Relevance as a Precursor to Elegance: Creating Lincoln Design

David Woodhouse is the design director for Lincoln Motor Cars. And while he has a life-long love of and appreciation for classic automotive designs of yore, he understands that there is a difference between then and now when it comes to creating vehicle designs for the premium brand.

This past June, multi-industry designer Marc Newson said in an interview that appeared on Dezeen. com (dezeen.com), that he was most interested in the fashion world.

He said what is appealing to him is that fashion designers operate at a blazingly fast pace.

Consequently, they tend to have their proverbial finger on the pulse of what is happening now.

Contemporaneity is evidently rather important to Newson.

Newson went on to say, “I’m a huge fan of contemporary culture. If you look at the world of automotive design, which I find pretty deplorable really in general, it doesn’t embrace the world of contemporary culture.”

Which is, in general, pretty damning of the automotive design community.

So when I sit down with David Woodhouse, design director of Lincoln Motor Cars, for the first time, I read Newson’s quote to him and get ready to duck.

After all, Woodhouse, who has a Master of Design degree from the Royal College of Art, London, a man who has more than 20 years designing cars (he’s worked on MINI, Cadillac, Range Rover, and BMW, and to get more granular, he’s worked on the Ford Shelby GR1, the Ford Airstream, the Ford Reflex, Lincoln Continental Concept, Lincoln Mk9 Coupe, Lincoln Aviator Concept, Cadillac Imaj Concept, and Land Rover Freelander), a man who won car design competitions held by British publications Autocar (he won this first one at age 15; the prize was two weeks in the Austin Rover studio) and Car when he was a teenager, is going to find this deplorable, right? Woodhouse has been a car designer all of his life, so those words have to provoke some serious umbrage, right?

Wrong.

And he even provides an explanation of the difference between what Newson does* that puts automotive design practice in a context that is rarely so well-articulated.
(Woodhouse also points out that Newson worked with Ford on the 021C concept sedan that was introduced in 1999, the year that he joined Ford from General Motors.)

That is: “Marc is he lives on being unique. His brand. His signature. That’s great. He doesn’t live in the automotive world. We are very customer-driven. This is the difference between an artist and a designer, the difference between the more artistic architects and those really doing work for customers. We are in a different world. When I say ‘customer driven,’ we live and die on the success of the products, mass-produced products.”

It is one thing to be a boutique designer. It is entirely another to be designing products that not only have to sell in the thousands but for thousands of dollars calculated with five digits (or more).

Then there is the idea that compared to things like fashion (about which Newson told Dezeen: “There’s something about the fashion industry that excites me. The speed and efficiency with which you’re able to execute something from beginning to end.”), automotive is glacial.

Woodhouse acknowledges that the auto industry is “very evolutionary,” at least when it comes to cars that are made out of metal for the masses.

(But he’s seen things happen at a comparatively fast clock speed: he spent a decade working in advanced studios in both London and California, where he saw vehicles come into existence from an idea in the space  of twelve months.)

He makes an interesting point about automotive design in the context in which it is seen. “People often say cars look the same,” he says. “But if you look at the evolution of the automobile in just the last 10 years, it is massive. It happens in front of us. We don’t notice.”

That is, because year after year there are changes, modifications, and a multitude of models, some old, some new, all on the road at the same time, there may be an idea that cars have a visual similarity, even though there is a significant difference from one decade to the next.

That said, this is not a case of simple  change for the sake of change, because  Woodhouse, a car collector and enthusiast (when he grew up in Worchester, England, his parents owned a garage, so he says that he became interested in cars essentially at age zero, and he remembers his childhood antics in the garage—including falling into a vat of diesel sump fluid—with fondness), recognizes the importance of the background of a given brand. “You have to think about the essence of what makes a brand. Its nationality. History. Heritage. How it is looked upon by customers, both good and bad. You have to work from that.”

Which brings us to the point of Lincoln.

“With Lincoln,” he says, “we have a great foundation to build on. The work that Moray [Callum] and Max [Wolff] initiated**, this series of cars during the past few years, is actually very good. They’ve got emotion built into them. They have advancement built into them.”

Yet he makes a point that is often trotted out by those who point to the past, to cars that Once Were. “It is a default to always go back to what Lincoln was in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” he says. “I love those iconic Lincolns. But you have to question their relevance to the customer today.

“This always has to be a point of reference to us: What is the contemporary state of the art? What is the relevance in this day and age?”

But this does not mean that you relegate the cars of the past to the collection at The Henry Ford Museum. “There is value in heritage,” Woodhouse says.  

“You can be informed by it, inspired by it, but you can’t be locked into it.”

He says that there should be “emotional touch points to the elegant, beautiful, iconic Lincolns of the past,” but he recognizes that he and his design team must be developing cars that are emotionally connecting products for the consumers of today and tomorrow.

It is almost dogma that a premium brand has to have a massive rear-drive sedan in order to be, well, a premium brand. And it has been announced that Lincoln will have an all-new, full-size sedan in 2016.

Yet Woodhouse states: “We’re not going to be doing land yachts,” adding,  “There is the issue of relevance.

“The default that luxury is only a big, masculine car is in the past. It is gone. “We have to look at luxury with a new outlook, a new mindset.”

Lincoln’s primary growth in the next few years is going to be predicated  on its performance in China. There, it  seems, “large” is somewhat synonymous with “luxury.” And Woodhouse admits, “A lot of the ‘L’ versions for China”—the luxury cars with stretched wheelbases, especially to accommodate rear-seat passengers—“have relevance for that market.”

So while Lincoln will have a big car (and it has the BIG Navigator SUV), Woodhouse seems to be suggesting (as he’s not going to be showing his hand regarding future products) that within the Lincoln design studio in Dearborn they are crafting luxury and quality in a way that is contemporary in a way that even Marc Newson would admire. 

*Or what he did, as Newson joined the Apple design team in September, and Apple certainly has a design language and form that is no less corporately consumer focused than, say, Lincoln.

**Callum is vice president, Design, for Ford, with responsibility for Ford and Lincoln products. Wolff is Lincoln Exterior Design Chief (see: autofieldguide.com/articles/max-wolff-leading-lincoln-design)