because we know, even though older buyers like wood and leather, we also know that as soon as we put something in that young people really aspire to, older buyers will aspire to it much more easier than younger. The Renault Twingo was designed for young people. Who bought it? Women 62 and older. Because they love to feel young. It's about their aspirations. It's not about who they are. It's about who they want to be. And I think that is our red line to how we visualize the emotional connection between human being and the object.
Q: Can information from customer clinics be trusted?
Leenarts: We are always really cautious. We always say it is good to have the input, but it's input. It doesn't mean that the customer did or didn't like this or that. We always try to consider the context: when it was said, why it was said and who said it. We can judge that data really good. We did a project last year where we started to innovate in the way we do research.
Q: With luxury features and materials filtering down to mainstream brands, what makes a true luxury-car interior these days?
Leenarts: Looking at the car industry as a whole, we have this moment where the luxury brands are making more accessible vehicles while the general carmakers are trying to make more premium vehicles. In the middle of this, there is a huge demand for a premium look for not a lot of money. The premium brands cannot afford to make a cheaper car without affecting their brand image. That has forced the suppliers to rethink a little bit about how materials are being made and how they look. Frankly, we cheat a bit in the sense that it may look like leather, but it isn't real leather. We see technologies with stitching that looks real.
Q: What defines good design?
Leenarts: We are still in this period in the car industry where we separate styling from design. And obviously, you have to style things for the final appearance. The beauty has to be there. I like to compare the process often with cooking. If you have bad ingredients, no matter how good the sauce you put on there, no matter how much salt and pepper it needs, it's never really going to be good. It starts with good ingredients.
We are working a lot to make sure those building blocks are there. Then making sure we connect emotionally with the customer. You decide in 180 seconds if you like a car. What is going through your head? What is it that makes you feel good about it? What makes you feel bad about it? When you were thinking that and why? The good interior designs, I feel, are recognizable and memorable.
Q: For your dream garage, pick one car, classic or new, from Germany, Britain, Italy and the U.S.
Leenarts: BMW i8; Jaguar E-Type; Lancia Fulvia; Ford GT.