The Art: McLaren’s Jo Lewis

The British marque’s Head of Colour and Materials Design on the intricacies of her craft

How would you describe your professional raison d’être, in a nutshell?Anything on or in a McLaren vehicle that you can touch or feel, including what a customer can potentially spec to their own taste, is what I deal with. I’m in charge of every visible finish – including the body’s paint development, which involves identifying what the next big new colour might be. It takes about 18 months to develop a paint colour from start to finish. You’ve got to get it past salt tests, other exterior condition tests – we want our paint to look as good ten years down the line as it did the day you bought the car.

So there’s far more to it than people assume?
I also do all the wheel specs – the colours, finishes, diamond cut – as well as callipers, badging, headlamps. Even the glazing aspects – I design tints with suppliers. Basically, everything you can touch and feel in the car. In the interior, you’ve got both the soft trims and the hard trims; you’ve got carbon elements; as part of my trimming strategy, if I know that a customer would potentially want more of a carbon feel, I’ll develop a specific package. You’ve got sill plates, finishes around them, finishes around the iris screen… I also do the spec for all the machined aluminium, so a lot of those switches there are machined from a solid block and then they’re then anodised, so I have to spec the colours. The trim, the knurling, the steering-wheel, the stalks, window switches… It’s everything except the geometry of the vehicle. But I work with extremely closely with the exterior designers right from start of concept.

McLaren present materials options at Goodwood Festival of Speed 2018  McLaren Automotive


Where do you start, when it comes to choosing new colours for vehicles?
We use ‘colour frogs’ – small, plastic moulds in the basic shape of a sports vehicle. Especially when you hold them in direct light, they give you an idea of how a full scale version will look with a certain colour applied to it – whether it will create a pearlescent effect and so on. You also get a clearer idea of what kind of texturing surface features can be added, what kind of wheel finishes will work, textile design, whether leather or alcantara will work better as a trim-finish. Being such a small-volume company we have the flexibility to work with more different suppliers. We don’t just put materials in a car because they look nice.

So it’s quite a misunderstood role?
A lot of people, when they hear I’m an interior designer, quite condescendingly say: “Ah, you pick colours.” A lot of women tend to do this job, and we get called funny names like ‘Arts And Crafts’ and ‘Felt-Tip Fairies’ – but actually the work that goes into material development is very engineering focussed. It’s quite an eye-opener for those not in-the-know. In the early stage of interior design material – whether you’re looking at a potential new textile, a leather or a finisher – you have to experiment with it first. Does it sew correctly ? Does it wrinkle?

How, practically speaking, do you carry out these tests?
We get any potential new material into one of our engineering cars, which do thousands of miles per month, so we can see how and when it starts to show areas of wear and tear, or discolouring and so on. Separately to that, if we want to put any material formally into production of a car, we have separate, very stringent test plans we have to follow. If I want to develop a new type of leather as a seat trim, I have to put it through a screening involving about 17 or 18 tests – abrasion, reactions to UV and soiling and so on. Things tend to fail, and so integrating anything new into any of our production vehicles is difficult. It has to tick a lot of engineering requirements.

Numerous leather options are available to bespoke customers  McLaren Automotive

What if bespoke customers insist on an un-tested material?
With McLaren Special Operations, people will come in and say, “Well I want crocodile skin upholstery” – and that’s a different thing. With an entirely bespoke commission, we wouldn’t go and test the skin in question – we’d just say “Look, this could wear out after 10 miles or 1000 miles…”

How much conjecture is there, when anticipating what consumers are going to be after in the future?
Lots, definitely, when it comes to colours. When we launch a new car, and it’s the first time the public are going to see it, I’d generally work to three new body colours essentially – hero new colours and character colours that I feel are appropriate to the vehicle and go with the brand’s marketing direction.

Is trend spotting tricky in the automotive realm?
Yes. I do look into trends, but it’s difficult because we work a long time in advance of cars going to market – it’s not like fashion, where a new collection is every six months. I’ve been here just over two years now and am only just seeing some of the work I’ve done coming to fruition. So it’s about trying to anticipate what future tastes will be, and sometimes you have to go with your collective gut instinct as a design team, and be confident in what you’re doing. Also, it’s about setting trends rather than just following them. We need to challenge the status quo according to our own feelings on what our customers will like. When it comes to the introduction of a new car in a new colour, that new colour is usually the first thing that people absorb. And it tends to be a very love it/hate it scenario – you’re never going to please 100 per cent of people 100 per cent of the time…

Would McLaren perhaps wilfully be a little bit ‘Marmite’ on that score? Sometimes you launch a colour and you see it all online – “I love it!” versus “I hate it!” – and it actually creates more discussion and buzz, and I like that. Our customers should be opinionated, and I’m happy if they’re talking about the stuff I do.

Do you find yourself in regular conflict with engineers?
Oh, yes! We all have the same mind-set in terms of wanting to push boundaries – we want to be forward-thinking, world-leading an so on – but when it comes to logistics like time frames and delivery, you’re always kind of challenged. Sometimes things do fall off the table because what’s being demanded from an engineering point of view just can’t be delivered. As a department now we sing as one voice – if we really want to push a new colour, a new material, whatever, we have to keep going and if it doesn’t work for one launch then we can always push back to the next. Pushing is essential for innovation.

The McLaren Speedtail’s interior 

What kind of trends do you foresee entering your professional milieu in the future?
Technical fabrics from sportswear being used as automotive materials is potentially interesting  – hopefully we can apply those to trims and seats. For example, we might be able to look at materials that hold you in your seat a bit more snugly, materials that are more grippy, or have properties that add some function to your driving experience. To me that’s the future. Vinyls, 3D-surface treated materials, carbon and carbon weave, carbon made into a soft-fabric and impregnated with a resin – that’s how you create your splitters and diffusers, and if you can weave that material why can’t you create any kind of interesting pattern or design? It’s all derived from fashion and that sense of creating a new look.

Was the Speedtail a rewarding project to work on?
The Speedtail has enabled me to live the dream in terms of materials design. There’s stuff in the bespoke offering that’s first-to-market – including the option of a 18 carat white gold and carbon-fibre inlay badge. We’ve really pushed the boundaries. It’s just lovely to be involved with defining the character of these cars.


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