Interview with Franz von Holzhausen

It's hard not to be envious of the top car designers, but it's impossible not to envy the position Franz von Holzhausen finds himself in. After stints as Design Director at GM, Assistant to the Chief of Design at Volkswagen, and Director of Design at Mazda, he's got a clean slate at the helm of arguably the most automotive venture there has ever been. The Model S is proving a massive hit - at the same time as proving a lot of people wrong - and the Model X MPV is on the horizon.

We caught up with him briefly at this year's Detroit Motor Show where, even with nothing 'new', the Tesla stand still drew the crowds.

Green Car Design: What things did you learn from your recent stints at GM and Mazda that you brought to your role at Tesla?

Franz von Holzhausen: Actually I started my career at Volkswagen and Audi, I spent 8 years there.  That was really a proper schooling about how to merge design and quality.  I brought that philosophy of design, quality and engineering to GM.  At Mazda the mission was a little different – to bring a product to market that lived up to the marketing hype. So what I learned from all these positions was how to develop a brand.  I learned discipline from the Germans while in America - it is about the free spirit, the message is what a brand can do.  What we set out to do for the Model S was to be the cornerstone of the brand, to identify the building blocks.  And we are starting to see the fruits of that labor where the brand is unique and sexy.   We also had to make sure that people are not scared by the technology; that the design is refined and doesn’t alienate anyone. [The Model S] does not look like a science project, you will be comfortable parking it next to a brand with 100 years of experience.

GCD: We met Elon [Musk] the other night at the main event.  We were struck by how personable he was, for all his successes he seemed like a regular guy.  What is it like working with him and how much input does he have in the design process?

FvH: The thing about Elon is he is a physicist and engineer, and his best thinking centers around innovation.  What he is - is approachable.  He talks at a technical level and gets 100% about the way the car is designed and built – he knows every nut and bolt and is super willing to talk about any part.  At the end of the day he realizes that a good design is essential to connecting with consumers and he wants to succeed in that.  We have great communications on what good design is, he empowers us and he has a fun side too. 

GCD: Does a “green” car need its own design language?

FvH: What I think they need is something to make the customer comfortable.  There can be over-uniqueness like some of the others are finding out.  For example green hemp is uncomfortable.  What we wanted to do is not create an experience where a powertrain that advanced scares people away.  We wanted an attractive, beautiful car that also happens to be electric.  This is not about ‘look at me, I’m electric’.  The last thing we want is for a customer to have to sell their soul to be green like you do for the Leaf or Volt, for example.  It’s like a good suit that you can wear year after year.  That’s a real challenge when you have a guy like Elon pushing you.

GCD: Tell us a little more about the Model S, Motor Trend’s Car of the Year...

FvH: There are examples out there of good ideas that are ruined by poor decisions and execution.  Our design intent was that it looks modern right now.  It brings a timeless feel with its overall design language, there is enough romance but no over-designed components.  Probably the most cool things is the 17” screen and the UI (User-Interface) experience.  It is interchangeable and upgradable so it will have a long life.

GCD: How did the design of the Model S evolve over time?

FvH: The hardest thing to do with a blue-sky project like this is to contain yourself.  It is easy to overshoot. The Karma is a great example of that.  We had a lot of early interaction with our owners, spent a lot of time at the stores and developed a short feedback loop.  With that we were constantly evaluating concerns, ideas and issues.  It was super important to engage our customers to make a better product.  They feel like they can move the needle and that’s awesome.  With the Model S we have some customers who are incredible sales people, they love showing it off. 

GCD: What parts of it are you most proud of?

FvH: I am still fascinated by the 17” screen – I think it will be relevant over a long time.  It is a leap forward, you need no knobs.  Before we launched we were a little unsure if some would miss the old world.  Customers love the screen; it’s amazing how fast they become totally comfortable with it. 

GCD: Last year you debuted the Model X Concept and this is our first chance to review it in person.  The Falcon-wing doors are really interesting.  How did the concept, and especially the doors, come about?

FvH: The Model X is a continuation of the Model S story.  We looked at the segment because it is really demanding and we wanted to break into it with a game changer.  Minivans are incredible, they have such a versatile interior but you have to sell your soul to drive one.  And SUV’s are horrible inefficient in their utilization of interior space.  We wanted to merge attractive and usable.  As far as the doors are concerned we looked at how you access the back.  We looked at all constructions and all examples and the Falcon Doors gave us the biggest opening.

GCD: Where does Tesla go from here?  Any more concepts coming?

FvH: We are working hard to bring the Model X to market in 2014.  Our ultimate goal is to bring electric cars to the masses.

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