Self-professed ‘car nut’ Oona Scheepers is taking design from out of the shadow of engineering at Volkswagen. John Stones talks to her about emotionalisation, sustainability and the role women play in automotive design

‘Basically, we dress up the car,’ explains Oona Scheepers, the designer in charge of colour and trim for Volkswagen. ‘This involves everything you can see and touch, from paint, adds-ons, trims, wheels and, for the interior, everything from the headlining down to the carpet.’

Scheepers joined Volkswagen at the beginning of the year from its upmarket sister marque Audi. But the journey she has travelled to get there is anything but obvious.

Raised on a farm in Karoo, in South Africa’s Northern Cape, Scheepers initially trained and worked as a graphic designer. Following her husband to Europe in the 1980s (he is now an engineer with Audi), a succession of freelance illustration assignments – for Ford and then Porsche – led to her being employed at the German sports car company for seven years, where she was responsible for the interiors for the seminal Carrera GT and Porsche’s controversial foray into the lardy 4×4 market, the Cayenne. From her time at Audi, she can put her name against the TT, the A5, the R8 and the A4, plus a string of concept cars.

Graphic design would not seem the obvious route, but Scheepers believes her training has been invaluable for her current job. ‘It is the same, just on a different surface and different scale,’ she says. ‘Graphic design gives you a strong feeling for colour, but also for sense of line.’

As there has traditionally been no formal training in ‘colour and trim’, apart from a course set up recently at the University of Reutlingen in Germany, her team is an eclectic one, primarily made up of interior and product designers. It is also, she notes, one of the few areas in a car company – and not just in design – where there are more than a smattering of women.

Why does she think this is? ‘Women definitely have more of a feeling for materials, colours, textures – the whole package,’ she says without hesitation. However, she believes the neglect of women, not only as designers but also as consumers, is a serious problem. ‘With colours, for instance, women like pastels, men don’t,’ she says. ‘The companies are becoming aware of [this issue], and it is opening up. But the appeal of the product has to be universal.’

Scheepers herself is a ‘total car nut’, and at an airport will most likely have her nose tucked into a car magazine. She drives a Golf R32, admitting with a slightly embarrassed laugh that it’s in black, with a black interior. And her husband? He has an Audi A5, in equally adventurous black and black.

Scheepers still feels very much a South African, and at home with her husband speaks ‘a new language’ made up of Afrikaans, English and German. She returns home every year to the family farm to recharge her batteries, but her resolve to return permanently one day has been severely shaken by the recent murder of both her parents-in-law.

While she credits nature as her main influence, and has compared the russet leathers she pioneered at Audi and Porsche with the colours of African landscapes, Scheepers also tracks other design disciplines. Fashion, she says, is too impulsive to be relevant, but she follows furniture design closely and attends the Milan furniture fair. She was intrigued to see top furniture companies also creating mood boards. ‘On theirs you find cars, on ours you find furniture. It is a bit “chicken and egg”,’ she says with a chuckle.

But ‘trend’ is a word Scheepers is slightly allergic to. ‘You have to set your own or you will always be following someone else’s,’ she notes. ‘It’s our duty as designers.’ Design itself has been moving up the ladder in the German car companies, she acknowledges, and is no longer always the poor relation of engineering. ‘It’s starting to take a leading, if not the lead role,’ she says. ‘The emotionalisation of the car is extremely important.’

Environmental issues are also increasingly pressing. Changing the door and seat trims, she discovered, could lead to an 18 per cent drop in emissions during manufacture. But the subject is still a hard sell. ‘Sustainability has to have a new face – everyone thinks it means boring beige and browns,’ she explains. ‘But it doesn’t need to be inferior in either quality or design; a sustainable design could be even better than what we are offering now.’ As a result, a raft of new materials, including bamboo, is being investigated.

‘Some exciting things are going to be coming from us,’ she promises, with an enthusiasm and ebullience that is unlikely to be squashed even by Volkswagen’s stuffy and bureaucratic corporate culture. And when the next generation of Polos and Golfs hit our streets, what we see and touch will be her handiwork.

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