Meet the Designers Behind the New Cadillac

Welcome to the start of our newest series, [LIFE]Style Makers, where we meet with those making big impressions on the everyday life of the brands we love.

Automotive brands reinventing themselves is a common trait, often times with giant leaps into the unknown, taking seemingly uncalculated risks over the years to really break whatever mold they seem to have fallen into. Sometimes it works, often it does not, with the brand stuck in its old ways, stuck being whatever has culturally defined it. And then there are the rare few that took a giant leap into the unknown, not only truly breaking the mold, but going so far they had room to come back.

Cadillac would be one of those few brands. Over the years, we have seen everything from knife edge sharp cars to pickup trucks wearing the Cadillac logo as it dove head first into new design language. But now, as they come up from the deep, is emerging a brand that is redefining its own boundaries. Recently we had the chance to sit down with Andrew Smith, Executive Director of Cadillac Global Design, and Erin Crossley, Cadillac Color and Trim Design Manager, and ask them about the refined brand, it’s direction, and where it is all headed from here.

Richard Melick (F24): Cadillac has come around a lot over the past five years. You came from a brand that was upscale GM, unfortunately accepted as the old person’s car, to a car that is now a lifestyle trendsetter. What’s been the biggest drive behind that evolution of the brand?

Andrew Smith (AS): Well I guess you’ve got to think about the fact that the market is changing. And, honestly, people now expect luxury at an earlier age. I think there was a period where we thought that it was about aspiring to luxury as you get older. Millennials expect luxury in everything they do. So in some ways, it’s just about bringing luxury across demographics.

F24: In spreading the luxury outside the older demographic, would you say that your brand is losing touch with the older generation?

AS: No, I think it’s more about broadening our reach. We resonate with the customers that we’ve had previously, but it’s been about expanding into a younger, “cooler” demographic as well.

F24: Okay, since you mention “cooler,” what are the elements that are cooler about the new Cadillac?

AS: There are a couple of things. People are surprised at how fantastic Cadillacs are to drive. When you look at the proportions of the Sedans, in particular the ATS, the CTS and now the CT6, they’re awesome, and they’re fun to drive. They make for a great driving experience and people love owning them. That’s something that is unexpected, at least for those who haven’t seen Cadillac for a while.

F24: Absolutely. I drove the ATS-V recently. It was, hands-down, the most enjoyable and surprising experience of my driving career. And I can definitely tell you, it was one of those “this is a Cadillac?” moments. Is this something that you’re going for, that reaction, or do you think people would come back and say there’s no way this is going to hold across the models?

AS: I think there is a little bit of that in every car, but we spend a lot of time talking about point of view. So why Cadillac? Because, honestly, with so much choice in the market, it comes back to the creative brief that I give every designer on every program. You’ve got to think about who the customer is and what they value, then develop our proposition. And then, obviously, you probably gather that I’m an Australian so I come in with something of an outsider’s view on American design. But I think America is kind of about celebrating success and it’s about optimism. And it’s about really enjoying the great things in life. That’s really what we try to encourage in cars.

Erin Crossley (EC): I think from a color and materials perspective, too, it’s about the broadening of the offerings to the customer, by giving them outlets to express themselves in both the interior and exterior color selection. It’s a departure from the traditional formula, where there is a black, a grey, and a beige interior with brown wood.  Luxury today means really broadening the colors and materials that we are using different influences to create these different personas. Driving a Cadillac becomes a personal experience for them.

F24: The interior experience is one of my favourite aspects of the ATS-V. And often times, especially with new technology cars, you see vehicles come out with buttons everywhere, screens everywhere. This whole series was very spot on. Now, that would be a younger demographic vehicle, in my opinion. Is that the same kind of design language and experience that we are seeing in the CT6 and the CTS?

AS: To a degree. If you think about each of our entries are designed, engineered and built to a slightly different buyer base, but they always represent Cadillac. This comes back to the point of view of the Cadillac. We talk a lot about engaging the driver without excluding everybody else. So it’s not completely selfish, but you certainly feel special when you’re driving one. The CT6 is an example because it’s special sitting in the back. It’s a really fantastic experience. It’s a car that you can drive or be driven in. And then, from an aesthetic point of view, we’re trying to reinforce that. So we’re trying to make sure that the cars look light and agile as they are, and they look like they are going to be engaging to drive.

F24: So who is Cadillac to you, now? You’re looking at the brand in terms of what they are; lifestyle makers, car manufacturers, fashion. But who is Cadillac to you?

AS: Cadillac is confident. It’s okay to be different from everybody else. If I think about the person who buys the Cadillac in a group, everybody else is buying the brands that you expect them to buy, and there’s this guy who buys the Cadillac. It’s someone who can look at things differently or who has a slightly different viewpoint. Not only that, but everybody wants to feel special, and I want to make sure every Cadillac makes you feel special.

F24: And Erin, who is Cadillac to you?

EC: Cadillac to me? I really like the term “confident” because I do think that it, in some ways, is a break from the norm. Somebody who is willing to express themselves whether it’s a popular opinion or not, and to kind of break away from the crowd and experience something new and have a positive experience. And I think that’s how we spread the word about Cadillac, as those people who are willing to step out of the box and try new things. But I think it takes a very confident person to do something like that.

AS: Stand alone.

F24: That’s good. So let’s talk interiors a little bit. The foundation is GM, the mothership of sorts. For a bit of background, I drove the Cadillac Escalade after I had a Chevy Tahoe rental. The Escalade was a completely different experience. How much freedom has GM allowed in the past couple of years in the expansion of that design and really pushing it on without ‘pulling a SAAB’? You know doing everything differently.

