Designer Interviews: Amko Leenarts, Ford’s global director of interior design

22 September 2016 | by Bart Laenarts

Designer Interviews: Amko Leenarts, Ford’s global director of interior design

Pictures: Lies de Mol

We meet Amko Leenarts, Ford’s head of global interior design operations, in a deli, right in the heart of the Detroit's Eastern Market. It’s not a designer hub. It’s where real people eat. “I adore how cars reflect our culture and play a unique role in society,” says Leenarts. “I’m not a petrolhead, though. I don’t fancy classic automobiles or racing. That’s probably why I’m an interior designer.”

Typically, car designers try to work for the brand they love. Leenarts had better reasons to move to Ford in 2012, after 13 years at Peugeot: “I didn’t particularly like Ford interiors. So it made sense to come here and make a difference. As happy as I was at Peugeot, my work was done. The processes were in line, all went well. Working on the third generation of a model, I suddenly lost interest.

“J Mays initially saw me as Ford’s director of interior design in the US. But 30 minutes into the job interview, he made me globally responsible. J allowed me to focus on strategy, to organise the studios and to develop a proper design philosophy. I’m convinced that the process makes the end result. Without healthy working methods, you can only hope on a lucky shot from time to time. Ford is too big to afford this. Our processes need to guarantee that 80 percent of our work is good. All the rest is a bonus.”

Leenart’s team also defined five fundamentals to make sure Ford does more than just styling: “Designing rich experiences; fit for purpose; innovation; connection; desire – in this sequence,” he adds. “These are taken into account for each line or button and eventually result in a genuine story. Next to the ‘what’, we defined guidelines as well. This second layer on the ‘how’ goes deeper than a simple DNA of forms. We now arrange certain functions in logical clusters, for instance, creating a clamshell design, as in the new GT. And we continuously try to shave material away with a gigantic virtual knife. ‘The edge is more important than the volume’ also results in shapes I could never have dreamt of.”

Leenarts lives in Detroit but splits his time between the US and Europe, as his wife and five kids live in the Netherlands. However, when he’s at work, he doesn’t mince words: “’Interior design, inferior design – that’s what people said at Peugeot. It wasn’t much better at Ford. Typically, the guy who lost the creative competition for the exterior got to draw the interior as a consolation. And if he loses this pitch, he can do wheels or mirrors. It’s not even a joke. Top managers always give priority to the exterior. It’s what lures clients into buying. Design schools also tend to favour exterior design. Interiors truly are exciting, though. Unfortunately, they’re mainly explained by exterior designers. So it only goes skin deep.”

Not at Ford, however: “Not since we’re evolving from a feature-based product development towards an experienced-based product development. We used to have a responsible person for everything. So the cruise control guy tried to implement his speciality on as many vehicles as possible to strengthen his own position and to reduce the price per unit. The sum of all these items determined how the interior looked. Which could be quite messy, abundant and without a lot of connection.”

And there’s more that needs addressing: “There’s competitive pull and customer push, which is why this industry evolves so slowly. Carmakers often take decisions because their competitors do it. It’s slightly incestuous. We hardly ever get inspired by stuff other than cars, and car interiors can only look like car interiors. Clients even think they want a certain feature because the neighbours have it. But is there a real extra value? Or was it something an engineer came up with and we then tried to impose it on all our customers, whether they like it or not?

“I hate it when a vice president has visited another classic car show and suddenly decides he wants this leather or that wheel. Really? Are we grabbing back to the 50s? I’m as excited about this Shelby Mustang [brought along for our photoshoot] as anybody. But an experience-based interior is not about crafting a beautiful shape. It’s about writing a good story and about emotion and interaction with the vehicle.”

Leenarts is not the typical designer who throws a set of nice lines towards production or engineering and let them figure it out. He’s not constantly fighting the other departments either: “They aren’t stupid. If they didn’t understand me, it’s because I didn’t explain it well. Of course, we have some tension, but this can also be healthy. It’s a designer’s job to introduce visions and to have an opinion about everything. This, however, doesn’t mean we know it better. I rather try to align all our divisions beautifully. Marketing and advertising need stories. Luckily, I can’t imagine a nicer one than our design strategy.”

And Leenarts likes to raise questions, mainly those without an obvious answer: “What if we skip leather or get rid of old-fashioned stitching? Apart from handbags, no other product has it. And double stitching: I mean, why? How can we make a premium interior without these traditional symbols? This deli, my home, furniture, closets, floors all use wood functionally. But in a car, it is suddenly a glued-on panel. What’s that about?”

This alternative approach hopefully also solves other challenges: “If we relentlessly add extra screens and stuff, cars will get too expensive and the client will back out. Meanwhile, customers constantly expect more value and features. So we must save in other areas without people noticing it. We already designed a premium interior without leather or stitching. I think there are premium shapes. It can be a line, a material or the way they collaborate together. It’s not the same as craftsmanship. We call it perceived worth. After all an iPhone also looks more expensive than it is.”

But the story predominates: “People decide within 180 seconds after getting in whether they love the car or not. It’s very powerful if I can influence this. I adore Audi’s air vent, which comes closer – like a handshake – if you reach for it. The product anticipates your needs. Cars could use more playfulness as well. But do we want humour? Automobiles have to be reliable. We entrust our lives to them. And a joke is only funny once. I prefer to give the vehicle some intelligence. That way it’ll progress by itself.

“Our smart phone dominates our life, while, honestly, it isn’t a big deal. It’s also pretty ugly. Apple design is extremely successful nowadays, while their phones are absolutely not ergonomic. The software is. The shape isn’t. Why not? Maybe because ergonomic shapes are not always gorgeous. I don’t think we could design an Apple-style interior, if we would want that in the first place. The client’s patience only goes a certain distance if something is beautiful yet doesn’t function well.

“But the iPhone has one unique advantage: it evolves together with us. We upload apps and constantly discover new aspects. In the meantime, the car industry is as proud as a peacock with a red light in sports mode and a green in ecology. Really? Is that the best we can do? Our kids don’t care about rev counters or engine temperature gauges. For them the technology should work in silence. They want connectivity. They don’t even need to know the speed, because they drive along with traffic.”

Leenarts doesn’t care if not all petrolheads look forward to these changes: “I do. And so do youngsters. They’re ready for autonomous driving. It won’t make our job obsolete. On the contrary. I absolutely want psychologists in our team to explain how humans will deal with this changing reality. If we just depend on designers, we’ll probably end up with all sorts of car freak crap. And all these concepts with pivoting chairs. Really? Will we look into each other’s eyes in the car – or, God forbid, talk – while we’re constantly working our smartphones elsewhere? Will the car become the new kind of bar? Maybe. Fact is, we know very little. Perhaps we’ll all make love since there’s nothing else to do. But our interiors will surely need more horizontal than vertical surfaces, because we will want to do stuff.”

Silicon Valley is now a large source of inspiration: “Google, Apple and others continuously show their latest innovations at parties. Which isn’t so easy for Ford, a company that has been building big factories for 100 years. We can learn from them. But we can also give something in return. It’s the only way to steer this massive machine called Ford Motor Company to another safe haven. Our much longer development times compared to them shouldn’t be a problem, as long as we have the right building blocks – instrument clusters, connectivity, head-up displays. We’re now designing flexibly to make sure we can upgrade the interior if necessary. Package protect – as we call it – allows us to make parts smaller or bigger if needed. So we leave room for evolutions, even if we don’t know what they’ll be. It’s a totally different way of engineering.”