May 26, 2009 at 1:52 pm

Chief Audi designer talks about inspiration

Through travels and attention to automotive rivals, Audi's Stefan Sielaff builds his approach to intelligent design

Chief Audi designer Stefan Sielaff, center, talks with students William Zachary Whitaker, back, and Mahdi Chowdhury at the College for Creative Studies' Transportation Design Center last week. Sielaff finds inspiration in many places. (Brandy Baker / The Detroit News)

Audi vehicle interiors are widely considered to be among the best, if not the best, but chief Audi designer Stefan Sielaff isn't entirely satisfied. Tapping his fingernails hard on a curved strip on the dashboard of an R8 coupe, he says, "This I don't like. It's too plasticky. We'll change this and cover it with leather material."

He lays his hand on the car's textured aluminum transmission shifter knob. "This detail," he says, "I really love."

Sielaff, 47, has spent most of his career at Audi, one of the premium brands of Volkswagen AG, Germany's biggest automaker.

During a visit to Detroit to address the Ward's Auto Interiors Conference, Sielaff spoke with The Detroit News about his work and which rivals he watches.

Q . Where do you look for ideas and inspiration?

A . I believe designers should go out of the studio, travel, go to other countries.

There are traditional hot spots like Italy. We always visit the Milan furniture shows.

We even go to Singapore for the fashion shows. When we look at the art markets, the Chinese and Indians are making strong statements now.

For clear and clean product design, Scandinavia is still a place to go, where we draw a lot of inspiration. From an architectural point of view, we look to the U.S., at architects like Frank Lloyd Wright. I'm a big fan of Frank Gehry.

Q . Most car designers benchmark Audi. Whom do you benchmark?

A . We look at what the other high-end manufacturers are doing: Aston Martin, Bentley. Within the VW group, I love Bentley and Lamborghini.

Outside the VW group, I have to say Aston Martin. They are doing very emotional products, with good design quality.

Land Rover is also a brand I like. I like the authenticity and clean design language.

If you look at BMW and Mercedes, they're doing baroque cars and baroque interiors, very heavy and overdecorated. I don't want a heavy or bulky interior.

Q . What do you think of Asia's aspiring premium carmakers? Hyundai, for instance?

A . To ignore these companies would be a mistake. We shouldn't be arrogant. But if they want to do a premium brand, it'll take them a few years, if not a few decades. We will see.

Q . When you design a car, how much emphasis do you put on comfort?

A . When you have a sporty brand like Audi, you cannot do everything. We focus on sportiness, so our suspensions are a bit harder than they might be in cars that focus more on comfort. We definitely will not do couch-potato soft cars. That's for sure.

Comfort is also good ergonomics, and ergonomics is something we do very well. It's also having good screens and displays.

Q . If Porsche and Volkswagen get together, how will that affect the positioning of the Audi brand within the group?

A . If Porsche is integrated into the Volkswagen group, it will not affect our work at Audi. Today Volkswagen has strictly separated brands. Porsche will have a very clear profile, and Audi, too.

Porsche is even more of a sport scar manufacturer than Audi. Audi is also sporty but it's more understated, more elegant.

Porsches are beautiful cars, fantastic cars, but they're not elegant. They're a bit rough.

I don't think there will be a problem of the brands coming too close together or overlapping.

Q . How hard is it these days to get the money you need to design good interiors with good materials?

A . I fight a lot to get what we want and what my team needs. I understand the management side. We have to earn money with our product. On the other hand, I want a nice product.

The customer is very intelligent and able to see if the company or the brand has spent a certain amount of money on the product or if it is just playing a game with the customer. Our president, (Rupert) Stadler, has a finance background but understands that if we save money on design, it hurts the company.

ctierney@detnews.com">ctierney@detnews.com (313) 222-1463

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