In around 2009, I went to China to visit friends, to check out what was happening in Shanghai and to visit the auto show. It was one of those moments that changes your life.
I remember sitting in a café watching the people go by; the dynamic of the place felt so different. I’d been living in Munich for a while, in a very established environment, and then was dropped into Shanghai, into the hustle and bustle of this ever-moving place. It was that energy, as a designer, as an individual, that I responded to.
I’d been at BMW since 2006, doing interior design. I came home from Shanghai and immediately put together a proposal for BMW in China and took it to Adrian van Hooydonk. My PowerPoint was very naïve but he recognised my interest, so from 2009, every time there was a China project I was pulled in to be involved.
In 2013 we started a new sub-brand for China called Zinoro, offering electric and hybrid cars. I was in charge of all the interior design for the brand, initially in Munich, then the whole project moved to China for manufacturing and I moved with it to Shanghai, in 2014. I was based in Shanghai in the Designworks studio, travelling to BMW’s corporate office in Beijing and manufacturing in Shenyang.
BMW was my childhood dream; the brand I’d always wanted to work for. I own a classic BMW, a ’72 2002 tii that I bought in the summer of ’93. I still have it; I don’t think I’ll ever give it up. It’s been everywhere with me, I even shipped it to Germany. I had it while I was studying at ArtCenter, and I have classmates that don’t remember me but they remember my car.
As a student, I’d interned at Prince Corporation [which was acquired by Johnson Controls] and then worked at Johnson Controls from 2000 to 2006. I’d always stayed in touch with Han Hendriks and Dave Muyres. In 2015 Johnson Controls’ interiors division became part of a joint venture, Yanfeng Automotive Interiors, and the opportunity to join the company in my current position came up in the spring of 2017.
I could feel the industry starting to shift, and I thought it would be interesting to step out and look at it not from a specific brand point of view, but from a broader perspective.
Everyone is talking about autonomous cars, electric mobility and mobility services. Any one of these alone would be an interesting development, but all three together is a tectonic shift. Everybody is asking questions, nobody yet has the answers, but everyone is much more open-minded than before.
That makes it an exciting time to be working, especially at a supplier where you can work with a lot of different players, exchanging with them and learning from them, professionally and personally.
YFAI is a great place for new designers to start out, for the same reasons I joined. You get broad exposure across different brands, across different markets globally, and the chance to work in different places. You also have the chance to work not only on production vehicles but also on innovation and advanced projects.
Our largest studio is in Shanghai, where we have 25 people between designers and CAS and clay modellers. Our other studios are in Neuss, Germany and Holland, Michigan, each with about 10 designers and studio engineers. We also have a fourth location, in Silicon Valley, where we’re establishing a research and design office.The role there is to monitor and work with startups and tech companies on the West Coast.
Chinese OEMs still want traditional design input, so they’ll come to YFAI and ask for proposals for entire interiors and we’ll develop sketches and models. In the US and Europe, that’s rare now, because that work has mostly been pulled in-house, understandably. So we offer them innovation, like we see in our XiM18 concept car.
XiM stands for eXperience in Motion. That is, again, part of the reason I joined the company. The industry is only just scratching the surface of that; of what an experience means. For the most part, driving has been the predominant experience of the car. But now, with autonomous, what else can we create? How immersive can we get in a car? Can we generate an emotional experience with an interior?
We have a two-year cycle to our innovation demonstrators. We spend a year doing research: talking to customers and consumers, researching technology and trying to understand the landscape of the future. In this case, we’re looking forward to the year 2025.
Then we spend another year developing a concept for those scenarios. XiM18, shown in Frankfurt , is an evolution of XiM17, shown in Detroit earlier in the year. We’ve upgraded the same vehicle within the current timeframe. We’re already in the research phase of the next concept, due in January 2019, to try to understand how the industry has shifted and if our predictions are still valid.
I’m American born, with a Chinese and Taiwanese background, which plays into my story in a much bigger way than I ever thought it would. I grew up in the United States and first graduated with a degree in architecture.
When I was almost done with my degree, in my third year, I did a summer class at ArtCenter and had one of those existential flash moments. I felt I had to pursue car design... But I was so far into my architecture studies, with a scholarship as well, so I finished that off and then did a year of automotive engineering at Washington Western University, before going to ArtCenter from ’95 to ’98.
I did the year of engineering because I wanted to understand how cars work. In architecture, you understand how a building is made, as much as you can, and then design from the bones out. I thought automotive design would be the same. Of course it’s much more styling-based, but I think I’m still influenced by my architecture training.
I think technology will play a bigger and bigger role in the interior in future. As designers, we need to understand what to do with technology, which means understanding what technology does and how it does it.
This interview is from our Car Design Review 5, a beautifully-produced 200-page book published this Spring and containing the past year’s finest concept and production cars, plus trend reports, an in-depth feature on our lifetime achievement award winner, industry legend Wayne Cherry, and interviews with many of the world’s foremost designers. If you’d like more details or the chance to purchase your own copy, go here.