Setting the style

After nearly 20 years with Mercedes, Steve Mattin, Volvo’s recently appointed design chief, has to get his head round a totally different development challenge. Here, he talks to Jon Excell

From the Gallic chic of Renault to the Germanic efficiency of Volkswagen, the notion of the car as a national icon isfrequently invoked by automotive marketing people.

But in an industry where geographical heritage is perhaps given more prominence than that afforded any other engineered commodity, the man behind the styling of two other brands readily associated with their birthplaces — Mercedes and now Volvo — just happens to be English.

Steve Mattin, Volvo’s new 40-year old design director, joined the company earlier this year from Mercedes where he was responsible for the design of a range of models including the outgoing version of the hugely successful S-Class, the new M-Class, and the R-Class, which will be launched in the UK early next year. Born in Bedford, Mattin is a graduate of Coventry University’s highly regarded transport design department.

The unusual nature of his current circumstances, with products designed for his old employer yet to hit the road in some countries, brings the challenges of his new role into stark focus; having spent 17 years with one car company he must quickly get used to designing for a very different brand.

To realign his design sensibilities with his new paymasters, a short sabbatical was essential. So Mattin indulged his three passions of photography, travel and driving during a three-week tour of New Zealand behind the wheel of Volvo’s XC90 SUV. ‘This was a good opportunity to get to know the vehicle and the brand and live with it 24 hours a day. I did 800km in three weeks on every sort of road condition and got to know the cars and their capabilities fairly quickly,’ he said.

But Mattin admits that while working for Mercedes he didn’t really notice Volvos much. This quickly changed following the approach from chief executive, Hans-Olov Olsson.

‘Suddenly I started seeing them everywhere and began to appreciate the positive things that make them instantly recognisable, like the strong shoulders and the shape of the rear lights.’

Respecting and building on this strong identity, while introducing new ideas, lies at the heart of the challenge Mattin now faces. ‘Volvos have a strong identity, and when you have that you must make sure you don’t change everything and lose the cars’ character.

You have to strike a balance and decide which things you need to develop in a revolutionary way and where you can bring in evolutionary themes or ideas.’

The day-to-day practicalities of the new job also differ greatly from his old position. Now, instead of responsibility for individual designs, Mattin’s influence extends across the whole brand. His ideas will determine the way Volvos look in 10 years’ time. At Mercedes he headed a small team of designers; he now manages a team of around 180 working at the main studio in Gothenburg, Sweden, a small design studio in Barcelona, and the VMCC concept centre in California.

He admitted that one of the drawbacks of the new position is that it doesn’t allow him much time to indulge his number one passion: sketching out ideas. ‘I may not be putting pen to paper, but I’m putting my thoughts into someone else’s head,’ he said.

While Mattin has been brought in for his credentials as a designer, his years of experience in the car industry means he has an understanding of the engineering, safety and style constraints within which he must work. Thus, while his instinct as a designer is to push design as far as it can go, he knows the job is all about compromise.

And to this end, he will be working closely with Volvo’s ergonomics, safety, and aerodynamics engineers. ‘Design is one of the few areas which has to deal with every department from day one up until final press releases and test drives.’

Despite this, team members are allowed some freedom to indulge their creative instincts at the very beginning of a project. ‘When you’re starting a sketch programme you don’t have as much contact with the engineers. It’s a matter of being creative and getting as wide a spectrum and variety of ideas as possible and narrowing those ideas down. Then, as the ideas narrow, you have more contact with the outside world.’

Inspiration can strike at any time and from any direction said Mattin, although the first step is usually to look at the past.

‘The best way to get an understanding of how a brand should develop is to look at its heritage — there may be details that can be rejuvenated.’

Beyond this, inspiration comes from anywhere — other manufacturers, show cars, products such as hi-fis and even the fashion industry. ‘Like all designers I’m influenced by anything and everything. I could be going into a really cool bar and the lighting situation might influence the way I think about the lights within cars.’

For the present, the extent to which Mattin can bring his influence to bear on the brand is limited. He’s just beginning the process of dreaming up major new projects, and where he can he is optimising aspects of vehicles that are still in the pipeline. But he said that it will be at least four years before he can really start making a statement.

While he wouldn’t be drawn on specific design changes, Mattin identified a strong trend towards brand imaging. ‘As in many products, people are identifying more and more with btheir cars and that will be apparent in the design of the vehicles.’

While it’s an oft-repeated cliché that cars all look the same, Mattin argues that the reverse is actually true. ‘The very first cars all looked the same, in the 1950s they all looked the same — but today, in terms of detailing and individuality, there’s more variety than ever. People forget how many cars there are on the road.’

For Mattin, it’s a matter of huge personal pride, that many of these cars are the fruits of his own labours. ‘One of the great things about designing cars is that wherever you go in the world you usually see something you’ve worked on, and that’s so inspiring and motivating it gives you a breal buzz.’