Amko Leenarts: Inside Story

Gary S. Vasilash

"We are global, so I am designing cars for the whole world," says Amko Leenarts, who heads up Ford's global interior design. And to think he once thought he'd be designing interiors for buildings as a career.

It might seem strange that Amko Leenarts spent five years studying to become an interior architect, and then a bit of his professional career at Architectenburea Korteweg in the Netherlands. “I spent one year doing it, and decided it wasn’t for me,” he says. Rather than simply sticking with the day job and pursuing his real interest on the side—after all, he was married with children—he pursued a change with a zeal that is, in a word, extraordinary.

He managed to get an invitation to participate in a workshop organized by Alfa Romeo, under the guidance of Walter da Silva, at the Domus Academy in Milan. He was first in his class. “This gave me the strength to take the next steps,” he recalls, and he credits his wife with supporting him in his undertakings, which included an eight-month internship at Volvo (“I went there and said that I didn’t need a job, just an internship. That I would work for free. By that time we had two kids.”), followed by another at Lancia Centro Stile.

Then, having developed an automotive portfolio (“My wife was managing two shops,” Leenarts recalls, acknowledging the support that he had on the home front), he went to the Royal Academy of Art in London for two years.

The good news in all this is that Leenarts proved to be proficient in the interior designs of automobiles, as upon graduation from the RCA in 2000 he moved to Paris, where he went to work for PSA Peugeot Citroën, where he was to have several interior design positions, with his last being Interior Design Director for Automobiles Peugeot, which he held until May 2012, when he was hired by Ford as director, Global Interior Design Strategy, which put him in Germany for nearly a year-and-a-half. He and his family then moved to Michigan in August 2013, as he was named global director, Interior Design Ford/Lincoln.

“My interior architecture part helps,” he acknowledges, then adds, “but it is a completely different world.”

Arguably, he entered something of an uncreated world when he went to work for Peugeot, because he had to set the interior design department up. He says that interior design was once held in not particularly high regard in the industry: “‘Interior design, inferior design.’ That was the motto. You let everyone in the studio do exterior designs, and the one who loses the competition, for punishment, gets to do the interior.”

Explaining why he thinks this is no longer the case: “When everything is pretty much the same, there needs to be something special. Every car has a relatively good engine. We’re not talking about cars rusting out any more. So after we figured out everything else, the interior has become a real differentiator.”

Leenarts says that what is appealing to him about interior design is that “it is more of a multilayered design task. It has to do with human factors, ergonomic issues, human-machine interfaces, materials, volumes—and sheer problem solving.”

He notes, “I see interior design as an industrial design exercise while exterior design is more of a styling exercise. Although with exterior design there are a lot of problems to solve, the basics are: Do you love its shape? “On an interior, we not only have to fall in love with the sculpture, but the way things function, the way that things feel, the way that you interact with it.”

Simply: It speaks to his problem-solving nature.