Buttoned leather upholstery for the automobile5 June 2008
Henry Ford did not want his staff to ask their customers what they wanted as the answer he suspected would have been a smoother ride in a horse and cart rather than his new automobile.
His contribution to transportation did not fit into the consumer's mind as solving any need. This is fair enough when you think about it. What apparent need did the Sony Walkman answer when first put on the market? Yet, like the automobile, portable music was soon to become an essential part of our lives. Thinking of the fine old horse drawn carriages of the late 19th century, we are reminded of the buttoned leather upholstery and interior refinement that was on offer and came back with force in the 1990s when Faith Popcorn proposed the idea of ‘cocooning'. This was the time of anti-ostentation, of making sure you did not stand out in a crowd in which hidden, unspeakable dangers lurked at every corner. As you drove through the inner cities to work each day it was better not to attract the attention of the disenchanted few who would toss bricks and rocks at you or run a key along the paintwork if you parked. But this does mean that life had to be all dreary and low profile. Inside the car you could travel in safety and luxury. An understated exterior with an exquisite interior was perfection. Today we are less worried about external appearances. Minor celebrities taught us about anti-anti-ostentation and now everything is, for many, as beautifully crafted externally as it was internally. Certainly this is the creed for the top motor brands of the 21st century. Never in the history of cars has the interior been so important. Through it all, it became clear to car designers that interiors really mattered and that two elements were sweeping them along - electronics and leather. As Maria Uggla at Volvo says: ‘never in the history of cars has the interior been so important'. So just as the world is hooked on the convergence of GSP, MP3, mobile telephony and engine management inside the car so it needs the classical reassurance of real leather to give the touch, the feel, the smell and the luxury of what Volvo strategic chief designer Jonathan Disley describes as ‘everyone travels first class'. He says this with feeling about his new range of Volvo 70s. He heads up interior design for this whole highly successful group of cars. He is British, studied at London's Royal College of Art and understands that this is the third generation of a car whose personality is important. He talks incessantly of the inspiration for the design and how it fits into what they want the car to be for their customers. Foremost in his thinking is nature, especially as seen in Scandinavia, and this is followed by Scandinavian furniture. To a degree they overlap. The console that holds the radio and the air-conditioning controls is strictly Nordic in its origins with its single backless curving form, quite different from anything found in any other car. The top of the dashboard, however, is embossed with the pattern seen by the designer in the many rivers and streams of Sweden and has that ‘subtle overhang of the snow over the eaves'. Volvo consumers love leather upholstery and it is a major feature in all their cars, coming primarily from Elmo Calf or the Scottish Leather Group. They do use a lot of mixes of leather and textile plus a variety of synthetics for the seat backs and panelling. In the XC70 they go for high tech fabrics with leather which is perhaps a message to tanners to think more of technical leathers. The attitude to chromium is very negative, but their love of leather as a natural product well suited to Volvos and their customers is very apparent. Maria Uggla talks a lot about the customers. She worked on the spectacular gull winged YCC (Your Concept Car for Independent Female Professionals) and then on the C30. She has been with Volvo since 2001 and is responsible for colours and upholstery and wanted to visualise the YCC customer in concrete terms: ‘I looked in magazines for photos of people who could represent this type of customer. I was attracted to independent types of people who dare to be different.' Her magazine cuttings of the customer include a girl with attitude, with dark eye make-up, and a black jumper - and a guy with similar attitude: an orange shirt and a red leather jacket. Both of them live in a big city and have a style of their own. Maria's illustrations served as inspiration for everyone in the project. The C30 was designed for the young dynamic person on the move. Chief designer Stefan Jansson argues that the Volvo is for someone who wants to be different. ‘The Volvo is the thinking man's BMW.' To him the industrialisation presented by Ford killed customisation. Swatch watches, mobile phone covers and customisation around iPod accessories has started to signal the return of personal design. Cars need to fit personal lifestyles, and these change. For the car this is a challenge as it takes 3-5 years to develop, is seven years in production and then is expected to have a life of 15 years. The YCC car met this challenge with the option to ‘change your seat pads to suit your style'. It has eight interchangeable seat pad options to choose from, everything from dark brown leather, linen and wool bouclé, to a shimmering yellow-green embroidered seat pad. Each of these has a matching carpet - also easy to change - for a whole range of styles inspired by home interior design. The YCC was, of course, just a concept car but the C30 is a real vehicle and an important segment for Volvo. It comes in 24 colour combinations and 40 internal combinations, recognising the battle to fit personalisation with mass production. Maria Uggla also spent time looking at the individuals who formed the target market for the C30. This is a car for superior city people; free thinking, individual, interested in design and who often eat out. The seats are more emotional and expressed in terms of new textiles and plastics plus leather. No smell is especially added to the Volvo leathers and they are quite heavily coated by industry standards. So while the leather in the car may start with the image of the well worn smoker's chair in a gentleman's club, it is much more and can be much more if the user is an upwardly mobile city executive, a female professional, or a snowboarding boomer. In their last concept car at Detroit, it was saddle leather used on the flooring that created the excitement. Saddle leather is becoming important as a designer material and is used to cover the latest ThinkPad reserve edition laptop. Looking at the glint in the eye of Jonathan Disley and his team we shall see more of saddle leather in Volvos in the future.