The Interview Issue

Max Wolff on the Design of the Lincoln MKZ


"Even an iPad is just a beautifully put together piece of equipment"

Photograph by Brian Sorg for Bloomberg Businessweek

"Even an iPad is just a beautifully put together piece of equipment"

Wolff has just finished designing his first Lincoln (F), the MKZ sedan, out this fall. He shows Keith Naughton around Lincoln’s new Dearborn (Mich.) design studio.

Why is it important to have this studio? How will it help you design better cars?
Getting the entire creative team together is important. It allows more of those creative moments where people run into each other and strike up a conversation and then ideas bloom from that.

Everything catches fire. Ideas spread.
Absolutely. And for our management to be able to see the products laid out in front of them, it’s a fairly powerful statement and really lays out where we want to take Lincoln.

I know it’s still a work in progress, but do you eventually want luxury furnishings and artwork that will inspire the designers?
Yeah. We’ve got some elements of that. We envisage this space as being examples of imagery that inspires us. When you walk through those doors, you enter the world of Lincoln. [Gesturing.] This is our engineer area, upstairs. The designers are down here. One of the first things we did was purchase a decent espresso machine.

Tell me about this car. What year is it?
This is a ’61 Continental. We use this space for showing our newer models as well. But it’s great to have a space where we can put some inspirational products.

Is there a place in Lincoln for retro? Would you ever remake the ’61 Continental?
My viewpoint is that the time for recreating the past is gone. We went through that stage once before. I think we need to look forward, not back. If you looked at it against its domestic peers at the time, this car stood out as much for what it didn’t do as for what it did. A beautifully proportioned vehicle, great detailing, but very, very simple—astonishingly proportioned.

The MKZ is similar. It’s very sleek. But the detailing is not as ostentatious and in-your-face as some other vehicles.

Eureka/Alamy

Is there a luxury brand that you think does it right that has set a standard that you would like to meet?
I like the story behind Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs. Both of those guys went overseas, learned their trade, established themselves, came back to the U.S., and established these very successful, very international, but still American luxury brands.

Very authentic, with a great sense of detailing, a great sense of style. Marc Jacobs has this sense of fun, whereas Tom Ford is a little bit higher up on the ultimate luxury totem pole. But both of those brands have very inspiring stories.

How do you think luxury is defined today, vs. the way it was defined by your parents?
With each generation, you don’t gravitate to the same sorts of things that your parents did. Right? And you can see that in music. You see that in fashion. There are waves. I think these days, people are looking for that luxury experience that is not the traditional or the big-box kind of luxury experience.

Do you think that also is true of luxury cars, that we’re not looking for the big box there? The big black sedan used to be the epitome of luxury, right?
There is opportunity for somebody to make a different statement—that smaller, more personal brand. Lincoln definitely wants to be part of it. I mean, even an iPad is just a beautifully put together piece of equipment, but certainly it doesn’t sell on bigness, right? It sells on smallness.

It’s interesting you bring up the iPad. It seems like now the thing that gets consumers excited is the next iPhone. How do you make luxury cars that compelling again?
You need to do it with a product that is compelling, and the communication of the product, too. Maybe we tell a little bit more of the story of how we got here.

What’s the story that the MKZ tells?
This car tells the story of being very modern, of being transformational. It tells the story of grace, of elegance. On the interior, it tells the story of technology.

People live in their cars. How did you create a space where people could feel at home?
We wanted the vehicle to feel more spacious. And we wanted a fairly calming environment. So again, there is not a lot of disjointed surface changes in here. It’s a very flowing environment, very clean and uncluttered.

The center console looks like a suspension bridge.
Yeah, that was one of the inspirations. A suspension bridge, you look and you don’t even understand how they stay up, but they manage to.

So this is the antidote to road rage, a calming interior?
Yes, to some extent.

They’ll be at peace.
Yeah, hopefully.

Naughton is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Detroit.

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