Sherry Sabbagh & the Pursuit of Color

Although she started as a textile designer in New York and never imagined working on car interiors, Sherry Sabbagh has found the auto industry to be a tremendous palette—and pallet—for her work.

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Although this may be surprising—and it often is to me—sometimes when you walk through design departments in offices, they resemble, well, the actuarial department. A picture of something—like a Lamborghini Gallardo or some interstellar object from the Hubble—on a cube wall, and maybe a few scale models of concepts of future past. There may be a souvenir from some place an IDSA conference was held, or possibly a trophy from an interdepartmental softball playoff (“Yeah, we really took it to those guys over in Actuarial in ’12 . . .”).

There is a serious dearth of what can be thought of as inspirational, imaginative, artistic, creative, clever, eye-opening, or gob-smacking.

(Of course, when you’re admitted to the conference room where the planning is performed, you suddenly see all of the things that you’d imagine would be in the offices and cubes, but even so, they’re organized in an orderly manner.)

Sherry Sabbagh is the design manager for Color + Materials & Advanced Trend Research at Johnson Controls (johnsoncontrols.com), and she manages the seating supplier’s Advanced Materials Library. Her office space is in Plymouth, Michigan, physically. Imaginatively—yet tangibly—it is seemingly everywhere, with pictures, materials, objects and artifacts in an array in her space. There is almost a fierce flamboyance to her working area. Color abounds.

Which is the sort of thing you’d be looking for in a person whose job it is to understand color—not only what it means in Michigan or the U.S. or North America, but EVERYWHERE. (“We have to be mindful of the cultural implications of color,” Sabbagh says, noting that in India, for example, brides wear red at their weddings and white is the color for funerals.)

Prior to joining the automotive community, she worked for 16 years as a textile designer in New York City, where she had assignments ranging from Liberty of London to West Point Stevens, Oleg Cassini to Walt Disney Productions.

She came to Detroit in 1997 because her husband had a job reassignment. And she admits that she had more than a little trepidation when she thought about auto interiors (where else would a color and materials person be better suited than on interiors?): “I didn’t want to do automotive—it was just black, grey and beige. It sounded like complete torture for a color-oriented person.” But there is something to be said for someone whose fundamental passion and drive can work to transcend the status quo, as black, grey and beige though it may be.

“I fell into automotive by default—” she says, then adds, with the sort of enthusiasm that one would expect from a person whose workspace is so lively, “—and I love it.”

She spent a couple of years at General Motors before moving to Johnson Controls in 1999.

Given her background and her present role, it isn’t entirely surprising that Sabbagh travels to the Milan Design Fair, the ICCF, NeoCon, and other furniture-centric events. She admits, “I have always been totally a research geek,” so her travels not only take her to industry events, but as she shows photograph after photograph of colors and cars, of fashion and furniture, it becomes clear that on her personal travels she is keenly assessing her surroundings (e.g., in explaining a trend of the importance of lighting in interiors, she shows a picture of electroluminescent plankton that she took in the middle of the night on a beach in India; were she less dedicated to her pursuit, you can imagine her saying, “Yes, that’s interesting, but it is the middle of the night and I am still jet lagged, so . . .”). 

Sabbagh acknowledges that the traditional black, grey and beige of automotive interiors are traditional for the simple reason that they aren’t particularly risky. Were you a dealer buying cars to put on your lot, would you select a purple interior?

Sabbagh says that purple is the favorite color of teenage girls around the world. While teenage girls do buy cars (or have cars bought for them), as they soon get older, chances are the appeal of purple fades along with the One Direction posters.

And that leads to another key consideration, which is the long-term viability of material colors on a physical basis. Sabbagh says that there are a minimum of 22 specs that colored materials have to meet, with UV stability and fadeability being key considerations: How many times have you seen what was once a white seat (or even exterior) that has taken on a bit of jaundice?

One of the ways that she sees as a transition from the traditional colors, a transition that is also economical (after all, if someone is going to buy a theoretical 100 bolts of fabric in beige, it is going to have a better price than 10 bolts of 10 different colors each, so that is a key consideration when developing interiors), a transition that isn’t going to put a whole lot of vehicles on dealer lots with interiors that are excessively nontraditional, is through color blocking, which Sabbagh describes as “a way of bringing in bright colors without being overwhelming.”

Color blocking involves picking, say, three colors. One is the base color. The other two are options. By having the base consistent across the offerings, economies of scale are realized. By having a choice of two additional colors, there is the opportunity to add some variety to the interior without undue complexity or expense. “It’s one design with many options,” she says.

There are lots of considerations, concepts, and creations that Sabbagh is pursuing. Metallics. Natural woods (“With cracks and flaws and natural colors”). Antimicrobial materials. Self-cleaning materials. Self-healing materials. (With these last three being real considerations vis-à-vis car sharing.) She is excited with the prospect of autonomous vehicles, particularly as this means interiors have the potential of being radically redesigned (“If the driver is not focused on the act of driving, this opens up the possibility of doing other things.”)

“It takes 90 seconds for a person to decide whether they like a product,” Sabbagh says. “Much of that has to do with color.”

For her, “color expresses the emotion in any product. Color breathes life into things.”

And so she is pursuing the interior that isn’t merely characterized by black, grey and beige.

“This is where I hope to have some impact, to leave a little footprint.”