Max Wolff: Leading Lincoln Design

“Lincoln, by its nature, is always going to be an American luxury brand,” says Max Wolff, its director of Design. Wolff, by the way, comes from Australia.

If you’ve ever been on a Delta flight and happened to catch one of those Lincoln advertorials about design and craftsmanship (not the bits that you might catch on TV with actor John Slattery of Mad Men looking all serious in his horn rims), you may recall that among those featured is a man with a close beard and mustache, vertically jelled hair, and an Australian accent. That’s Max Wolff. Wolff is director of Design for Lincoln.
When the airline spot is brought up, Wolff admits that during a flight with his wife, she nudged a nearby passenger when her husband was on the screen. The price of fame.
Wolff took the position with Lincoln on January 3, 2011. Before that, he had a number of positions with General Motors. In fact, he essentially started at GM in Australia, after receiving a bachelor of Technology degree from Monash University in Victoria, Australia. “From there, I did about a year of not all that much, and then started at GM Holden,” Wolff recalls.
His notion of becoming a designer began a bit earlier than that. “When I was 12 I sent a letter and some of my sketches to the then-head of Holden Design. My mother still has the typed letter reply that said I couldn’t come and work in the studio, and it encouraged me to get an industrial design degree.”
Which, he did.
But before that was completed—before that was undertaken—he kept at it. “I kept pestering them.”
Michael Simcoe is presently executive director of General Motors International Operations Design. Simcoe is a graduateof RMIT University—that’s Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. Simcoe joined Holden in 1983. Simcoe was one of the people whom Wolff pestered. “When I was about 16, Simcoe acquiesced and said he would meet me. I went there and showed him some sketches, and he gave me some hints. I remember that day very clearly because they put me in a little conference room. There was a whiteboard in there with a blind pulled down in front of it. They gave me some magazines to read and said, ‘Wait here, and whatever you do, don’t look under that blind.’ “In direct contrast to what I would usually do, I didn’t look under there. I’m sure there was nothing important there, but for the rest of my life I’ve been thinking: ‘What the hell was under there?’”
“Simcoe gave me my first job.”
Wolff’s last job at GM was design director, Cadillac Exterior. Simcoe was executive director, North American exterior design. Yes, from the first job to the last at GM with Simcoe.  After his six years at Holden, he spent four years in Seoul working with what was then GM Daewoo, then three years at the Cadillac studio before moving across town to Lincoln.
In 1922, Henry Ford bought Lincoln from Henry Leland for $8-million.
Lincoln was the second company Leland established.
The first was Cadillac.
Cadillac is a brand that has redefined itself. This is manifest in the “Art and Science” design vocabulary, which went into production in 2002 as the model year 2003 CTS. One of Wolff’s challenges at Lincoln is to create a similar distinctive approach. “Lincoln needs to differentiate itself from the competition and from what it has been,” Wolff says, and admits, “It has some baggage from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and into the ‘90s. “Lincoln needs to make a significant step forward. So that’s what we’ll do.” “We” is more than the folks at Lincoln Design. “It’s not all Design,” he acknowledges, then goes to point out that Engineering, Manufacturing, and Marketing Communications all play a role, as well. “But Design is a significant part of it because that’s what people are exposed to on a daily basis.” Still, he points out, “It is a significant part but not the only part.” “Design, Engineering, and Manufacturing. None of the three can work independently. We work closely. [pause and a change of tone to that of moderate jocularity] Sometimes a little too closely.”
And while sometimes Design is perceived by the Other Two as being somewhat too outlandishly demanding, Wolff says that his experience with Lincoln has been that there is alignment: “When everyone can see that the work you’re doing is going to result in a better product, or a more differentiated product, or contribute to the vision of the brand as a whole, then they rally around it.” An example of this collaboration is the front end of the MKZ Concept that wraps the grille and the lamps with a single piece of chrome, something that Wolff says is new to the Ford/Lincoln system, something that he describes as “an example of Engineering, Manufacturing and Design working together for the right solution.”
Wolff describes the MKZ Concept as “a transformational product for Lincoln.”
So what’s the step that they need to take? “Lincoln, by its nature, is always going to be an American luxury brand. But Lincoln wants to become—and has been—a little more modern, tailored and progressive rather than the classic traditional view of what American automobiles are,” Wolff says. As an analogy, he names fashion designers Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs and (“to some extent”) Calvin Klein: “They’re all American fashion brands, but they are a little bit more tailored than Ralph Lauren or Tommy Hilfiger, which are more overtly American in their character.” Part of it comes down to environment. To the influences that are provided by what’s around you. “Designers are influenced by their surroundings.” In his case, the surroundings range from bicycles from U.S. companies like Trek and Specialized (“I’m a fairly keen cyclist”) to a variety of things he sees in the media (“I’m a voracious reader of magazines”).
One Ford. That’s the phrase that has led to things like the selling of Volvo and the elimination of Mercury. One Ford. But what about Lincoln? “A volume product”—think Ford—“is different from a luxury product”—think Lincoln. “The customer is different. The performance is different. The expectations are different,” Wolff says. Yet for all that: “The global platforms are a great place to start. There will be differences. Technology, design, materials—things that a luxury brand may be able to bring in before a volume brand can.”
So they’re making a difference. Lincoln designers, stylists, modelers, and engineers are within their own space. A 40,000-ft2 space. Lincoln hasn’t had a studio since the 1970s. The first evidence of their work is the MKZ Concept, which was revealed at the 2012 North American International Auto Show. It is based on the Ford CD platform, which it shares with the Fusion. Yet the MKZ looks absolutely nothing like the Fusion (even the brand new Fusion). It has a long, sleek roofline. And the roof is a glass sheet that extends from the windshield to the backlight. Inside, the transmission gear selector is pushbuttons. The instrument panel is a 10.1-in. thin-film transistor (TFT) LCD display. That is in addition to a centermounted 8-in. LCD touch screen. The accent materials include poplar wood and real aluminum. “Things that a luxury brand may be able to bring in before a volume brand can.”
And we end with a laugh. What if he wasn’t a car designer? What if he never secured that job in Melbourne with GM Holden? What if he wasn’t tasked with the transformation of Lincoln? What would he have done? “I would have been a low-volume, independent alcohol distribution consultant,” he says with a wry smile, adding, “I would have been a bar tender.” He fesses up: “Somebody actually put that on a resume they sent us. I’ve been a bar tender in my past. I don’t know if I would have followed that.”
Evidently he wouldn’t have.