J Mays, Wayne Cherry and Trevor Creed have made names for themselves among auto industry followers and insiders.

The three design chiefs, of Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp. and the Chrysler Group, respectively, all have been lauded for exciting vehicle designs. However, they are exterior designers, and the question remains whether anyone designing vehicle interiors ever will receive similar recognition and adulation.

“The exterior guys get more publicity because it's the exterior that people are attracted to first,” contends Jeffrey Godshall, senior design manager-Product Design Office of the Chrysler Group, whose resume includes the bold interior of the PT Cruiser.

Says Adriana Monk of Ford's Ingeni design studio in London, who worked on the most recent Lincoln Continental concept: “Obviously, it's always harder to convey (an interior) to the public because they can see the exterior even if there's 200 people. For that ‘wow’ factor, you have to show them a video of it or you have to have some sort of grand entrance.”

Ken Grant, who teaches interior design classes at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, agrees.

“There's always been an emphasis on exterior because I think it's considered, at least by most people, to be the most glamorous,” he says. “But I've always been of the school that if you're really good at interior, you're going to be a lot more sought after.”

For proof of that, look no further than Mercedes-Benz, which recently spirited away Stefan Sielaff from Audi AG, whose interiors often are used as a design benchmark by other auto makers.

Grant says interiors have been gaining momentum at CCS because OEMs are seeking talented interior specialists.

“I've seen it increasing. I don't know if there's as much interest, but there's definitely more emphasis,” Grant says.

Market demand is driving the increased focus on vehicle interiors because consumers are demanding more for their money, says Ruediger Folten of Volkswagen Design in Wolfsburg, Germany.

“The interior has always been important to customers, but today they are more aware in the way they are perceived,” Folten says. “Alongside the formal statement of the design, the feel of quality plays a major role. This poses the most important challenge for interior designers.”

One thing that has certainly changed is education and training, says Grant, who admits there wasn't much of a focus on interiors in his education. It was a hurdle he had to overcome when he was thrown into designing them while working for Ford.

“I took a foreign service assignment and went over to England, and I was doing both exterior and interior,” Grant says. “But the first project I got assigned to was an interior program, and I had to learn how to communicate, or at least how to draw, interiors, so it was completely starting over for me.”

Rus Shafer concurs. He is director of industrial design for Magna International Inc.'s Intier Automotive interiors unit, which worked on the much-loved Mini Cooper passenger compartment.

“I remember when there used to be a certain OEM that hired five women for their design department and immediately put them in interiors and then started touting how they were designing leopard skin upholstery and places to put their purses and that was considered a great leap forward,” Shafer says. “The whole atmosphere and seriousness with which interiors are taken has really changed since those days.”

Schafer says interior designers then were considered “sort of the second team. If you didn't quite make it as an exterior designer you got put in interiors, and it was kind of off to the side and sometimes not even in the studio,” he says. “That world has turned 180 degrees. In fact we're having vehicles now that are being built around an interior concept.”

Monk says her employer, Ford — which recently announced it is tripling its investment in interior design — always has placed as much emphasis on interior as exterior.

“You feel like you're getting the respect,” says Monk. “Quite frankly, how it's being done at Lincoln, and how Gerry (McGovern, design director for Lincoln Mercury) has been portraying the whole design philosophy, is that interior is just as important as exterior. It really depends on who you work for. I don't feel a lesser individual because I'm not doing exteriors.”

When hiring people at Intier, Shafer says he makes sure they have a fundamental knowledge of overall design — and not just automotive.

“We're looking for people who are more than just stylists,” Shafer says. “Not to denigrate what exterior stylists do, because it's important and it gets everybody excited about the vehicle and it's a particular talent — but the interior to me is more pure design in that you have to know an awful lot about what's going on under the skin.”

He says it's important for an interior designer to know what various materials and manufacturing processes are capable of — and what Intier is capable of building. He also adds an understanding of how consumers will interact with a vehicle (“human interface factors”) is key.

“It's way more than making a really sexy looking surface,” says Shafer.

Despite the strides made in bringing interiors and their creators to the forefront, there will never be a well-known automotive interior designer, Godshall says.

“I don't think you'll be able to pick up an interior by designer name,” he says. “A number of designers have lent their names to specific editions of automobiles. Bill Blass Continentals and that kind of thing. But I don't see a point where people are going to look at an interior and say, ‘Well, that's a Godshall interior.’”

Shafer holds out hope that one day the interior specialists will have their moment in the sun. “I think eventually we will,” he says. “I'm a little prejudiced — but I think certainly it's due.”
with Eric Mayne