Special Coverage

Auto Interiors Conference

DEARBORN, MI – Traditional luxury-vehicle interiors can resemble a Victorian parlor: ornate, dark and stuffy.

But there’s a shift toward premium interiors that are lighter and more functional – attributes that especially appeal to young affluents.

“Interiors are moving to flowing lines and an airy feeling,” says Tom Gould, director-industrial design and seating for Johnson Controls Inc. “It’s pure and lean.”

Luxury previously was defined as ostentatious, “but now it’s being redefined, and there is a new direction towards modest luxury,” says Pat Oldenkamp, vice president-design and marketing for Eagle Ottawa Leather Co.

Modern consumers seek “guilt-free luxury,” says Mara Ignatius, manager-color and trim for Lear Corp. “They do not want to flaunt their toys.”

New interior directions include “minimal lines, voluptuous curves and simple elegance,” she says, citing the Chrysler 200C EV concept car as an example.

Ignatius, Oldenkamp and Gould participated in a panel discussion entitled, “Luxury’s New Aesthetic: Designing the Premium Interior,” at the Ward’s Auto Interiors Conference here.

The dial-down to less pretentiousness is partly economic. “It’s a culture of the recession,” Oldenkamp says. “For the first time, there’s been a decrease in the size of U.S. houses being built. It’s a return to simplicity.”

But luxury-vehicle interiors also are becoming more restrained because of the influence of whom Oldenkamp calls “Consumer 2.0.”

“As the new generation moves to luxury, they look for multi-functional interiors with lightweight and ‘green’ materials,” she says. The latter is why “eco-friendly leather” is under development at her company.

“Eco-friendly is such a trend, it impacts every area,” says Gould. “It’s an attitude of ethical correctness; of how one spends money and doing it with less guilt.”

But if younger consumers are more environmentally conscious, they also are more plugged in to modern technology. That’s why premium car interiors appealing to rich kids include features such as enhanced navigation systems, the latest sound-system connectivity and LED mood lighting.

Clearly luxury isn’t what it used to be.

“Traditional luxury is status, prestige, very exclusive and a value on things,” says Gould. In contrast, new luxury is minimalism, social responsibility and a democratization that shuns elitism, he says.

He cites the Hyundai Genesis – introduced last year as an affordable luxury car – as an example of a swing to inconspicuous consumption. Moreover, today’s car buyers “just want to spend less,” he says.

But some things stay the same for upscale interiors. Precise executions and quality of materials still matter. “Materials, colors, craftsmanship and attention to details will always be factors,” Gould says. “They are now more important than ever.”

Wood trim and leather upholstery remain prevalent in premium car interiors. But metals, particularly aluminum, are being used more as accents.

“Metal should be an embellishment, something that accentuates curves and brings value,” says Ignatius.

Designers are paying more attention to the tactile qualities of materials. How a door handle feels can be as important as how the leather seats look, Gould says.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com