Michigan native Robert Fitzpatrick, Advanced Innovation Manager at Faurecia (Nanterre, France; www.faurecia.com), never thought he would lead an international design team to remake a classic Czech-built Tatra T603 into a showcase of premium design concepts. Yet four months of his life was spent at the company’s Hagenbach, Germany, technical center leading a core team of four industrial designers, two studio engineers, and two 3D modelers in rethinking “premium.” The Tatra was chosen not only because its interior package is similar to the Audi A6, BMW 5 Series, Mercedes E-Class, but also, claims Fitzpatrick, “Because our OEM customers wouldn’t get hung up on the car we used to showcase our ideas.”
Though the 38-year-old Fitzpatrick has worked for Faurecia for just over 18 months, the graduate of Detroit’s College for Creative Studies (Detroit, MI; www.ccsad.edu) has an unexpected resume. His first job out of college was with a small product development firm near his birthplace in Holland, Michigan. Staying close to home, he moved over to Johnson Control’s Prince Div., and followed that with a brief stint at appliance maker Whirlpool before joining Faurecia. Just over one year into his employment there he was given the Premium Attitude project, the objective of which was to delineate the difference between “Premium” and “Luxury” and to integrate technologies found in the Faurecia product portfolio.
“Luxury is personified by an overstuffed look with plenty of visual jewelry,” says Fitzpatrick, “whereas premium imparts the image and feel of exceptional quality, attention to detail, simplicity, and is an aesthetic that can be utilized across the size and price spectrum.” Picking up cues from modern furniture—the inspiration for the driver’s seat was drawn from Ludovic and Robert Palomba’s Lama Chair, though it also includes hints of the classic Eames Lounge Chair in its detailing—Fitzpatrick’s team envisioned an interior where the driver is analogous to a home owner, and the passengers are guests. That’s why the driver’s seat has an inner arm rest that curves over the console, and contains a controller able to operate any onboard Bluetooth-enabled mobile device. The seat cushions adjust to the driving mode—City, Sport, Cruise—higher for better visibility or lower for more side bolstering. This “driver zone” idea is emulated in the self-supporting instrument panel—it doesn’t need a cross-car beam and can be thinner, narrower, and take up less interior space—through the use of contrasting materials and the grouping of the controls. A soft cover over the passenger’s airbag allows it to be packaged closer to the windshield thereby leaving room for an upward opening glovebox.
A modern loft apartment’s airy feel and adaptability, according to Fitzpatrick, will transfer to the next generation of premium vehicles. To increase this feel, the front seat tracks reside both in the side sills and along the center tunnel to increase rear seat foot room; the center of the 40-20-40 split bench can be raised to form an arm rest; and a rear console can be powered into place from its nest within the forward unit. “This makes the compartment more of a lounge, a look that is highlighted by the contrasting material used on the inner portions of the rear seat cushions, the armrests and the headrests,” says Fitzpatrick. The latter is an idea that came from the bright linings found in Paul Smith suits.
“We moved the HVAC controls outboard and arrayed them around the large, circular air vents,” says Fitzpatrick. This not only gives true dual-zone climate control up front, it—along with the use of the armrest-mounted HMI controller—eliminates the need for a center stack. By utilizing the “Coanda effect” on these registers—an aerodynamic phenomenon where air flow is directed along a convex surface that can be aimed—the airstream is both more easily directed and diffuse. To hide the remaining air registers, Fitzpatrick’s team placed the center vents behind an abstract grille located above the slide-out glovebox, while the rear vents are hidden between the chrome trim and wood on the back of the front seats. “Only the rear seat vent design has yet to be completely validated,” says Fitzpatrick, who is proud of the fact that this project is based on production-capable components. “The best design in the world is of no use if it can’t stand up to real world needs,” he says.
Playing on this idea, he points to the wood found in the door panels, along the front seatbacks, and on the rear package shelf. By laminating a 0.02-in. veneer to a pressed-wood backing, the designers were able to cover large areas of the interior with real wood panels that met structural, regulatory, and visual needs. This grew out of the fact that Fitzpatrick didn’t want a material that screamed “wood!” every time a door was opened, and that could take on the characteristics of other premium materials. After experimenting with several different veneers, the team settled on a white oak facing stained with a gray-effect wash. “This gives it a silk-like look at first glance,” says Fitzpatrick, “but retains the texture associated with real wood.” Brushed steel separates the wood and leather, and is used in an almost self-consciously ironic manner instead of wood on the steering wheel. Despite the fact that the transformed Tatra garnered high praise from the design community upon its debut at the 2007 Los Angeles Auto Show, Fitzpatrick suggests it might be a bit too avant-garde for the average consumer. “Unfortunately,” he says, “the consumer is so tied to what is familiar that we have to wean them off the traditional while showing them the upside of the changes we make. Part of my job is to lead them in that direction with concepts like this one.”