Jo Lewis is the Head of Colour & Materials Design at McLaren Automotive Ltd and graduated in 2007 with an MA in Constructed Textiles.
Jo has been responsible for all colour and material design delivery across all McLaren products, including McLaren Special Operations. She is responsible for the creative colour and materials design vision strategy, and delivery for the current and future McLaren Automotive range of products. In 2017, she was the winner of the Autocar Women Designer of the year award.
Constructive textiles involves many processes, specific tools and techniques. What led you to this particular area of design?
I think textiles is exactly why I was led into this industry and my very specific role in design.
Constructed textiles as a starting point in my design exploration meant I was naturally led to so many different types of materials, weaving, printing, knitting, product making, and therefore built up a huge amount of experience a natural affinity to various materials and processes.
Not being content with ‘how things are traditionally done’, I was very much inspired by future technology and innovations, I had a clear visionary approach to the future of textile design.
McLaren Colour & Materials Design (CMD) has been the perfect fit for my expertise in materials, design thinking and passion to lead and innovate in materials design. Materials and colours that provide a function, a purpose, a meaning, as well as exciting innovation, is my passion and is what motivates me and the designs I create.
Textiles is the starting point of so many creative processes. Where did your journey start?
At school my strength was in all creative subjects – art, textiles, craft design technology, costume design and cooking; the hands on, craft and creation were my passions. With my natural affiliation to materials and textiles, I assumed that I would naturally be a fashion designer or interior fabric designer, it seemed the obvious route (although I was regularly told how competitive this world was!). But I soon discovered that I loved exploration of all types of materials hard and soft, and not necessarily knowing the end application, but just experimenting, learning about materials and processes was the thing that excited me the most.
When I applied to Central Saint Martins (CSM) for my undergraduate degree, I was interviewed for fashion but was quickly passed over to textiles after seeing my portfolio, as they saw my textiles being much more appropriate based on my creations. Initially I felt a bit put out – but it was a blessing in disguise!
During my BA, I had the opportunity to play with weaving, printing and knitting processes and everything in between, for one project I vaguely remember popping into Chinatown and buying a load of Asian food ingredients as I wanted to create an edible woven fabric – interwoven strips of seaweed, pockets of rice. I also remember creating this knitted wire meat carcass sculpture (without the real meat in this instance). It was a real contrast to the more traditional approach to materials in comparison to my peers, but I loved experimenting and pushing the boundaries.
Throughout my undergraduate studies I was very unique in the way I created textiles, and rather than apply my ideas to a traditional end product (i.e. fashion and textiles) I was much more conceptual in my approach, and towards the end of my BA, I wasn’t yet ready to be a designer as I felt like I had unfinished business and hadn’t yet found my niche. In my last year, I applied to the RCA to study Constructed Textiles, specialising in knit, and I was accepted. This was the next exciting step in my design journey...
Creativity, imagination and innovation is something required in this field. How did your practice change once you had studied at the RCA?
I very much know that all RCA students are some of the best designers in the world in terms of creativity, imagination and creativity; the talent at the RCA always amazed me. The RCA made me really focus on a more niche and original design approach as well as embracing collaborations with other designers form other disciplines within the College.
The most difficult thing I believe is not the creation of an idea, but how to successfully apply an idea, a concept, and be able to turn this into reality, which not only looks amazing but has purpose and is desirable.
I also found the opportunity to collaborate a really valuable experience; sharing ideas and inspiring each other can add a huge amount of strength and added value to the final outcome of an overall project.
This was the difference in how I approached my BA studies to my MA studies. I made an amazing partnership with another student architect (Anne-Laure Carruth, MA Architecture, 2007) - our ideas became so much stronger when we worked together, and we achieved so many exciting things; with the pinnacle being a display of our work at the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, London.
The physical layout of the RCA and the proximity to other departments, floor by floor; automotive, product, fashion etc., I found it so easy to meet people, very talented people, and very easy to explore different departments, which enhanced the collaborative approach to my studies.
You went on to work in fashion with Stella McCartney. Did you feel fashion was the likely step?
