Autumn 2021

Mini Strip x Paul Smith

Two British icons, legendary fashion designer Paul Smith and Mini, have collaborated on the Mini Strip ‑ a paired-back interior redesign with a focus on sustainability 

It’s fair to say that Interior Motives’ expectations were fairly low prior to the unveil of the Mini Strip x Paul Smith concept at the famous fashion designer’s Albemarle Street boutique in the heart of London’s Mayfair in mid-August. This was in large part because the British fashion brand named after its founder had worked with Mini before back in 1997 and the result, while fetching and very successful from a marketing point of view, was surface-only and predictably striped in his signature rainbow colours.      

So, the reveal of the 2021 Mini Strip, although firmly based on its three-door electric hatch, was by comparison a very pleasant surprise, especially for the extent of its interior design difference and, as we later discover its meaningful intent too. At a very small press Q&A gathering downstairs at his boutique, Sir Paul Smith was on hand to explain the project in person, while head of Mini design Oliver Heilmer joined via video conference call from Munich, partly due to the then still tight COVID-19 related European travel restrictions. Smith kicked off by explaining that he had taken an enquiry from Mini about working on another car in the summer of 2020 but wasn’t interested in a repeat of his previous late-90s collaborative approach. 

“I was a bit grumpy on the very first call to Oliver,” Smith recalls with some self-deprecation and self-awareness, “as I was very conscious I didn’t want to do just a decorative job.” Taking a week to think about it, Smith then came back to Heilmer with the idea of a concept with sustainability as its starting point. “I loved the idea of taking stuff out, not doubling up,” Smith continues, in reference to letting his mobile phone and screen work as the car’s interface and infotainment software for example. “My original working title for the project was ‘MT’ which sounds like ‘emp-ty’ but it got changed to ‘Strip’ to be more internationally understood and as we were stripping things out. It’s a concept car which is intentionally there to provoke, to say ‘what if’. The joy of the project was that we didn’t have to make it safe in Beijing and in New York. It’s a bit naughty in a way, but if you have that opportunity, you mustn’t hold back.”

"There is a still a premium feel to the end result and the aesthetic feels unusual and markedly non-automotive in its treatment"

To get a better understanding of each other’s viewpoints, Heilmer’s Mini team was able to visit Paul Smith’s team in London in August 2020 in-between UK lockdowns. In advance of Smith paying a return visit to Munich he asked Mini to strip-out one of its Electric models so he could see “the guts of it” and made a long list of recycled and recyclable materials he might be able to employ. “I thought the stripped-out car was so gorgeous in its own way, so why don’t we just paint it a lovely colour?” The resulting shell had its inside area spray-painted ‘Yves Klein blue’ after the rich and bright hue associated with the 20th Century French painter. As COVID restrictions got tougher towards the end of 2020, the teams were not able to meet again so readily and relied instead on numerous FedEx packages of samples and video conference calls to progress the design development.

Upon encountering the concept’s cabin up close, it’s clear that although the final interior is indeed very stripped out, there is a still a premium feel to the end result and the aesthetic feels unusual and markedly non-automotive in its treatment. For a start, it’s leather and chrome free and although cork has been used in concept car interiors before – and even plays a small part within the Mazda MX-30 electric production car as storage tray lining – the use of a darker cork in the Mini Strip for the whole dashboard top, interior door shoulders and sun visors is a bolder interpretation. That mottled and natural brown colour also works superbly with the aforementioned Yves Klein blue metal and bright orange mountaineering rope door-pulls. The latter decision is a knowing nod to the cords on the original 1959 model, and a detail Smith knows well as a long-standing Mini owner himself. 

One of the by-products of the cork forming process was also a pleasing eye-opener for both designers. “We’re really proud of the cork as you don’t have to kill the tree, you cut parts off it and in three years it grows back,” Smith says of its well-known sustainable credentials. “But more than that, when you chip off the mould, the sap becomes the glue for the mould, that was so lovely to realise and understand. So many products are glued together [with synthetic glue] and recycling those is a nightmare.” Cork also has a soft and warm feel, good sound-deadening properties and gives off a great natural scent. 

