HOW IT WORKS: DE­SIGN­ING CAR IN­TE­RI­ORS

Beyond merely look­ing nice, a car in­te­rior also must be func­tional and durable

Edmonton Sun - Autonet - - NEWS - Jil Mcin­tosh Driv­ing.ca

Men­tion au­to­mo­bile de­sign, and most peo­ple think of some­one draw­ing a sketch of the ex­te­rior. But the in­te­rior must be styled and cre­ated as well, and it re­quires the same level of at­ten­tion to de­tail, as well as prac­ti­cal­ity and com­fort, as any­thing on the out­side.

“We do a lot of tech­ni­cal re­search into in­no­va­tions,” says Ker­stin Schmed­ing, in­te­rior de­signer for BMW and Mini. “We look at the lat­est trends in ma­te­ri­als, in colour and trim. The car has to be fun and nice, but it also has to be func­tional.”

As with ex­te­rior de­signs, the in­te­rior be­gins with sketches. Th­ese are first done on pa­per, and then with com­puter-aided de­sign (CAD). The most promis­ing pro­pos­als are then ren­dered in clay. Although clay mod­els date back to the 1930s, they’re still con­sid­ered es­sen­tial, even in the age of com­put­ers. “We need clay be­cause it’s a phys­i­cal car,” Schmed­ing says. “Once you see it in re­al­ity, you see things in the pro­por­tion that you don’t rec­og­nize in a vir­tual model. Then you tweak it, and it’s like a di­a­logue between the dig­i­tal and clay pro­cesses, go­ing back and forth.”

In­te­rior de­sign is es­pe­cially chal­leng­ing be­cause of ev­ery­thing that goes into it. The seats must fit a wide range of driv­ers and oc­cu­pants. There must be enough switches to con­trol the fea­tures, and they have to be easy enough to reach and use. The de­sign­ers have to de­cide on colours and fab­ric for the seats, and the type of car­pet to use.

They must also in­cor­po­rate safety fea­tures such as airbags, in­clud­ing in the seat sides and above the side win­dows. The airbag for the frontseat pas­sen­ger re­quires a spe­cial­ized panel in the dash, fit­ted with thin ma­te­rial so the de­ploy­ing airbag can push through it. Depend­ing on the de­sign, the panel may be on a seam line to help hide it, but on a plain dash, the cover must fit so that the small in­den­ta­tion be­hind it doesn’t show.

The in­te­rior de­sign has to match the theme of the car, and a lux­ury sedan will have a dif­fer­ent look from a sporty con­vert­ible or a fam­ily van. This will also af­fect the ma­te­ri­als used: the pricier mod­els will prob­a­bly have soft leather up­hol­stery, while a less-ex­pen­sive fam­ily car will have child-friendly, easy-to-clean seats.

No mat­ter what the fab­ric, the seat up­hol­stery has to last through oc­cu­pants get­ting in and out thou­sands of times. Most seats will usu­ally have ex­tra-durable ma­te­rial on the side of the cush­ions where peo­ple slide into the ve­hi­cle, as well as on the con- sole and door pan­els where oc­cu­pants rest their arms. All ma­te­ri­als are tested ex­ten­sively, in­clud­ing for abra­sion, colour fad­ing, and how they per­form in ex­treme heat, cold, or hu­mid­ity.

If there’s a pat­tern in the fab­ric, it must be cho­sen care­fully. If it’s too big, it draws too much at­ten­tion. “It’s a lot of gut feel­ing,” Schmed­ing says. “You see some­thing and you know that it’s wrong. Colours have to work with the en­vi­ron­ment and with the tex­ture of the ma­te­rial. If the colour is too in­tense or too moody, you don’t get the right ex­pres­sion, or it can look dirty or old.”

Even leather can dif­fer, de­pend- ing on the ve­hi­cle. Cowhide nat­u­rally has blem­ishes or scars. Some pricier cars have plain leather, which looks lux­u­ri­ous but cre­ates ex­pen­sive waste when pan­els are cut around the flaws. A more cost-ef­fec­tive ap­proach is to em­boss a pat­tern into the leather, hid­ing the marks so the whole hide can be used. It’s a lot of work to de­sign a grain that looks good through­out, since the de­sign can dis­tort and look bad when it’s wrapped around curved pan­els. The de­sign­ers work with the leather sup­plier through­out the process to see how the fin­ished leather per­forms.

Car­pet is not just part of the de­sign, but also per­forms the func- tion of min­i­miz­ing road noise in­side the cabin. It must be ca­pa­ble of be­ing pressed into ex­treme shapes that will lie flat across the floor and up the sides of the cen­tre con­sole. In­te­rior de­sign­ers have to con­sider the type of yarn and how tightly the car­pet is wo­ven, to avoid the weave open­ing up where it’s stretched over a con­tour. Non-wo­ven ma­te­rial is usu­ally used in the trunk, and th­ese fab­rics must be es­pe­cially durable and easy to clean af­ter com­ing in con­tact with shoes and cargo.

In­te­rior ma­te­ri­als must be func­tional, but de­sign­ers also have to con­sider their weight in light of fuel econ­omy stan­dards. “Each piece doesn’t seem so im­por­tant, but ev­ery­thing to­gether adds up, so we look into dif­fer­ent ma­te­ri­als,” Schmed­ing says. “Leather is heavy, so we can make a seat that’s leather in com­bi­na­tion with fab­ric, and it’s a nice de­sign but also con­trib­utes to the weight of the car.”

De­sign­ers al­ways look beyond au­to­mo­tive for in­spi­ra­tion, but Schmed­ing says that while her team con­sid­ers fash­ion styles, fur­ni­ture trends are more use­ful be­cause they don’t change as quickly. “It’s a long process, and we can’t de­velop within months like fash­ion does,” she says. “It’s al­ways a bal­ance between the tech­ni­cal and the de­sign as­pects.”

Brian Harper/ Driv­ing

2017 Mini John Cooper Works Con­vert­ible.

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