The Stella McCartney opportunity was a real random, spur of the movement thing. After seeing her designs in a magazine, I thought ‘I’d love to know what it’s like to work for her?!’
In minutes I had printed off my CV and portfolio, found the address, took a tube from CSM in Holborn and knocked on the door of her studio, directly handing over my CV (to the same person who ended up being the other intern I worked with).
I never believed I would hear anything but was a good boost for me to at least give it a go… Next thing I knew, I was called for an interview and I was in! I remember at the time my portfolio featured some rather racy knitted PVC ‘dominatrix’ style materials – must have been on trend for 2003.
I’m constantly inspired by fashion, and love fashion. But I always knew fashion wouldn’t be the industry I would end up in – I was more fascinated/intrigued by the industry. Especially Stella, an established British designer and I genuinely loved her designs and would have bought all of them if I could have afforded it on a student loan.
My experience there was incredible, a real eye opener, the people, the insight to the behind-the-scenes access was amazing and the experiences that came with the role were once-in-a -lifetime stuff. It was a great feeling to be able to contribute in any way I could, as well as learn new skills. There were real varied sets of tasks, from designing coat toggles to collating trends, supporting at fashion shows, staying up all night to finish an Oscar’s gown, to photocopying endless images out of magazines to inspire the designers!
I loved the role and met a friend for life (Cassandra Slavik) from NYC – we had amazing fun. Although it wasn’t my future – it lacked the element of textile development, future technology, and again I felt eager to explore other opportunities outside of fashion.
Stella McCartney’s sustainability thought leadership through material and supply chain innovation and no use of leather, feathers, skin or fur must have made it a very interesting and creative place. Did you have to think and work differently?
Stella McCartney was a purely vegetarian studio. Even her dog was a veggie, and all materials within the product were non-leather/animal – Stella never wore anything leather. At that time this was a relatively new approach in fashion and a different way of thinking – whereas now it’s in the mainstream, with the vegan movement being the new alternative.
In my role now, it could be an interesting collaboration to be able to work with Stella again based on her approach to materials and how these could be applied in automotive design.
I have seen some of the work she has done around vegan silks, and I love the approach of alternative luxury materials for automotive especially as the sustainability of materials is becoming more prevalent in all design and industries.
You moved over to work on product design at Established & Sons, material innovation and engineering at TWI in Cambridge. Tell us about this new direction?
At the time Stella’s husband, Alistair Willis, was CEO of Established & Sons, an east London-based product design company, and I met him briefly while working for Stella. I had heard and seen some of the exciting work they were doing – it is a British-made luxury furniture company, and an umbrella design studio made up of an assortment of both up and coming and very established designers.
I interned there just as I was finishing my MA at the RCA. It was great watching and supporting the various designers like Sebastian Wrong, Barber Osgerby; all designers practiced with their own unique materials and design processes. I even supported the making of a one off ‘Red’ campaign version of the Zaha Hadid Aqua table, and remember Bono from U2 popping in to see it!
It wasn’t long until my final MA show came around and on show night I was approached at my show stand by a company called TWI (The Welding Institute) based in Cambridge, with Roger Wise and Deborah Pullen who subsequently became my bosses – I had no idea who they were but was offered a job on the spot!
They were very interested in my huge installation; a series of 15m vertically suspended 3D knitted textile architectural sculpture, integrated with functional structures, pockets, interwoven materials (this year the show was set in Hyde Park opposite the College in a special tent to commemorate 100-year anniversary, hence the opportunity for the huge scale!)
I couldn’t understand why they were so interested but it turned out they were already working on a cardio-vascular graft implant and my crazy installation design resembled their work. They wanted to bring a creative thinker and designer into TWI, which was mainly engineering led, to see what value design could add to their processes.
I instantly became a Project Leader, specialising in polymers, material development, joining processes and innovative material design. I became part of the team developing materials using laser welding, ultrasonic welding, and applied to various products including: vascular implants, tensile architectural materials and structures, aerospace parachutes for the moon with Per Linstrand, Speedo swim suit development, innovative material design, automotive, bullet proof vests – a real varied list of exciting projects.
