DETROIT – Interior specialists no longer are “second-class citizens” within the design studio, as they play a bigger role in automotive styling and shoulder the lion’s share of the workload, Ford Motor Co.’s North American design chief says.

“When we do a program in the design studio, 40% of the work is calculated to be exterior design and 60% interior,” says Peter Horbury, executive director of design-The Americas. “It’s a big, big difference (than in the past), when interiors were considered an afterthought.

“This (interiors) is where the emotional connection takes place, when you’re sitting and touching things, grabbing the steering wheel, touching the gear shift and soft touch points,” he says. “That’s when you feel the quality of the car.

“There is a critical advantage to auto makers that can create an interior that captures the heart of a new generation.”

Speaking at the Ward’s Auto Interiors Show here, Horbury traces the evolution of interior design, from its humble beginnings as a mere extension of a horse-drawn carriage to today, when interiors are becoming reflections of modern homes.

The 1950s and 1960s represented a turning point in design, Horbury says.

“We were so optimistic, we we’re going to go into space,” he says of the 2-decade span.

However, that unbridled optimism faded soon after, and automotive interiors followed suit, with most decked out in cheap plastic and low-quality materials.

But as the Baby Boomer generation went off to college and developed its own identity, design increased in importance.

“It took time for the (automotive) industry to realize (the trend taking hold),” he says, noting Audi AG, and “some other brands” were the first to create the modern interior.

As designs progressed, vehicle nationalities began to become apparent, Horbury says.

He describes German vehicle interiors as “stoic” and the diversity of U.S. interiors as representing a “freedom of choice.”

French interiors are “quite different and playful and very modern in a different way,” he says. Japanese interiors are “visual extremes.”

An auto maker that ignores the importance of interior design does so at its own risk, Horbury warns, adding, “Today’s customers have incredibly high standards.”

Interiors have undergone “a complete turnaround,” and at Ford we have a “commitment to high standards in every one of our nameplates,” he says.

Horbury cites the evolution of pickup truck interior design as the “most dramatic” example of how much has changed.

“Imagine back in the 1950s (having) a truck that you wipe your feet before you get in,” Horbury quips, adding the upcoming ’09 F-150 Platinum edition is a prime example of how far pickups have come.

“The top-of-the line Platinum is astonishing,” he says. “It has real aluminum and beautiful wood. We call it ‘tough luxury.’ I’m not sure where the bar ends, but we keep raising it, and we’ll see where the bar stops.”

Horbury says Ford and other auto makers will continue to incorporate more recycled, re-purposed and organic materials into their interiors.

The ’08 Escape cross/utility vehicle was the first production vehicle to use 100% post-industrial fabrics for its seating surfaces, he says.

By using recycled fabrics, Ford estimates 600,000 gallons (2.3 million L) of water is saved, 1.8 million lbs. (8.2 million kg) of carbon dioxide eliminated and more than 7 million kW/h of electricity untapped, based on an annual volume of just 80,000 vehicles.

Quality interiors “shouldn’t come at the expense of the environment,” Horbury says.

Other trends include greater application of light woods and stainless steel, large panoramic roofs that emulate sky lights and the need to accommodate the growing variety of electronic gadgets consumers are bringing into the vehicle.

At Ford, “we call today’s vehicles the ‘fourth space,’” he says. “Commuting times have increased to 25.5 minutes on average, and that reinforces the need for great interior design.”

Interior designers look forward to giving customers what they want, Horbury says, adding they are the “heroes of the design studio now.”

bpope@wardsauto.com