AS: I came two years ago, so Erin has worked on Cadillac longer than me. A very small group of us got together and started to say, “Okay, this is what we want Cadillac to be.” And it’s not a total reinvention; it’s more using this as a launch pad to continue. We received very clear direction from them. And “tell us what you need to succeed.” And so you see the products where we put in the things we think we need to make it a Cadillac.

F24: That’s great. In terms of passenger experience, that’s something you said you don’t want to exclude. In the past, Cadillacs have been known as the bouncer*; the vehicle everyone was comfortable with, but nobody was really excited about. In terms of the passenger experience, especially, the look in the Escalade—the multimedia in the back, the comfortable seats, everybody’s got air conditioning, everybody’s got heated seats or even cool seats—is that something you feel is helping you fit in with the family culture, or something that makes a younger generation think, “I can buy this car and keep it for 10 years knowing, my family will grow into it?”

AS: I think Cadillac is a good fit for families. I have a family and I drive lots of Cadillacs. But I think it can almost come back the other way. As designers, if we’re going to do a family car, what is the Cadillac of family cars? Or, if we’re going to do a sports car, what makes it a Cadillac sports car? It’s always about the point of view for Cadillac. But, like I said, while we definitely want to make it an exceptional driving experience that is also inclusive and relaxing for passengers. We’ve talked a lot about thinking about America and the whole idea of space in the context of the rest of the world, so we play up spaciousness and make the luxury of space, and that’s something I find really intriguing. And even the way the colors are used or the material breakups we do in the interior work to make it look and feel like an inviting, luxury environment.

F24: Backseat space in China is huge. The Audi has the A6L over there and I rode in it a couple of times. I think this would do incredibly in the United States, minus the fact that Audi would have wanted to compete against the AA. So is that something you guys see as trending towards the Asian markets as well?

AS: Definitely.

F24: So we will be seeing an ATS-V or ATS with a longer wheelbase?

AS: So, we are more interested in the point of view for each market, because each is slightly different, but if you look at CT6, it has the responsiveness of a smaller car, but it the spaciousness of vehicles in segments that are above.  A segment above an interior space for China, that’s about perfect. So rather than us taking a car and stretching it, we do the car that we think is going to work in China. If it’s going to work in the US, it’s going to work in Europe. And in each of those contexts, it’s slightly different.

F24: So a global vehicle?

AS:  Yes, but also global vehicles with an American take.

F24: What about homage? Cadillac is America’s luxury brand. Others have tried and come close, but Cadillac has always reigned supreme. There are certain common elements that you find in those cars, but what’s the element that you always make sure is in the design when you sign off?

AS: I’ll let you answer that first.

EC: I think the biggest element for me is the materials that we’re using. You know how critical it is to have really soft leather, for everything to be genuine—if it looks like wood, it is wood, if it looks like carbon fibre, it is carbon fibre. I think that that’s a really critical piece of the Cadillac luxury story, is just to be really genuine. I mean, our materials are exquisite in their craftsmanship and in the thoughtful, artistic ways we put them together.

F24: Excellent. What about you, Andrew?

AS: Well, we are both driving preproduction cars right now. I’m driving CT6 and Erin is driving an XT5. So there are probably two things that I look for in a successful Cadillac. The first is interior focused. When I am sitting in the car, the interior should make me feel special. Do I feel good sitting in the car, and does it convey not just technology, not just content, but exceptional craftsmanship inside and out? To me, when I talk about the celebration of success, it’s that look you get—you know, when you pull up to the stoplight and someone looks at you and makes eye contact, and they kind of give you a congratulations smile. That’s really important. So a Cadillac needs to have presence and needs to make a statement — it needs to arrive.

EC: Yes, I love looking at my car from a distance, seeing the lights light up and feel “that’s my car.”

AS: With the CT6, I have the same thought. I love that I walk towards it and I don’t do anything and the door handles illuminate. It’s kind of like the car wakes up and knows you’re coming, and that’s pretty cool.

F24: There’s some technology that we’re seeing in the vehicles these days, across the whole spectrum that’s just… it’s welcoming, and it is clear manufacturers want you to welcome it too. I think Cadillac has done a great job at this. So, the final question; this is more of a gritty question. It’s been said that the demographic for a BMW driver is this, a Lincoln driver is this, a Honda is this. If you had to visualize the Cadillac driver, what do you see?

AS: I wouldn’t say it’s a demographic; it’s more of an attitude. We have this term that we use internally sometimes that I quite like to think about, and the designers like to use, and that is the Cadillac is your co-conspirator. And if you think about that, it kind of gets to the heart of what Cadillac is really about.

F24: I can definitely agree with that, and I can’t speak highly enough of the ATS-V. Driving that car for me was an enthralling experience. So, I would pull up to a light—and I had actually made sure it wasn’t all-wheel-drive—and I thought, “There is no way this car handles a corner this well.” But it wasn’t just that. I really appreciated the looks, because it’s not ostentatious. It doesn’t scream in your face. But people recognize that something’s just a little different about it. And then, as it accelerated away, it was great. And the fact that it was a manual, I mean the sound…I wanted a little bit more, but I could always use just a touch more, but I love that. That’s one of those cars where it’s enough. I didn’t think to myself, How could I improve this?” Because that’s what does I do; I’ve modified multiple cars. We have four project cars going right now with the business. But that’s the one car I said I won’t touch. It’s perfect as it is.

AS: It is a pretty cool car, because I don’t think people quite realise what it is. But it is great when you see someone in traffic who recognizes it and again, you get that look of acknowledgement. That makes it all worthwhile.