Interview with Henrik Fisker

Henrik Fisker has quite a varied background. Having worked for BMW immediately following his studies at Art Center College of Design in Switzerland, the acclaimed designer became President and CEO of BMW Group’s DesignworksUSA and later joined Ford; assuming the role of Creative Director at the automaker’s London-based design center, Ingeni, and heading the Global Advanced Design Studio in Irvine.

Fisker’s design credits include the BMW Z8, the 2005 Shelby GR1 concept and the Aston Martin V8 Vantage and DB9, to name a few.

While many people would have been content with the professional achievement Fisker’s enjoyed at the helm of the design studios at three major OEMs, the ambitious Dane had his sights set on bigger goals. In 2007, he co-founded Fisker Automotive with longtime colleague Berhard Koehler (with whom he had worked over the course of his career at BMW, Ford and Aston Martin), and set out to provide a more holistic offering of sustainability in the automotive sphere.

We caught up with Fisker as he prepared to reveal the Karma to the automotive press in California to find out more about Fisker Automotive’s design philosophy, his views on sustainability and the start-up company’s long term ambitions.

GCD: The Karma is an emotional design that’s been likened to sports cars, but it doesn’t wear its eco attributes on its sleeve. What is your design philosophy?

Henrik Fisker: “At the end of the day, people like beautiful cars. And for Fisker Automotive it’s about designing desirable cars for the future that are also environmentally friendly. For us, that doesn’t mean designing vehicles that are awkward just to be different. The Karma is definitely different than other cars but in a beautiful, attractive way. And that was our aim: to get people to see the automobile as a beautiful, attractive product. I think that we’ve achieved that.”

GCD: What are your thoughts on green car design? Do you believe there should be a clearer differentiation between alternatively powered vehicles and conventionally powered cars?

HF: “I don’t know if there really is a ‘green’ car design. I think that’s a strange word. It’s like saying: ‘should diesel powered cars look different than gasoline powered cars?’ Probably not.

“If you’re an established brand you have to make decisions within your brand, but the fact that we’re a new brand means we have to make different cars. If you ask me as a car designer, I don’t think [green cars] need to be differentiated to the point where they alienate people, to the point where [consumers] don’t feel comfortable with it. I think the whole point for any company should be to make desirable cars that sell.

“We have a unique opportunity as a new car company to define ourselves as a brand. We incorporate some environmentally friendly features into our design without trying to hide it, such as the solar roof – it’s accentuated by a special graphic designed to make it look good. The reclaimed wood used in the interior doesn’t have gloss or lacquer on it to make it feel more real. But I don’t think it’s beneficial for the sales of the cars to make them look specifically eco-friendly. You want to appeal to a large amount of people.

“What you really need to do is pursue a design that is more beautiful than a conventional car but still forms a bridge from the conventional car. If you don’t have that bridge I think you may alienate too many consumers. I think that’s probably happened with some environmentally friendly designs.”

GCD: What is your stance on using sustainable materials?

HF: “That’s really about being sensible and smart. I think the car industry in the future needs to be sensible and smart and still create the great excitement that we love about our cars. I don’t think its just about showing off some sort of exciting environmentally sensitive trend, it’s really about making sure that we make all our cars in the future in the most sustainable way possible.

“A car will always take resources to make, but if we can take some of the low hanging fruit and be smart about it, not waste things that are not necessary and still make exciting fast cars, that’s the whole idea behind Fisker Automotive. What we want to do is appeal to the consumer that has adopted a lifestyle where they still want to have fun and have beautiful things but in a responsible way.”

GCD: Can you tell me a bit more about the reclaimed wood and the EcoSuede materials available in the Karma EcoChic models?

HF: “This was about using materials that are either recycled or ‘animal free’. We wanted to make that type of interior available. One of the reasons car companies go to Brazil to cut down wood is because you can’t cut down some of the types of trees [found in vehicles today] because they might be protected. If you take wood that has already fallen – in this case from the bottom of lake Michigan or from the California fires – then you get the type of wood you want without cutting down any trees.”

