Interview: Ford Designer Amko Leenarts Weighs in on His Artistic Influences

Ford designer Amko Leenarts weighs in on his artistic influences in this exclusive interview.

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Complex Original

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Last month, Ford’s design team headed to Milan, Italy, to showcase a collection of non-automotive objects created by Ford’s design studios around the globe. The objects, which range from furniture to musical instruments and a foosball table are inspired by the interior design philosophy of the all-new Ford GT.

The team also went to one of the city’s public squares to display a light installation inspired by the Ford GT. The installation contained a sculpture emerging from a milky, liquid surface and was unrecognizable at first. The unveiling of the form (concealed within the sculpture) coincided with a unique lighting experience that ultimately revealed an overhead view of the Ford GT.

The super-sleek sports car features hand-laid carbon fiber and a driver-oriented interior, and is one of Ford’s most revolutionary models to date. It’s set to hit the market late next year.

To better understand the brand’s design philosophy, we spoke with Ford’s Global Director of Interior Design, Amko Leenarts, who unpacked the company’s typical design process, discussed where he finds artistic inspiration, and explained how he aims to create an unforgettable experience for every driver.

Interview by Caitlin LoPilato (@cozysweatpants)

You have a really interesting background in interior car design. Where did your interest in this field stem from?

I've wanted to become a car designer from when I was very young. I entered a couple of car design competitions when I was 14 or 15. When I finished high school, I studied interior design, because it was simply the study that was right next to me, and I didn’t know that the world was as big as I’m experiencing now. I had a couple of internships with car companies, which brought me to Royal College of Art, in London, where I got a Masters in Vehicle Design. Then I was hired by Peugeot in France about 15 years ago. That’s where I started my car design career.

How do you find the balance between playing with your own creativity and sticking with designs that fit the Ford brand?

That’s not difficult. One of the only liberties a designer has is choosing modes of inspiration. Usually, everything else is a given; we know what the budget is, we know what the technical constraints are, like manufacturing, we know what basic economic constraints are. But we each get to choose our creative inspiration. As designers, that’s what we focus on very much. This source can vary from a piece of furniture, to something in nature, to digital assets like a website. When you work for a brand, you try to find the inspiration sources that best fit the brand promise.

How important is it to you to constantly be bringing innovation to your car designs?

Innovation is really important when designing the interiors of cars, because it really differentiates one brand from the next. If a Ford car has an innovative carpet, you will remember it as something that is specifically Ford. Obviously you want it to be a positive experience, so innovation allows us to create that experience and make it unique. It’s an experience that we want people to brag about to their friends, like, "I drove this Ford, which is amazing because of…" Innovation is very, very, very much driving that.

How do you aim to create that experience for people who drive the cars you design?

In our typical design process, we start by creating the showroom experience. We want people to be attracted to the cars by their exterior designs, so we get them into the car, and as an interior designer, my goal is to make sure that discovery of the interior is really a pleasant one. The first 180 seconds of experiencing a car is a very decisive 180 seconds. You decide in the first three minutes if you like it or if you don’t. Those deciding factors can be the way the car is shaped, the way you can or can’t put your stuff where you would like, or whether or not a phone can connect to the car. It could be the way your start-up sequence is being staged. Also, there are more subtle things, like smell, or the sound made when the car door shuts. All of these things are boxes that need to be ticked off when someone is deciding whether or not they like the car. In our design process, we really focus on these things and delivering an experience that the customer deserves.

Do you have any stand-out designs that youve done in the past that serve as benchmarks for you in your career?

I’ve only been working with Ford for a few years, and developing a car usually takes about four or five years, but the one we did really quickly was the new GT. It’s been an absolute dream project, both for the company and for me. One of the things you look forward to as a car designer is being able to create a super sports car. The new GT is the most important project I’ve ever done.

I know that you recently went to Italy for the Salone del Mobile. While you were there, where were you able to find design inspiration?

We went there with our team to present all the different types of objects based on the GT design philosophy. We created 12 different objects that we presented at the Salone del Mobile show, and that was an inspiration by itself. Walking around the show, walking around town, and being in a city where the vibe is really all about design, no matter where you go, was really an awesome experience.

What were some of those objects?

It really varied. From an electric guitar to a lamp, a couch, or a clock, there were very different types of objects that really celebrated design and our design team all around the world. We have about nine studios globally, and we have really beautiful pockets of design talent. There were objects from China, Europe, and the U.S., so it was really a special moment to have them coming together there.

What can you tell me about the Ford GT light sculpture that was on display in a Milan public square?

We had this amazing vertical sculpture on one of those beautiful Italian piazzas. You’re standing there, and you have this beautiful music, a beautiful sculpture, and beautiful imagery projected on it. There were Vespas stopping when they saw it, and people were in awe. It was an amazing event.

How are you planning to integrate what you experienced in Italy into your future designs?

One of the most important themes of our global design team is to create a design culture that simulates inspiration, a feeling of expression, and asks, ‘What is your passion?’ and ‘Why do you do things?’ That philosophy is going to be reflected in every object that we do from now on.

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