Chrysler's Design Obsession

Gary S. Vasilash

Whether it is the new Chrysler 200 or the Dodge Durango, things are changing at the Chrysler Group, especially in the design studios. Of course, the engineers and the manufacturing folks are elevating their games, too.

If you want to get a sense of how things aren't the same at Chrysler today compared to how they were not all that long ago, spend a few minutes with Klaus Busse, head of Interior Design, and if the lanky German doesn't convince you that there is a level of commitment and a drive to succeed within that short period of time, then you really ought to check your pulse because you might be a zombie. Seriously.

Consider: Busse, who studied design at both Hochschule für Bildende Künste Braunschweig and Coventry University, began his career in 1995 at Mercedes. In 1998 he was named the head Interior designer for the Mercedes SLK. In subsequent years he worked on the A, B, C, and SL Mercedes models. In 2005 he got the assignment to go to Auburn Hills to work with the designers at Chrysler. His first major assignment was for the interior of the Dodge Ram pickup truck. But within two years, the Chrysler-Mercedes marriage was over. And Busse had to make a decision about his career. While it might have seemed rather appealing to return to Mercedes, certainly a company that had more of a certain future than Chrysler did at the time, Busse (obviously) decided to stay with Chrysler. He explains that while he could have gone back to Germany, while he could have worked on cars like the SLK, he wanted to make a difference in a way that he otherwise couldn't have. He recognized that he had the opportunity to help create something at Chrysler, to make a mark, to help make a difference in terms of the quality of interior designs.

Busse talks about "honest design." About "American design." About products ranging from the Eames chair to the Chris Craft boat. "Honesty and clarity." These are the characteristics that he thinks about when going forward to create the new Chrysler products, such as the Grand Cherokee, the 2011 Durango, and the Chrysler 200. He talks about an "obsession with detail." And while this all may seem pretty much like motherhood and apple pie vis-à-vis what a designer should be about he actually provides examples of how they've manifest this obsession within the interiors of new vehicles like the Dodge Durango and the Chrysler 200.

First, note this admission: "It's not about spending money. It's about caring." Clearly, the people at Chrysler need to be a bit thriftier than those at, say, some German vehicle manufacturers. But caring can make a big difference.

Second, note this observation: "Plastic is a beautiful material if you know what to do with it." That clause beginning with "if" makes all the difference, because if you were to look at some Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep interiors of the not-too-distant past, it is fairly clear that (1) plastic wasn't executed as a "beautiful" material as much as it was deployed as a "functional" material and (2) what they seemed to be doing with it was cutting costs, pure and simple.

And here's where he's going with this honesty and acute attention to detail: A rock picked up from the shoreline of Lake Michigan. A rock that has been smoothed by millennia, but which still has a texture. It is this sort of treatment that Busse and his colleagues—including engineering colleagues, because he explains that there is a team in Auburn Hills dedicated to making a difference, and the dividing lines between designers and engineers are essentially erased—are making sure that the plastic surfaces that people touch have. He says there are "a sensual radius and a sensual grain on the rock." And it is this they are working to have on the plastic pieces within the vehicles. Stones along the shoreline don't have parting lines. Why should the adjustment tab on the HVAC louvers?

And while on the subject of HVAC louvers, Busse points to a thin chrome surround on the center stack on the Durango that includes the audio and HVAC controls: "An engineer recommended that."

Then, while gesturing to the Chrysler 200, which is being revealed in public after he and his team have been working on it for three years, "Today is graduation day." They've received their diplomas, but unlike those who graduate, there is a recognition that they have to keep at it, because he states, "This is the new baseline for Chrysler interiors." And to go beyond that will take, "More obsession, passion, support, and state-of-the-art technology."

Any doubts remain?