The semi-transparent dashboard filet below the cork IP top is made of one part – instead of a multi-part design – and physical switches are reduced down to five – one for each electric window, start/stop, wi-fi and the hazard warning light. Above those central toggle switches is the Mini-familiar circular centre console within which sits a bracket for a smartphone – whose system and screen becomes the car’s when so housed. Elsewhere, the full-length and width clear roof is recycled plexiglas to let in lots of light, the steering wheel is wrapped in grippy cycle handlebar tape and the floor mats are made of recycled rubber which show their recycled nature through the lighter-coloured flecks within the darker whole. Meanwhile, the seat upholstery is made from a single knitted fabric and, along with the piping, is fully-recyclable.

Clearly, the car is not production-feasible in this concept form, most obviously illustrated by the exposed blunt metal close to potential passengers’ heads, elbows and knees, plus more behind its mesh-covered lower door cards, but both Smith and Heilmer are quick to explain the Mini Strip’s broader – and perhaps more subtle – importance. “What we learned from this project is how to change not only your personal mindset but also your audience and your bosses,” says Heilmer.

“They need to be inspired by what we are doing, regardless of whether it’s feasible in two or three years’ time. Does it grow into our future projects? ‘Yes’ [he says emphatically] Do we see something explicit as a specific material in the Strip that we can use in the future? ‘Maybe’. And the good thing is that after a project like this, our R&D departments start to think about things like cork in a different way. Before they might not have thought it could be a future dashboard material for instance.”

"We involved over 50 engineers in the Strip project alone to prove each material in this car is recycled"

Of course, non-car designers collaborating with car designers on concepts to shake up the industry is nothing new, but this particular disruptor feels different, as he’s still an independent global brand owner, as well as fashion designer. “Because I’ve run my own business for so long, I have a more down-to-earth approach, I can see their point of view,” says Smith. “More extravagant designers might come up with something they haven’t thought all the way through, but we have our own architects, product, furniture and textile designers, so at some point we’ve dealt with all of these things and know their strengths and weaknesses. If you make a linen jacket you know it will only stand up to so much wear, or if we take an open-weave material it can only be made into a jacket – you can’t make it into trousers as it will rip in the backside within two minutes – so there’s loads of stuff that we know in advance. We’re very practical.”

Perhaps appropriately, ‘the client’ and the car brand’s designer gets the last word about this latest Mini concept. “I’ve been in this business 20 years now but still feel that nothing is impossible,” says Heilmer. “It’s always a question of time and budget, but you need to keep that naïvety. This is something I really appreciated from Paul. He is so experienced in the industrial and fashion design business and is still asking questions that are important. Those ‘what if?’ questions will remain, and by asking them to our divisions of engineers – we involved more than 50 in the Strip project alone – to prove each material in this car really is recycled, took a lot of effort. As Paul says, you don’t have to be afraid of asking questions again and again, even if someone tells you ten times that these things didn’t work in the past, because sometimes the premise behind those decisions changes. And what has definitely changed now is that when we discuss any new material, we ask one simple question: Is it recycled or recyclable? If it’s not, that material doesn’t play a role anymore. And that process is tougher than I thought.”

Founder, Paul Smith: Sir Paul Smith

SVP BMW Group Design: Adrian van Hooydonk

Head of design, Mini: Oliver Heilmer

Interior designer: Philipp Gruhn

Head of colour and trim, Mini: Kerstin Schmeding

Colour and trim designer: Evelin Hartmann

Project started / completed: Summer 2020 / Summer 2021

Launch: London / August 2021

Dimensions (mm):

Length: 3821

Width: 1727

Height: 1414

Wheelbase: 2495