This was a lightbulb moment – and combined the best of my creative thinking with learning how to combine this with a more methodical problem-solving engineering-focused approach. I learnt so many invaluable lessons and set me up for the world of automotive.
Five years later a CMD role came up in automotive, and an ex-RCA colleague suggested that if I was interested that I should apply as it fit my skill set, this combination of creative and technical. I was ready for a change, applied and got the job, which took me into the start of my career journey in automotive.
Did you still use the skills you started with at the RCA or at Stella McCartney? Or was this a completely new way of working? What would you say were the major changes working in this new industry?
There are many similarities in all design industries, so I wasn’t particularly phased anywhere I worked. It’s generally a similar process, just different people and a different end product.
The automotive industry was very different, especially at JLR, in terms of the scale, size, and complexity of everything, the automotive language and communication took a bit of adjusting too!
I’d say visualisation and 3D software became a more widely used tool that I would use day-to-day as an important way to communicate across the design and engineering teams.
Specifically at JLR the scale of design meant that the visibility and overview of the bigger picture was lost – so many people were working on a more focused small elements of a product. i.e. a designer specifically for exterior paint, a designer for steering wheels etc. I felt disconnected and the innovation in CMD design just wasn’t a big enough focus for me. I wanted to feel more connected with a product from start to finish and be part of the bigger picture and the holistic design approach but equally have more freedom and flexibility to introduce new materials.
My role at Lotus offered more excitement as a smaller volume manufacturing sportscar company, there was a hands-on approach from the design to manufacture to the track, as all these elements were based on one site, it was a real learning curve and a new challenge which I loved.
In 2016 you joined McLaren. Tell us about some of your developments there.
I can’t believe how much I have achieved in the time I’ve been here. The way McLaren works and the combination of dynamic, passionate, talented people, all very closely linked as cross-functional teams, means that we truly make things happen!
I’ve designed and launched over 12 McLaren supercars since I’ve been here, the McLaren Speedtail being one of my proudest projects, introducing a whole array of industry-first, technical material developments.
Some of my most exciting material developments include: 1k carbon fibre (an even lighter and visually refined version of standard carbon fibre used in automotive), cashmere fabric for interior trim, lightweight leather, including no fewer than three new textile products, three new leather products; nubucks, full anilines, stunning natural leathers, thin ply technology carbon (a lightweight carbon fibre jewellery), solid precious metal badges, back lit materials, and one off customer collaborations with high end fashion houses, to name but a few.
In terms of the future, there’s even more exiting things to come – I have to say what we have achieved as a team in such a short space of time is incredible, and feel we are unrivalled and very much the leaders of innovation in this luxury supercar segment I genuinely believe I have the best Colour & Design team in the world as well as being part of the best design team in the world!
In 2017 you were the winner of the Autocar Women Designer of the year award. What did it mean for you to win?
It was a wonderful surprise, very unexpected. I had no idea I had won – it was an honour to be nominated let alone win! It really elevated my confidence in the industry and my role, I was extremely proud that my achievements had been acknowledged.
You say you are lover of all things ‘Porsche’ and love to drive your 1982 911 Porsche Targa. Would say that your love of classic cars perhaps steered your career pathway?
I have always been interested in cars and driving, and interestingly most people in this industry either come from a background where cars are a passion from a young age or they maybe always wanted to work with cars or studied around car design, a passion which they had been bought up with.
Although my interest and passion grew from stumbling into a career in the industry, obviously design in general is a passion, I have always appreciated car design as a well as driving cars, I knew what I liked and didn’t like.
I grew up in Coventry in the 1990s, which was a hub for automotive manufacturing, but my love for classics cars became very real during my time at Lotus, a company with such a rich heritage, I had the opportunity to getting close to the likes of the early Elans, and the Esprit, and this really struck a chord in me – I love the history and nostalgia that comes with a classic car.
On an inspiration day out the office, I went to The London Classic Car Show and set my eyes upon a 1970s Porsche 911 Targa, with very 70s velour seats and a retro orange exterior – at that point I knew I wanted one, and not long after I bought my first classic called ‘Arry’, a Porsche, 1982 911 SC Targa, and still have him today (same age as me!).
