A series of haunting headlines recently appeared in the automotive press, touting an effort by Nissan to create a futuristic material for its car interiors: a synthetic leather that feels just like human skin. Reading these eerie yet imminently clickable links set off our Michael Crichton/Joseph Mengele alarms, so we immediately reached out to our friends at Nissan’s North American headquarters to find out how, exactly, they’re planning to farm Homo-sapiens hide. Luckily, their project was less creepy but no less interesting than the headlines suggested.
“We set out to produce an interior material that would be better than anything used before,” Brenda Parkin, Nissan’s lead color designer told us. “Something as soft as a baby’s cheek.” This meant conducting scientific investigations with something called an “artificial finger,” which measures tactile sensations and correlates them with perception of pleasure. The results? “Universally,” Parkin told us, “what people gravitate to as pleasurable is something that mimics the sensation of touching human skin.” So in order to best entice consumers, Parkin and her team will attempt to create materials that can approximate this feeling—the feeling of stroking an infant’s face.
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—What a new Nissan goes for, with or without "baby's cheek"
Welcome to the latest frontier in the automotive market. With even basic transportation like the Nissan Sentra offering heated leather seats, aluminum-look trim, and soft-touch plastics, high-end manufacturers are searching for ways to differentiate their products from other companies’. And with innovations in every luxury consumer category rushing downmarket with Web-driven alacrity—witness how quickly last week’s couture runways inspire this week’s windows at H&M—the race to stay steps ahead of the competition is fierce.
The most recent fad in upscale automotive interiors, Piano Black—a lacquer that looks like the finish on an ebony grand—moved almost immediately from Aston Martins to Kias. So what’s next?
In considering this question, our friend Peter Cullum-Kenyon, director of color and trim for opulent British automaker Bentley, bucked against what he called “change for change’s sake,” emphasizing the marque’s taste for traditional, natural materials. “Wood, metal, and leather are our staple diet, are incredibly rich, are exceptionally versatile, and remain contemporary,” he told us.
However, he added that in recent design studies, such as the company’s EXP 9F S.U.V. concept, Bentley has attempted to push the envelope, including components outside its lux wheelhouse. These include gunmetal bronze for bits of trim and hand-knotted silk for fancy floor mats. Still, these embellishments are from “material families [that] are embedded into our DNA,” Cullum-Kenyon explained, referring to them as “pure and honest.”
This kind of material piety can be an effective means of asserting the heritage of an automaker with nearly 100 years of history. But how does a company stake out its version of vehicular luxury if it’s just getting started, particularly as it’s trying to redefine our very understanding of what a car can be?
These are precisely the challenges faced by Nadya Arnaout, the director of interior design and color at Fisker Automotive. A California-based start-up that produces electric luxury cars, Fisker has already attempted to enunciate its “green” branding in the interior of its first vehicle, the Karma. Inside the swoopy, solar-panel-topped sedan, reclaimed wood trims the dashboard, and vegan Ultrasuede and microfiber are among the options for the seats and dash. Lately, Arnaout told us, she’s been intrigued by “compressed and stretched felt, as well as recycled paper that is layered and cut in a way that appears with a grain comparable to wood.” She’s also been tempted by another favorite material of eco-conscious designers: glass. “It’s beautiful,” she said, “yet it’s totally unfeasible for an automotive interior environment, which should be focused on safety.”
As exciting as some of these ideas seem, they all come from within the industry, and we know how groupthink can quash adventurous brainstorming. So for some outsider brilliance, we turned to Kitty Hawks, a home-interior designer known for her work in Hollywood and society circles. Her suggestions? “Instead of smooth leather, I would use curly lamb’s wool on seats for its tactility and comfort,” she told us. “I also think it might be interesting to use cork on the dashboard to replace the leather or vinyl. It’s non-reflective and has a great visual texture.” Another advantage: “both materials dye easily, so if one wanted color in the interior,” it would be easy to apply.
But the most outré and engaging new idea came from an unlikely insider—our baby-skin-minded friends at Nissan. When asked to reveal the strangest interior material they’d ever considered using, Brenda Parkin replied, “Bacon.” “We throw around very wacky ideas all the time,” she explained. “It’s important to ask questions like: Why is bacon that different from leather? Plus, everything is better with bacon, right?”