Sensuality. Beauty in the Smallest Part.
Mercedes-Benz is the only premium automotive brand that dares to be feminine. Beauty, timeless elegance and a strong emotive appeal – its innovative technology always comes packaged in a sensuous body. Both together set men’s pulses racing. But as we all know, beauty is more than skin-deep. “To achieve perfection and to have more than just fleeting popularity, a beautiful body also needs a beautiful soul,” says Nicola Ehrenberg-Uhlig, designer of car interiors.
Unlike in exterior design, around 30 per cent of the creatives working in interior design at Mercedes-Benz are women. One of them is Nicola Ehrenberg-Uhlig. “Women have a greater awareness than men of material quality, colour schemes and the finer details of workmanship. In the joint purchase of a car, it’s not for nothing that they often have the final say on trim and fittings. So it’s only logical that the interiors should be designed by women as well,” says the head of Conceptual Design Team Color & Trim. Since 2007, she has been responsible for the interior equipment and fittings of the major model series. The latest SLK roadster and the new M-Class are among the interiors designed by her and her team, which comprises three women and one man.
It’s what’s inside that counts
“It’s just the same for cars as it is for people,” says Ehrenberg-Uhlig, who originally trained as an haute couture designer. “The outside should look great, attract attention and turn heads. Long-term popularity, however, depends mainly on what’s inside. Only when the inside and outside go together perfectly, can initial infatuation turn into heartfelt, enduring love.” This is why one of the fundamental rules of Mercedes-Benz design is that the beauty, style and grace of the exterior have to be reflected in absolute harmony by the interior. In other words, the promises made by the outside have to be kept by the inside – and brought even closer to perfection through the use of exclusive materials and details.
A striking example of this philosophy is the new SLK roadster. Nicola Ehrenberg-Uhlig and her team have developed a design and equipment concept for its interior that offers a highly distinctive continuation of the sleek, sporty exterior. This includes trim pieces on the door openers and centre console either in brushed aluminium or a choice of high-gloss, dark-brown burr walnut or high-gloss black ash, as well as electroplated circular air vents designed to evoke the dynamism of aviation. Other stand-out features are the leather or nappa leather seat covers, which reflect the sun’s rays and noticeably reduce how hot the surfaces can get. The stitching on the seats is in a contrasting colour to the leather, which further emphasises the sense of exclusivity and the sporty look. “It’s the attention to detail that creates a strong impact,” says the 44-year-old – diminutive in stature but not in her sense of humour.
From haute couture to automotive design
Her eyes light up when she talks about her work: “It’s just so much fun coming up with new interior concepts and ideas for new materials, and creating a harmonious overall look in keeping with the exterior design, which gives every vehicle model an individual and highly expressive character.”
The route she took to her current job was anything but linear. After finishing school, she studied journalism at university. But this was too theoretical for her and did not match her true talents. So she switched to the fashion industry and did an apprenticeship as an haute couture dressmaker. Here, she discovered her love for design and developed a passion that endures to this day for being creative with shapes, colours and exclusive materials. After working in a fashion design studio and as a costume designer for the theatre, she did a degree in design, first at the Utrecht School of the Arts in the Netherlands and then in Pforzheim, Germany. She has worked for Mercedes-Benz since 2000.
The switch from fashion to car design was not difficult for her. “The idea of haute couture is to make the body look as good as possible and to bring out its personality. It’s exactly the same for a car,” she explains. Particular features such as an eye-catching seam pattern or a captivating contrast between silk matt and high-gloss surfaces decorate an exclusive car interior in the same way as a dress. There’s just one important difference – and it’s one that gives Nicola Ehrenberg-Uhlig immense pleasure. “As an automotive designer, you have so much more time than you do in fashion to develop details and to hone the quality and perfection until you are able to stand 100 per cent by your work – and that is a luxury for a designer.”
Design creates an emotional habitat
For around two years, she has been working with her team on the design of an interior for a new model series – and she has to look far into the future to do this. It’s essential to maintain the allure of the vehicle over a period of many years. Whereas fashion mostly serves short-lived trends and is therefore highly transient, the design of all Mercedes-Benz vehicles focuses on an attractive modern appeal und longevity. Showboating and trends have no chance. “The interior equipment and fittings,” says the passionate mountain climber, “have to keep the customers excited over a number of years, to create a lasting emotional connection – a home from home, if you will. We see our job as creating living spaces. After all, our customers spend a lot of time in their cars.” Against the hectic backdrop of our mobile society, the interior of a vehicle more than ever before has to cater for relaxation, security, enjoyment and the feel-good factor.
