FRANKFURT – The fate of Ingeni, Ford Motor Co.’s design studio in Europe should be made clear by year-end, says Chris Bird, Ford of Europe design director.

The unusual creativity center – its designers work and share ideas on everything from furniture to training shoes to sunglasses – already is proving itself successful in terms of building up a different kind of awareness for the design department, says Bird in an interview here.

But its current status is “awaiting a next-stage situation,” says Bird of the center in Soho, London, that opened in June 2002 with a staff of 32.

“The issue at the moment is the company needs to think about its priorities,” Bird says. “How Ingeni continues and what size Ingeni will be, is pretty unclear. It’s still being decided.”

Ingeni integrates creative services from product design to communications, graphics and marketing. About a third of its work is related to automobiles, a third is devoted to brand-related consumer products such as a Land Rover picnic basket and the final third is centered around designing non-automotive products. (See related story: Ford Europe’s Ingeni Center to Influence Future Design)

There are a number of possible scenarios being considered, says Bird. Ingeni could continue to exist, but on a smaller scale. The way it functions also could change.

Ford Faction takes design cues from Milan Furniture Fair.

“There are a lot of ideas floating around at the moment as we are going through a difficult situation,” Bird says, referring to Ford’s financial woes and the restructuring plan under way to address them.

Ingeni also lost one of its key allies, Martin Leach, who was Ford of Europe president until he left the auto maker in August.

“We obviously are very positive about how we are going to grow and get back on track eventually,” says Bird. “But obviously everybody has to rethink resources, and that’s what’s going to happen with Ingeni. I think there’ll be a much better feeling of what’s happening by the end of the year.”

“I don’t think Ingeni will go away, but it might be a different animal. One thing I will say is it has proved, for Ford of Europe, to be a very positive asset and really has opened our eyes.”

Ingeni represents an attempt by Ford to expose designers to new concepts and methodologies by letting them work on more than just automobiles.

“It’s a completely different way to design a car than it is to design a Walkman or a table for a furniture store,” Bird explains. “The idea of Ingeni is to get contracts from outside companies to allow designers to work on areas outside automotive.”

While this is especially important in the dynamic but brutal European market, Bird says it also is proving positive to “my colleagues in America because of the fact that we have so many young designers who are coming back to be re-educated in a completely new way. They are learning new skills, and it really is giving more vibrancy to the design departments Ford has around Europe.”

The Faction, a compact SUV Ford showed last year at the Los Angeles auto show, was designed by Ingeni, with an interior inspired by the Milan Furniture Fair. (See related story: T’bird Gets Boost; Ingeni Unveils Small SUV)

“I think already some of the work that we’ve done at Ingeni will flow down into some of our next-generation small cars, like Fiesta – a city car designed for urbanites,” says Bird. “A studio like Ingeni has allowed us to get a better understanding of what those young, trendy people want. They want fashionable small cars.”

The first practical application from Ingeni likely will be the next generation of small cars (Fiesta), which still is two or three years away, Bird confirms.