This is the man who, after eighteen years with Mercedes-Benz, is about to set his stamp on the Volvo cars of the future. Taking up his new post as Design Director on 1 May 2005, Steve Mattin is patently passionate about cars and design.
“A car is a sculpture on wheels,” he says.
Steve Mattin is quite unassuming about his new role. He points out that designing a car is always a team effort, calling for commitment from all concerned. He describes himself as a something of a perfectionist, anxious to see the design process all the way through – from first sketch to finished vehicle.
He sees arriving as a newcomer to Volvo Car Corporation as a distinct advantage to a new design director.
“I can see things with fresh eyes. My international experience helps, and also coming from a major premium brand brand,” says Steve Mattin.
Before his appointment, he was contacted personally by Hans-Olov Olsson, CEO and President of Volvo Car Corporation and J. Mays, Chief Creative Officer at Ford Motor Company. But he reveals that it was no easy matter to decide to switch firms, given the fact that he had been with Mercedes-Benz ever since he graduated from Coventry University in 1987 with a BA (Hons) in Industrial Design (Transportation).
Although England is his native country, Stuttgart has become his ‘social home’ – a place where he has his friends and colleagues. But as soon as he had accepted Volvo Cars’ offer, he suddenly started noticing Volvos more and more.
“They started following me and the only parking spaces were next to Volvo cars. They seemed to be everywhere!"
"I tend to live the brand – it is fixed in your brain and becomes impregnated in you soul,” says Mattin. And he is sure that the Volvo brand will soon become just as much a part of him.
In between finishing at DaimlerChrysler and starting at Volvo he took a trip to New Zealand. There he borrowed an XC90 and toured the country for three weeks.
“It was a great opportunity to get to know Volvo and the car,” he says. He was able to combine three of his favourite things – travelling, driving and photography. Covering 8,000 kilometres in all, he took about 3,000 photos en route.
His career in motor vehicle design began when he was only 15. He and a friend entered – and won – a design competition organised by BP. Today he describes their winning entry with a smile. Three years later he began his four-year degree course in Industrial Design specialising in car design, including six months’ practical experience at Mercedes-Benz. At the end of that course, he was about to enrol for a masters degree at the Royal College of Art in London but then a Mercedes representative turned up right in the middle of enrolment and offered him a job.
“I packed all my belongings into the car and set off for Germany. It was very different from England and a great learning place. I thought I would give it a few years,” he says.
Ten years later he was to be named “Designer of the Year” by the British motoring magazine Autocar. In the course of his career at Mercedes-Benz he was responsible for the exterior design of a whole series of models, including the A-Class, the S-Class, the C-Class sports coupé and the SL. He had the overall design responsibility for the new M-Class, concept cars for the Grand Sports Tourer and the production version of that vehicle, the R-Class. It was unveiled at the motor show in New York only a few months ago.
He gets a real kick out of seeing the finished product on the roads.
“A car is an object constantly on the move, to be found in all sorts of different surroundings. You can be anywhere in the world and see one of your cars. You spread your own personality and creativity onto the rest of the world.”
The car industry is very prone to changing trends, but a judicious approach is essential. A designer needs always to have an eye to the appeal a vehicle will have in five or ten years’ time.
“I try not to follow trends. It is best to be a trendsetter yourself," he says and points out that you need to avoid blandness.
He thinks Volvo needs to maintain its independence and preserve the uniqueness of its brand.
He is conscious of the designer’s share of responsibility for ergonomics, safety and environmental aspects, and believes that good design is essential to enhance a brand’s core values.
“Good design will last well and still be seen as fresh and new, years later. Design and quality go together – not just fit and finish, but also visual quality.”
Steve Mattin grew up in the village of Wootton, in Bedfordshire, England. Fond of drawing for as long as he can remember, he thought at first that he wanted to be an architect. His father, an electrical engineer, was fascinated by cars, and he soon started taking Steve and his younger brother to England’s biggest car show each year.
“It was the highlight of the year. From the age of eight onwards, I thought about nothing but cars.”
When it comes to inspiration, everything is grist to his mill – buildings, furniture, and consumer products in general. Above all you need to keep your eyes open. Even the tiniest detail can etch itself somewhere in your memory and come in useful at a later date.
“Design is a passion I have, so it is difficult to screen off. It is never an eight-to-five job,” says Steve Mattin.