For this reason, Mercedes-Benz has made it its mission to make improvements to the interiors of all model series. Or as the designer puts it: “We want to celebrate high quality and consummate workmanship, to make customers see, touch and feel this, and to bring a proud smile to their lips whenever they sit in a Mercedes-Benz.” A current example is the new M-Class. Ehrenberg-Uhlig and her team have brought the quality of the interior, whose design was previously more functional in character, up to the standard of a luxury-class saloon.
Trim parts made from unpolished aluminium or exclusive real woods, finely crafted switches in silver chrome and exclusive applications create a feel-good ambience just as in the S-Class. The dashboard design blends seamlessly into the door trim, creating a wrap-around effect that conveys a feeling of security. For further customisation, the designer has created a range of materials as well as various colour options in warm tones – from black, almond beige and alpaca grey to tobacco brown. “The result is an understated, but very sporty look which is no way aggressive or loud.” Refined sportiness, as the Mercedes-Benz designer calls her new design concept.
Advancing through persistence and persuasiveness
Designing the interior of a car is like creating an entire collection. The seasoned designer chooses which colours, material and leather qualities, woods, metals or even stone such as granite match the character of each model and develops an overall concept with numerous variants for customisation. The attention to detail that goes into this knows no bounds. Even the stitching on the seats or leather steering wheel has to have a colour and pattern that fits in perfectly with the overall aesthetic.
To achieve this, she works closely with her colleagues from technical development. Of course, there can sometimes be areas of friction. “Everyone,” she says, “has their ideas and products which they want to see incorporated into a vehicle. Sometimes these fit in with each other, sometimes they don’t. You have to fight your corner. It’s more difficult for women, the higher up they get – there is something to that. But on the other hand, if you are the only woman in meetings, you get much more attention and it’s up to the individual to take advantage of this. A solution will always present itself if you bring persistence, persuasiveness and sound arguments to the table.”
Asked about her favourite Mercedes, she barely hesitates. “All those that I fitted out,” she laughs. “So much hard work and passion goes into each one, and I can’t wait until it finally hits the road.” When she signs off a model, it takes one to two years for it to appear on the ‘catwalk’. Another big difference to fashion, “which took me a while to get used to”. And she has plenty to be excited about in the next couple of years. At the beginning of 2012, the new SL-Class roadster will make its world premiere, and the new S-Class will be launched in 2013. “The new S-Class is an absolute dream in terms of quality and workmanship.” That’s all she’s prepared to say.
Interview with Nicola Ehrenberg-UhligInterior Design of the Future.
Nicola Ehrenberg-Uhlig heads up Conceptual Design Team Color & Trim for Mercedes-Benz vehicle interiors. As part of a four-strong team, she develops interior equipment and fittings for the S-Class and M-Class, the CLS Coupé and for all sports cars and roadsters. She also created the design and equipment lines for the Concept A-CLASS, which offers a glimpse of how the new A-Class will look.
Would a Mercedes-Benz designed exclusively by woman look different?
No, I don’t think so. The look of a Mercedes-Benz has always had something feminine about it, and is – outside too – designed with a lot of attention to detail. As a woman, of course I stand by each individual model. But the process of how we get there would perhaps be different, because women generally go about things in a more playful and fun way.
How will interior design at Mercedes-Benz develop in the future?
The interplay between elegance and engineering that has made Mercedes-Benz stand out for as long as anyone can remember will become even more of a focus inside the vehicle. High-grade traditional materials such as leather are being combined with contrasting high-tech elements. This will raise the already superior quality of the workmanship. We will be creating an exciting and highly emotive connection between the traditional and the modern.
Can you give us an example?
Our Concept A-CLASS, which we unveiled at the Shanghai motor show in April 2011, illustrates this perfectly. For it, we combined light-beige nubuck leather with metallised leather and a translucent vapour-plated fabric which stretches over the dashboard and the centre console. The dashboard and centre console themselves have no conventional base, but are instead made of only brushed aluminium which is visible through the transparent high-tech textile lining. This makes the instrument panel look as if it’s hovering in thin air. Then there are the magenta-red accents in the seams and in the ambient lighting as well as innovative, 3-D graphics for the contents of the display. The overall impression is a unique combination of typical Mercedes elegance with high perceived quality and modern, sporty lightness. And precisely this is for me the Mercedes world of tomorrow.
Does outstanding workmanship also mean an outstanding finish?
Absolutely. The piano lacquer, for example, which we offer in the S-Class and CLS, is craftsmanship at its best. Up to seven layers of paint are applied and then polished to achieve the desired high-gloss finish. And the leather tailored covers for the dashboard are stitched together by hand. Only then are they inserted into the machine that fills them with high-grade foam.
Should design polarise or should it please everyone?
I’d even go as far as saying that design has to polarise. If everyone likes it, it can’t really have an emotive appeal and so has no future.