Having a passion for cars in this industry in whatever way, is definitely a good passion to have, regardless of whether you own one or not. It’s amazing how cars can bring so many people together and the more diverse cars the better. I often do classic car drive events and I’m also part of a ‘cars and coffee’ style event team that we have created at McLaren, offering a great opportunity to get our cars out and talk all things cars over a coffee.
On the outside the automotive industry still appears to be very male dominated. Obviously, you see another side to it in your current role. What do you think are the barriers or culture that need changing to open it up in all areas to women? Or for women to even think of it as possible industry to enter?
If you are the best person for the job, regardless of gender, the job should be yours!
And yes, there are typically less women in automotive but that is changing. I’m part of a group called ‘Driven Women’ at McLaren, which promotes roles and careers in the industry, be it through social media, guest speakers, STEM and events. The group is also not exclusive to men but very much inclusive, as clearly there is opportunity to make the industry a more diverse place.
Although I believe the best way to advertise and promote women into these roles is by giving children the visibility at a young age through schools and early years education, to what types of opportunities available out there in the industry.
And as I’ve discovered, there is much more to automotive than horse power and engines, there is a wealth of skills and backgrounds that form the automotive industry.
Congratulations on your new role as Head of Colour & Materials Design. What will your new role involve?
It’s really an extension of what I have built up and created over the last five years here – as a small, agile and reactive company, I have been lucky to be able to establish a new team. The overall role of CMD, is effectively design, explore, create and specify all colour and materials for both interior and exterior of all our core automotive product, McLaren Special Operations and Bespoke products!
And as my role and team has grown, I have also started to expand the broader input of CMD into other areas of the business to ensure continuity of the design look and feel, enhancing the core brand identity, and ensuring that what we do as a team further contributes relevant and innovative CMD design at McLaren.
I would also like to build on the interaction with our customers and understand more about what they want and how this can further support the strategy of CMD now and into the future.
I’m fortunate to have a very direct relationship with many of our customers, more specifically around our Ultimate Series customers, which stems from the highly bespoke design requests that are requested during the customer design specification, this is one of the best parts of my role getting to meet the customers, building great relationships, and seeing a customer’s reaction when they take ownership of a product I have helped to create!
What innovations do you think will change the automotive design industry in the future?
I can’t give too much away here – but certainly, cleaner, leaner and more considered manufacturing with a sustainability angle, is something I can see emerging in the future around material design.
Across the wider industry, 3D printing, digital design, rapid manufacturing and EV is not only the future but is happening now, which in turn will change the product attributes, functionality, design and usability of vehicles.
Watch this space…
How do you think the dawn of driverless cars might affect the materiality and use of colour in your field? Especially when people's travelling experiences, and how they spend their time in the vehicle change dramatically?
When I look at some of the driverless concept cars based on many designs that are already out there – yes, I believe that the materiality, the look, the feel, the ambience, and purpose of a vehicle will change, and therefore the way material and colours are developed, applied and selected will also evolve.
The future of automotive is an interesting thought, the emerging EV market has certainly created a desire for different materials based on recyclability, sustainability, using material bi products; sugar cane fibres, recycled plastic bottle fabric, pineapple leather, there are many weird and wonderful materials out there! In turn this helps to support the holistic design story of EV, sending out a consistent message. Although on the flip side, I also believe that materials like leather that have been around for thousands of years still have a place as a well as animal fibre-based materials – colour and materials are so specific to regions, cultures and demographic, there will never be a one fits all approach.
I’m also a believer that the transition to an EV world, will only drive demand for the ‘traditional’ car, manual driving, petrol engines, and a pure driving experience.
It will only become more sought after, as nothing can compare to that feeling of being in control and driving your own car, whether it be the nostalgia of a classic or exhilaration of a supercar, extreme racing or a leisurely Sunday drive. Driving is the engagement of all the senses, and the human desire to be ‘the driver’ will always exist, it is so interesting to visualise the future in automotive and hope that as a designer, I can be part of shaping what this looks like.
"The most difficult thing I believe is not the creation of an idea, but how to successfully apply an idea, a concept, and be able to turn this into reality, which not only looks amazing but has purpose and is desirable."Jo Lewis