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Hyundai's interior designers want to take more risks

We talk to Elizabeth Curran, Hyundai's senior design manager, to learn about the future of colors and materials for the brand's interiors.

2020-hyundai-venue-denim-interior-promo

Yo, listen up, here's a story about interior design.

Hyundai

While driving the 2020 Hyundai Venue Denim, I was extremely struck by the tiny crossover's blue interior. Nearly everything inside is blue, from the steering wheel and dash to all the minor plastic pieces, color matching that's unprecedented outside of high-end luxury cars. 

Elizabeth Curran, Hyundai's senior design manager for color and materials, told me that one of the main themes for the Venue was "urban street," and that nothing is more urban and streetwear than denim. "We really took that theme to heart and did everything we could to move it far enough away from the traditional black interior, but not be polarizing," she said. "We still wanted it to be accessible to a wide range of customers." 

The decision to go all-out with color on the Denim stemmed from designers getting bored with the typical color schemes. "I've been in color and trim for automotive for almost 22 years and you get very tired of black, gray and beige," Curran said, adding that Hyundai leadership gives its designers the opportunity to push the envelope when it comes to color. "Especially on this level of car, the Venue is an entry-level vehicle, and to be able to offer something to the customer at this price point, it's definitely my favorite."

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"We're definitely taking more opportunity to give the customer more," Curran added, mentioning that we're in a want-it-now society where people want to be able to change up things like their cellphone case or accessories at a moment's notice. "People expect to be able to customize things, so we're really looking at things we can do to make the customer feel that they're involved in the design and it's something that they can understand." 

To that end, expect future Hyundai models to offer the kind of fun colors and trims we've seen on cars like the Venue and Kona. This playfulness with color isn't unique to Hyundai, either -- the new Genesis GV80 has a stunning two-tone green and brown interior that, like the Venue Denim, color matches almost everything.

More and more companies are moving toward using nonleather materials in interiors, even for luxury models, and Curran said Hyundai is no different: "We're looking at what we can do to not just have virgin materials in our car, but what can we do to actually help the Earth and be able to recycle our products when the lifecycle is done." Hyundai is working with natural fibers like coconut, wool and soy, as well as reclaiming things like fish nets from ocean waste to be turned into interior plastics.

I mentioned the melange yarn headliner in the Santa Fe, which has a fairly unique look and texture, at least as far as headliners are concerned. Curran told me that when she was on the Santa Fe launch she had people coming up to her to compliment the headliner and ask more about it, which was a first for her as a designer. "We design every part of this car -- the interior designers take care on what the headliner looks like, but nobody ever even notices it," she said. "So it's not that we want it to be the main focus of the vehicle, but if we can just add those really nice details, those surprise elements, that's what makes car design fun for us."

We've only ever seen this kind of knurling in Bentleys.

Steven Ewing/Roadshow

There's a number of unique textures in current Hyundai models, like the knurled turn signal stalks and climate control dials in the new Sonata, which are something we've only ever seen on Bentleys. The brand-new Elantra has a cool grippy material on the lower half of the steering wheel, and the Palisade uses some interesting light wood trim. And the Veloster takes its asymmetric theme to the next level, using different grain patterns for the plastics on the left and right sides of the dashboard and door panels.

Interior design has recently changed a lot with the onset of screens, especially with the federally mandated backup camera law that pretty much requires every new car to have a central infotainment display. "When we start an interior design we start knowing what technology is going in the car," Curran said, "because if you have three screens from 9 inches to 12 inches, you have to design with them in mind." It used to be that interior designers would sketch out a gorgeous interior, and it would have the radio there and you'd be done, but it's much more involved now. And that's not a bad thing -- we're starting to move away from having "tacked-on" screens placed on top of the dashboard.

The Nexo hydrogen fuel-cell crossover has a pretty distinct interior feel from the rest of Hyundai's lineup, and Curran said the design teams go into a different mindset when working on things like EVs or hybrids. With the Nexo they used colors and materials that made the interior feel light and fresh, giving it a more advanced look. "Everything is moving toward electric, so we're definitely working with engineering because we just can't make a change instantly on the materials we use in automotive," she said. 

2019 Hyundai Nexo

The Nexo's interior looks very different from other Hyundai models.

Hyundai

It's tough to just make sudden, radical changes though. "Over the last several years we've been doing a lot of research to make sure different things pass specification, how can we do this, what costs are we at, can we bundle things with purchasing," explained Curran. "So it's not just, 'Oh, we think it's cool, let's use it,' it's taking a lot of research and development time. But we're gonna have some really nice things coming out in the next few years."

With full electric cars it'll probably be a weird transition period to begin with, too. "It's gonna be a little awkward, I feel like, at first, like maybe we're gonna try too hard, but it's gonna be different and cool things to see," Curran said. "But down the road when there's no more combustion, there are gonna be so many more options for us, because the combustion engine won't be still there. With electric cars, you don't have to design around an engine, or a transmission tunnel or any of these other legacy components that can be a pain in the ass to an interior designer. It's gonna offer so much more to designers, because the electric platform is so easy to design whatever you want on top of. The combustion drivetrain is just exhausting."

When it comes to design overall, Curran said Hyundai wants to take more risks. "Everything got so vanilla for so many years, and I think that people are just now saying that now is the time to try things and see what happens. With the auto industry changing so much, we need to figure out how to make ourselves distinct."

Hyundai will never have cookie-cutter designs where it's the same exact styling language just scaled to differently sized cars, either, she said. Curran said that Hyundai sees its lineup as a chess board, where "every piece has its part in the lineup, and you can tell they're from the same family, but they're distinctly different."

Hyundai Prophecy concept

The interior of the electric Prophecy concept.

Hyundai

Don't discount what concept cars are trying to show you, either. Concepts can cost upward of a million dollars to create, and Hyundai can't invest that amount of money without the concept actually being relevant for the future. "They have to be something that we're really trying out," Curran said, "so you will see things that we're really thinking about for production on concept cars for sure." So the next time you see a wild Hyundai concept -- like the Prophecy from earlier this month -- don't just dismiss it as a flight of fancy.

Curran said this new era of the automotive industry has made auto shows exciting again, too. "For so many years I thought, 'Why do I need to go? it's just a dealer show, it's not exciting.' But I feel like vehicle launches and concept cars are getting back to what they used to be," she said. "That excitement is around them because people are working with new electric platforms that offer designers so many more options than what we can do."

She continued, "We're working on some really exciting projects coming up in the future where we're gonna be trying some different things and seeing what the public thinks of it. Fun, exciting things that I can't tell you much about, can I? Everybody in the automotive industry is going that way and that excites me."

Finally, I asked Curran if there was something she worked on at Hyundai that she was happiest made it to production, and she told me about the launch of the YF Sonata, the first radically styled one that debuted in 2009. "It was my second year working for the company and we went to the auto show, and my counterparts from other companies were coming to the Hyundai booth to see this car. And that was a first for us at Hyundai, having other designers coming to look at the car. That was just such validation. So that car stands out to me as a highlight."

"And truthfully it has stayed pretty consistent in terms of highlights, surprising the design industry with every car we put out," she added. "It's been fun working here."