Interior Designer Jan Kaul, responsible for the futuristic cockpit of the Mercedes-Benz Concept A-CLASS, speaks about work, play and the Millennium Falcon
The job title “Designer“ conjures up different images for different people but according to Jan Kaul he’s not the kind that turns up at the studio sometime in the afternoon, knocks back a glass or two of Champagne and is suddenly struck by a flash of ingenious inspiration before the day is over.
As Interior Designer at Mercedes-Benz, Jan Kaul is the mastermind behind the spacey insides of the Concept A-CLASS and therefore a decisive molecule of the Mercedes DNA. He may be attired in simple polo and jeans but he is far from casual when it comes to his work ethic. He has a background in aircraft and yacht design and has brought those unique experiences to Mercedes-Benz.
In our video (above) Jan Kaul, accompanied by colleague and Exterior Designer Mark Fetherston, explains the design process from the initial sketch all the way to final production and how they managed to fabricate, in a blazing six months, a machine that looks half jet-plane, half car. After a closer look at the Concept car’s cockpit it comes to no surprise that Jan Kaul is a long-standing Star Wars fan. We strongly suspect that Princess Leia would approve of the result.
We wanted to know more about the designer behind the show car and he was willing to let us have a glimpse into his daily work and life.
What makes interior design so intriguing?
I find myself most intrigued by its sheer diversity and complexity. To me, interior vehicle design juxtaposes elements of transport design, architecture, furniture design and product design in a truly fascinating way. We devise and develop design themes from entire cockpits replete with instrument panels, doors, centre consoles and seats right down to intricate controls on the steering column, for example. In addition, aspects like ergonomics, tactile features, crash specs and the Mercedes-Benz claim to the best possible look and feel, precision and attention to detail pose an extra challenge.
What brought you to interior design in the first place? Do you still remember what kindled your interest?
After finishing my studies I started working for an exclusive Munich-based design agency with a focus on aircraft and yacht design concepts. The range of fascinating projects I encountered encompassed advanced design studies for the Airbus A380, private jet interiors, first and business class seats for Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines and Qantas as well as yacht interiors – it brought me ample experience in a huge variety of departments and disciplines.
What is so special about designing a car interior? And the Concept A-CLASS in particular?
The Concept A-CLASS allowed us to develop something you might not expect from Mercedes-Benz, or the A-CLASS specifically, in this particular shape and guise. Something clearly targeted at an entirely new, substantially younger generation of Mercedes-Benz customers. Sporty, dynamic, exciting, bold and modern. Something that makes you exclaim: “Wow! That’s one Mercedes my dad wouldn’t buy.”
To this end, we broke entirely new design ground with the Concept A-CLASS interior and paid particular attention to the special and spectacular synergy between form and materials.
Could you take us through the design process?
After an initial period of brainstorming, ideation and early sketches we usually turn a multitude of drafts into holistic concepts and then present very detailed renderings of the most promising examples to the Mercedes-Benz Head of Design, Gorden Wagener. Together, we pick the designs with the most potential and then, for a regular production model, move on to CAD realisation. In this case, for the Concept A-CLASS, we accelerated the process by starting with a full-scale clay study based on the exact CAD data of a standard A-CLASS. This approach allowed us to refine and finalise the chosen design on a 1:1 model until the final Concept A-CLASS, as premiered at the Shanghai Motor Show, had taken shape. From the very first sketch in August of last year right down to the so-called design freeze, the entire process took just under six months.
Where do you look for inspiration?
I love to draw inspiration from things that appear unrelated to cars at first glance: e. g. architecture, nature, art, graphic design or simply positive impressions and memories from my most recent travels. Naturally, these are then aligned to our overall design strategies and the Mercedes DNA. After all, each and every design needs to communicate that this is clearly a Mercedes-Benz!
Could you describe your average working day?
Unfortunately, I cannot corroborate the cliché of laid-back creatives who turn up at the studio sometime in the afternoon, knock back a glass of prosecco or two and then suddenly enjoy a fevered flash of ingenious inspiration later at night. Our design department is part of the overall development division and thus involved in all key processes. In turn this means that, as a designer, you need to balance your creative input with participation in countless of indispensable approval and alignment sessions, meetings and jours fixes as well as the preparation and co-ordination of presentations. Nevertheless, design and model realisation remain central to our work.
Design tends to be an ongoing creative process. What do you do to take your mind off it and recharge your batteries?
To be honest, I hardly ever really switch off. And in the end of the day, I don’t really feel the need for it, either. I consider myself very privileged to have a profession that is also my hobby and something I hugely enjoy. Being creative, creating something new and seeing the result out on the street, as a finished Mercedes-Benz model, provides plenty of motivation and incentive without any sense of coercion. Furthermore, my projects tend to be very different and diverse, so there simply is no room for boredom. To escape the stress of the daily grind, however, beyond the creative aspect, I like to jog, mountain bike, play tennis or – most of all – head to the mountains for a spot of skiing.
Is there something like a typical Jan Kaul look? What are its characteristics?
The typical Jan Kaul look? Jeans, t-shirt, trainers - but seriously: Of course, every designer is inspired by an idiosyncratic set of impressions that resurface in his or her trademark style, especially when it comes to early sketches and renderings. At the same time, we shouldn’t forget that design is first and foremost teamwork and that any designer’s individual style will always be secondary to the Mercedes DNA and a consistent, range-encompassing and model-wide design language. Even so, I naturally aim to leave my own stylistic footprint, one that is probably influenced by my background in yacht, jet and furniture design.
Looking back over your previous designs – could you pick your personal highlight?
I still have very fond memories of my first ever design project for Mercedes-Benz. Eight years ago, I designed the rear and front seats of the current E-Class coupes and convertibles. I still think they are very good and stand the test of time. Of course, the Concept A-CLASS, too, is an absolute highlight – when you are not dealing with a regular production model you have far more leeway and scope for potentially outré ideas. And there are several other highlights I am incredibly proud of, but unfortunately not yet at liberty to discuss: a compact Mercedes that will be revealed some time next year and a very spacious model with a slightly longer wait period.
And generally speaking, what is your all-time design classic?
Ever since I was eight I have absolutely adored the Millennium Falcon, Han Solo’s spaceship in Star Wars. It managed the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs! An absolutely iconic shape – and one that impressed Princess Leia, too. This design, and the film’s many other wonderful aesthetic details, have left an indelible mark on me and inspired me to become a designer.
Thanks you very much for this interview, Jan!
Click on the video above to find out more on the Concept A-CLASS and the Mercedes-Benz design process.
More information about the Concept A-CLASS