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From Kicks to Cars, Designer Brett Golliff Never Treads Lightly

11.05.14 | By
From Kicks to Cars, Designer Brett Golliff Never Treads Lightly
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A quick glance at Brett Golliff’s LinkedIn page and one might mistakenly believe the profiles of two different designers has been accidentally merged: one of a footwear designer, with a portfolio representing the Jordan Brand, Nike, and New Balance, the other outlining the experience of an automotive designer for one of the world’s largest automakers. Yet it’s this fascinating dichotomy representing fashion and function which makes Brett Golliff’s path and perspective unique, a designer with an obsessive eye for detail, whether dedicated to the detailing inside the latest Chevrolet or for the shoes pressing down on the car’s gas pedal.

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As Lead Color and Trim Designer for Chevrolet Performance and Chevrolet Crossover at General Motors, Brett is charged with “evoking emotion through color and material”, a talent first honed while designing footwear, and now visibly imprinted onto the likes of iconic cars like the Corvette Stingray, Z06, and Camaro Z/28. Though not obviously similar, Brett reveals the automotive and footwear industry share many parallels when it comes to designing for a discerning consumer.

What was it like to transition from working on functional fashion to choosing automotive material and trim? There’s obviously a greater collaborative element to designing a car compared to a shoe. Or is that a misconception considering sports footwear is now often highly engineered and a material-technical product?

The biggest change for me was that so many people work on the car. You really see how the size of General Motors comes into play because people you don’t work with from day to day influence the choices you make. I remember my first Corvette “All People Meeting” where the entire team that worked on the vehicle gets together and it was over 1,000 people. That doesn’t exist in footwear. So collaboration is key in making a vehicle successful.

Another change that I encountered was that design couldn’t always be reactive to current trends. Within footwear I could react very quickly to something that was a trend because the consumer was way more forgiving. If I want to drape a shoe in solid magenta there is an audience for it and it will serve its purpose in time. But if I want to do the same to Corvette or Camaro interior it likely won’t be so successful.

Consumers consider a car a much different investment [than shoes]. There is an emotional side to it, but not in the same way as footwear. Footwear’s shelf life is seasonal, while automobiles last for decades.

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I don’t think the challenges are any different from footwear to cars, as I believe good design balances where you have been and where you are going.

Are there any materials and/or design solutions appearing within automotive interiors today which have a direct corollary to active footwear (or vice versa)? And are there any materials on the horizon which you’d like to begin working with in either category pollinating one industry from the other (Flyknit trim inside the next Vette)?

I think the materials of the two industries go hand-in-hand to an extent. They definitely grow from each other in an aesthetic standpoint. The one thing that footwear can do is take more risks. Like I said previously, consumers are more forgiving there because the investment is lower. But the one thing athletic footwear can’t do that automotive can is use very, very high quality materials. The leathers we use for an interior of a Corvette are closer to matching a formal shoe that is $600+ as opposed to the welded synthetics you find on any top line basketball shoe.

You mentioned [Nike] FlyKint, I think that if you look across all genre’s of product development currently that we are all looking for our “FlyKnit”. An opportunity to create a product with a material that has endless aesthetic limitations, is lightweight, meets performance standards and is cost effective is always something we will pursue. The big challenge for automotive is finding something that does that but also meets are standards of being iconic. Corvette is over sixty years old and we believe that the materials that were selected on that very first car are just as beautiful today as they were in 1953. We have to make sure that our next development of materials lives up to that same standard.

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We just got back from Mondial de l’Automobile and one of the things that struck us was how conservative the American market is when it comes to color, finishes, and materials in our cars. Yet the athletic footwear industry is perpetually pushing the bounds of both fashion and function. Why is there a disconnect between what we wear and what we drive here?

I think the disconnect comes down to two things: fashion and money. An entry-level car is still more than $10,000. At that point for many it is less about a choice and more about an investment. When you bring [a car like the Corvette] into that conversation, you start at $53,000 and only climb higher. Outside of the ultra, ultra exclusive luxury products like a Birkin bag or something similar, high fashion is still pretty affordable in those standards. In my eyes people are much more willing to take a risk at a lower cost, particularly fashion, because they don’t expect it to last forever. They are only thinking emotionally when it comes to that purchase because it meets their current want.

When it comes to a car, it’s a combination of emotion and logic. For many Americans a car is solely about function and they don’t necessarily need a car that screams for them. They might just want it to whisper. For the select few that want to scream – like the Corvette or Camaro buyer – we provide them with very distinct and bold color combinations that really speak to their emotions. A good example of this is on the new Stingray.

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I created the Adrenaline Red color space (above). The color doesn’t whisper anything, it only screams the emotion of bold performance. Currently it is the second highest selling color interior for the Stingray – second only to Black – I like to think it is because of the approach we took on it. We knew if we were going to feature red we had to feature it in a bold way. That color isn’t a color you can shy away from. If someone is selecting red they are expecting to get red in a dramatic presence, and I think we’ve provided it.

So you’ve now not only been responsible for redesigning the Air Jordan line, but you’ve also helped redefine two American icons, the Corvette and Camaro. As a designer, what are the challenges inherent with working on brands connected with such heritage?

The brand heritage of Corvette and Camaro are something that I take very seriously. Every time we are kicking off a major project I visit our Heritage Center, our archives so to speak, where I can go through the history of the cars with not just brochures and color swatches but actually with the vehicles physically. It’s one thing to see images of your history, but it is a completely different experience to sit in it, hear it, and ultimately drive it. It really brings the past sixty years of Chevrolet performance through all of your senses.

As for challenges, I don’t think the challenges are any different whether for footwear to cars, as I believe good design balances where you have been and where you are going.

Where do you most often look to for design inspiration outside of the automotive and footwear industry?

I use to rely heavily just on visual inspiration from current trends that I have seen or noticed in life. While I still do that, I am really transitioning to experiential-based inspiration: observing how our products are used and the nature in which they live gets me thinking and helps me builds stories that are relatable to the vehicle. I have been visiting races, car events, and [automotive] shows to immerse myself in the product and really see where it has been and can go. Most recently I visited our race team headquarters at Pratt & Miller, spending the day photographing them as they prepared our C7R racecar for an up-and-coming race. This provided me with so much tangible inspiration for the car and where we want to take it. It was a phenomenal experience.

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I believe good design balances where you have been and where you are going.

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In the next 10 years, what do you predict will transform the automotive interior from a design and materials perspective?

I think that the car interior will change dramatically over the next decade. It is becoming more and more evident that our car is going to be more then just a driving vehicle as autonomy comes into play. Combine that with the notion individual design and bespoke editions are going to become more expected as 3D-printing grows, and you will see the car interiors completely transformed. I imagine materials that change with according to the body and atmosphere it is in, materials that transition colors from one area to the next, along with materials that live and interact with you. I think the key thing that will happen is that the interior materials will become a part of you, not just passively there for you like they currently are.

2014 _Chevrolet_Camaro_Z28What detail would you like the average person to take note of the next time they’re sitting inside a car or while checking out new shoes?

In both cases I’d want them to understand that everything is there for a reason. Everything that you are encountering while slipping into shoes or into a car seat has been created to enhance your experience. There is a story and thought that brought those elements to you, and that many people worked many hours to create something so breathtakingly beautiful for you. So enjoy it!

A special thanks to Brett Golliff and the General Motors team. You can also follow Brett on Instagram or Tumblr.

Gregory Han is Tech Editor of Design Milk. A Los Angeles native with a profound love and curiosity for design, hiking, tide pools, and road trips, a selection of his adventures and musings can be found at gregoryhan.com.