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As Susan Lampinen notes, exterior color can make a huge difference in the way a vehicle is perceived. Shapely sheet metal with a curdled color simply doesn’t work.

When you think about the number of cars and trucks that Ford manufactures each year, then reckon that miles and miles of fabric used for seats, headliners and trim, then doing things like using sustainable yarns for some of that fabric can make a tremendous difference. Ford and Coca-Cola have collaborated on using Coke’s PlantBottle PET technology to create fabrics for cars, as shown in this concept, a Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid.

Susan Lampinen: A Colorful, Creative Designer Who Cares

Although it is often said that the exterior design gets people into a car, a bad paint color on that exterior can keep them out. And bad colors and materials on the inside will drive them out. Which brings us to why Susan Lampinen and her colleagues are key.

There is seemingly an obligatory uniform for automotive designers, which goes along the lines of black sport jacket, black T-shirt, black jeans, and possibly a variation on primary colors for footwear.

Not so for Susan Lampinen. Even though she is a group chief designer at Ford... and not only because the group that she happens to lead is Color & Material Design.*

Lampinen is nothing if not colorful in her expression, visual, verbal and sartorial. She speaks with a level of commitment and passion that is the obverse of monochromatic. Lampinen, a 1990 grad of the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, has been with Ford since 1999 and has had her present position since 2005. During this period of time she’s been a participant in helping manifest the visual identity of both Ford and Lincoln. While someone might think that the identity is primarily predicated on the shape of the sheet metal and the architecture of the instrument panel, Lampinen points out, “You could design a beautiful vehicle, and if you don’t get the material quality right, the color right, and the detail right, you have a huge impact on how the vehicle is perceived. It’s like putting on a bad suit.”

Let’s stay with color. Lampinen describes many of the colors that Ford used back in the 1980s and mid-90s as “silly colors.” Things like purplely pinks. Things that 
she and her team worked to purge from the pallet.

That said, she acknowledges that the market tends to select from a rather limited group of colors: white, black, silver.

So given that state of reality, given that they listen to input from customers, dealers, and senior management, Lampinen says that over the past few years they’ve been working on those colors to create variations, such as more of a champagne tint to some of the whites, a “jetter black,” and a silver with greater travel, greater effect. “We used to have what I call ‘glossy cement’ for our silver. That had to go.”

On the materials front, Lampinen is a strong supporter of implementing fabrics that have a minimum of 25% recycled, renewable yarns, a figure that they are boosting to 35 to 40%, and are doing this not simply for U.S. models, but are going global with the program. Presently, there are 41 different fabrics that are used in 15 vehicle programs with the recycled material, material that, Lampinen admits, was once more expensive because there wasn’t an infrastructure in place for the materials. “Prices are now pretty similar,” she says, but points out that taking a more sustainable approach to materials sourcing is simply the right thing to do. This is not just Lampinen’s personal opinion, but is something that is underscored by the fact that Ford is one of the eight founding companies, along with the World Wildlife Fund, that has established the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance (bioplasticfeedstockalliance.org), which is focused on supporting the development of plastics made from plant material. It is the only auto company in the founding group.

Another indication of the corporate commitment is a research vehicle that Ford and the Coca-Cola Company introduced in November, 2013, a Ford Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid that uses interior fabrics based on Coke’s PlantBottle Technology. PlantBottle Technology, introduced by Coke in 2009, produces a recyclable polyethylene terephthalate (PET) that is made partially with material from plants, which offsets some petroleum use. There have been more than 18-billion bottles produced with the plant-based PET, which Coca-Cola calculates has resulted in the savings of 400,000 barrels of oil. If Ford were to use the PlantBottle material to produce fibers for automotive-grade fabrics for things like seats, door panel inserts, and headliners across its U.S. product lineup, it would mean a savings of 6,000 barrels of oil.

So in the car if there’s flora, there is also fauna. Leather. Not only, Lampinen says, do customers “perceive leather as quality,” as an interior material, “it stretches and wraps nicely, and generally has a low gloss,” all good characteristics for use in vehicles. That said, she notes, “I am an animal welfare advocate.” She and her team source leather materials from companies like Bridge of Weir, which subscribe to the “Five Freedoms” defined by the Farm Animal Welfare Council (fawc.org.uk; i.e., Freedom from Hunger and Thirst; from Discomfort; from Pain, Injury or Disease; to Express Normal Behaviour; from Fear and Distress). They are looking at recycled leather (essentially a material that is based on scrap, which she says is not yet ready for automotive implementation). Lincoln is now offering a non-leather option for its eating surfaces (it is also offering an aluminum option in place of wood).

Although Lampinen could probably get a design job at almost any company in the world—and not just automotive companies—she says that not only does she love the team she’s put together, not only does she appreciate the support that she and her team gets from top management at the company, and not only does she look forward to going in every day (no Pollyanna, she admits, “It is challenging some days—but I love it”), which is no small set of factors when it comes to one’s work life, there is another thing that’s important to her: given her input on every Ford and every Lincoln, she has a huge effect on people and on things that are personally important to her, like sustainability.

It is not often where one’s talents, interests, and job intersect. Susan Lampinen is at one such nexus. 


*Black absorbs light and is consequently not really a color but the absence of one, so one wouldn’t expect the person so immersed in color to go for the zerochromatic approach.