GCD: You’re employing everything from wood trim sourced from reclaimed lumber, seating foam fashioned from soy-based bio fiber and carpet backing created from recycled post-consumer materials. It’s really an admirable mission for a vehicle manufacturer.

HF: “You have to find a balance in everything. It’s not going to happen from one day to the other. You have to start with a few things. For instance, our command center eliminates the construction of plastic buttons. There are a lot of things that we can look at and move forward with. We have set ourselves a goal to be the most environmentally friendly automotive company in the world when it comes to how we design and manufacture our vehicles and what we stand for as a brand – even when choosing our dealers. Our dealers use solar signs and are told to use local materials to build the dealerships.

“I think there’s been a rush in these last years to almost over-emphasize the design aspects in an awkward way, where things are painted green and talked about as if they’re environmentally friendly, but we have to be honest. Even as a designer it’s not just about design – how do people use it? How do you build it? How do you create it? And at the end of the day you’ve also got to sell it. So all of these things have to come together.

“Our goal is to convince the consumer that an environmentally friendly vehicle that uses environmentally friendly materials and powertrains can be more exciting than conventional cars today. Not just as exciting, more exciting.”

GCD: You’ve said that your biggest challenge in launching your company and building the Karma was building the infrastructure to support it. Now that you have that infrastructure, what are your plans for the next vehicles?

HF: “We are concentrating on making Fisker Automotive a strong individual company. We have already designed several of our next models and we’re working on a business plan to finalize exactly when these cars are going to be introduced. But it’s clear that as a car company we have to have an expanded product line and that’s something that is part of our overall strategy. As you know, we’ve shown the Surf – we haven’t shown the Nina yet but that’s part of our plan and future product portfolio.

GCD: What about the Sunset? Has that been discontinued?

HF: “No, we have plans to offer a convertible as well.”

GCD: You mentioned the business plan. In some circles there’s been growing skepticism about Fisker Automotive’s long-term prospects. What are your long-term and short-term goals for the company?

HF: “We haven’t changed our vision or strategy to have five to six vehicles coming out within the next five years. That vision and strategy is still full on. You’re always going to have skepticism from people, and sometimes people try to force your hand to show what you have. We’re not going to do that.

“We have a lot of interesting designs and models that we don’t want to show – we’ve already shown a few of them and that’s enough for now. We’re concentrating on the Karma, which is selling extremely well. We’re delivering cars every single day to customers both in the US and Europe and we’re still planning to have six models in the portfolio in the next five years and selling over 100,000 cars.”

GCD: The Karma was developed in such a short amount of time – from nothing to production in four years’ time. But six vehicles in five years is a massive undertaking for a small company. How do you plan to achieve that?

HF: “We’re going to build the cars on two platforms. When you look at the Surf, that’s a good example of a vehicle that’s built on the same platform and using 80-90 percent of the parts of the Karma. So when I say six new vehicles I’m not talking six new vehicles from the ground up, but vehicles that are based on the first vehicle on each platform.

“The reason we can do that is because we are concentrating largely on a shared powertrain between the two platforms with some variation. Most other car companies will have multiple powertrains and gearbox combinations, which is very expensive, takes a lot of engineering and takes a lot of testing. We just have to test one. So when you talk about another vehicle like the Surf or the Sunset you’re talking about a different type of vehicle – a different style, set up to drive slightly differently – but essentially everything underneath is the same as the Karma.”

GCD: So the Nina is going to be all-new from the ground up. Is it going to be a 3-Series competitor?

HF: “The Nina is a completely new vehicle from the ground up but we haven’t said it’s going to be a 3-Series competitor. It’s going to be closer in size to an Audi A5.”

GCD: Tesla’s recently revealed the Model X SUV, are there any plans for a competitor in Fisker Automotive’s range?

HF: “We don’t want to announce that. But before we knew anything about [the Model X] we had already done our plan. We don’t react to anything that Tesla is doing.

“We don’t want to inform our competitors of what our plans are for the next three or four years, but we are planning to do vehicles that will define their own segments. We’re not going to follow anybody else into their segments. You can see it with the Karma and with the Surf. We’re going to be unique with every future vehicle we come out with.”

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