Sherry Sabbagh,Trend Research Manager at Johnson Controls, studies trends in disciplines as diverse as architecture, fashion and military materials to predict car design trends. Shes takes us on a trend-spotting tour at the auto show.


The Detroit auto show has been overrun this past week with international journalists, auto industry execs and designers. Except for GM CEO Mary Barra and all those poor young spokesmodels in stiletto heels, it’s been a male-dominated, super-charged technology playground.

But talk to Sherry Sabbagh, of auto supplier Johnson Controls, and it only takes an instant to see she’s just as passionate about the North American International Auto Show as any of her male colleagues.

Right off, she points out that although the show seems to be designed by and for men, at least 60 percent of car buying decisions are made by women, especially in families.

Somehow that fact hasn’t had much obvious influence on auto design.

“The number one complaint of women in cars is where do they put their handbag? This has been something that industrial designers, who are mostly males, have never been able to figure out,” Sabbagh said.

“I always put mine on the passenger seat. But when I have someone sitting next to me I have to reach out and put it in the back seat and that’s really inconvenient.” She was laughing, but she had a good point.

“The secret to appealing to women is to make cars really work for their lifestyles. Make them functional, flexible, let me bring all my stuff with me and put it where I can reach it.

“Ergonomics is really important for women too,” she said. “The way women use a car and sit in a car and feel about a car is very different from the male perspective.”

As the design manager for color and materials and advanced trend research at Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls Inc., the automotive seating supplier, predicting what will make you go, “Oooh, I want that!” is her job.

Designing interiors is a complex process of analyzing trends in architecture, furniture design, fashion and science. Sabbagh is one of those analysts, a futurist really, who searches the world and the Internet looking for the next big thing.

Sabbagh spends her late-night hours trolling the Web, researching what various sectors of society and industry are excited about. “My friends at work tease me because I never sleep. I’m an insomniac because I’m always researching things. This is what gets me geeked, what keeps me up at night,” she said.

She’s been predicting color trends since her textile designing days 35 years ago, when she designed for fashion and home furnishings companies such as Martex, Oleg Cassini, West Point Stevens, Walt Disney Productions, Lucasfilm Ltd. and others.

At the end of each year, professional trend-watchers make their predictions for the following year. “I nail it every year,” Sabbagh said, “and it’s so exciting for me.”

Trends are influenced by politics, the economy, international relations, changes in the business world and other factors.

“The youth market, they really are our key drivers,” Sabbagh said. She also follows the aerospace industry and the U.S. military because, “They have the most innovative materials out there.”

She said the furniture industry is huge influence on auto interior design and the mecca for furniture design is the Milan Furniture Fair, held each spring. Furniture and cars are big-ticket purchases consumers keep for years, so trends in those markets are long-lived, unlike fashion fads that can change from season to season.

Sabbagh took me around the auto show floor to point out trends she’s been watching that have shown up in 2016’s concept and production models, including:

■Seats with two or more colors, often with contrasting stitching and piping in bright colors.

■Brighter exterior colors that reflect our economic recovery.

■Perforations in seat coverings in creative patterns to allow air flow for comfort.

■LED lighting, not just in headlamps and taillights, but accenting interiors.

■Removing material and creating hollow spaces where we once expected solid, heavy substance.

■Metal trim on seats and head rests.

■Lots of design elements based on bio-mimicry, the study of patterns and forms found in nature, some curved and flowing, but others based on crystalline or molecular formations.

We met a designer who told us he based his concept interior on the patterns of shifting sand and one who got his inspiration prowling furniture showrooms.

We saw many “elements of surprise and delight” to use a favorite expression of Sabbagh’s.

The downside? We still didn't find that purse shelf.

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