With the Mullen Five the design team, led by Andreas Thurner, delivered a high quality, crafted interior in a frighteningly quick time
The first months of a new design consultancy are always delicate, especially if your business is established in the middle of a global pandemic. And so it was for Andreas Thurner and his wife and business partner, Annette. Their eponymous design consultancy, Thurner Design, established in 2020, needed the right clients, the right projects, and the right team to establish itself as an authoritative voice in defining the future of mobility.
An opportunity came in the form of a concept car for Mullen Technologies (now Mullen Automotive) in late 2020. The project was initially offered to Phiaro, the legendary coachbuilder in Orange County California and crafters of a number of well-known concept cars including, the Infiniti Prototype 10, the Acura Precision Concept and, near to the heart of Thurner, the Karma SC-2, which was created by his team while he was vice president of design at Karma Automotive.
Phiaro would construct the car, but recommended to Mullen that they work alongside Thurner in the design process. An agreement was reached, and Thurner began on Christmas Day 2020. Mullen CEO David Michery had a “big picture” vision of the general vehicle positioning, and the feeling the car would evoke when seen and driven.
He stipulated that the exterior needed to express both a futuristic and minimalist feel, while the interior was to provide warmth and communicate a high quality of design and craftsmanship to position the car above a very crowded market segment.
The Mullen team also provided Thurner with a packet of information that included measurements for the wheelbase, height, length, and information on the positioning of the glasshouse. Thurner also received a strong programme description of the cockpit area, including the drivers seating position, posture, steering wheel and pedal position requirements. Furthermore, Mullen wanted two cars as different expressions of the same concept. And the demands didn't stop there.
Mullen provided one additional requirement that greatly animated the design process: the timetable was limited to four months, with the goal of ensuring the car was constructed in time for its introduction at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November 2021.
With the accelerated timetable in hand, Thurner and his team set to work immediately. He had already selected a small group of experienced professionals to create the design of the Mullen car. His wife and partner, Annette, would serve alongside Sabine Lapine as trend researchers and CMF designers, drawing on their decades of experience at BMW and haute couture brands (Annette) and Volkswagen/Audi (Sabine). Joining them would be Charles Coldham, who had a long and distinguished career at Rover, Land Rover, Luigi Colani design, and Rolls-Royce, where he first met Andreas, who was a junior designer at the time.
"We liked the idea of combining the machine-like, futuristic, dynamic, and elegant exterior with a timeless, modern, and private retreat"
The CMF team of Annette and Lapine assembled trend and context research that acted as a foundation for the design of the car, while Coldham and Thurner began discussing the nature of the Mullen Five and the relationship between interior and exterior. After a few rounds of sketches with the Mullen team, a theme emerged that Thurner recalls as “a dynamic, and light-footed concept direction that expressed a certain expensive and even glamorous look. It felt unique to this segment.”
As the conversation developed, the direction the project should take became clearer. “We were truly speaking about a “high off the ground” sports car – with the roominess and comfort of an SUV - the concept that David Michery was looking for… We liked the idea of combining the machine-like, futuristic, dynamic, and elegant exterior with a timeless, modern, and private retreat. A space of calm, warmth, and peace of mind.”
As discussions developed about the concept of the interior, an object that was especially inspirational to Coldham began to symbolise his ideas about the interior of the Mullen: The Butterfly stool, a classic of Mid-Century Modern design, crafted by Yanagi Sori in 1954. The stool is a melding of Eastern and Western sensibilities with a minimalist, calligraphic form and molded plywood construction.
A step into the driver’s seat reveals the Butterfly stool’s influence, as well as Coldham’s aesthetic and experience. There are layered and floating elements at the doors, and centre consoles-front and rear. From the center console a strong support element flares up and out to embrace the instrument panel.
One settles into a modern, luxurious and ergonomically correct seat that, like the Butterfly stool, cradles the driver and passengers in comfort without resorting to an overstuffed aesthetic. All instrumentation and screens are easily with sight and touch of the driver. A mobile phone charger rests in the centre console.
The Mullen Five is intended to be a driver’s car, and like all driver’s cars, the steering wheel is a critical element. Coldham’s initial renderings showed a squared-off steering wheel, with the instrument cluster at the base of the windscreen. Later in the design process, the instrument screen was moved closer to the driver and the wheel was changed to a rounder form to allow for optimal viewing of the instrumentation. Primary controls are placed around the wheel and have tactile surfaces for minimal distraction to the driver. Thurner recalls: “We know how important the steering wheel is for production cars and how much drivers judge the entire interior – even the entire car based on how pleased they are with the look, touch and feel of the steering wheel. We probably made the largest effort of benchmarking steering wheels of production cars and concept cars, though I think Charles did the best one of all.
“The steering wheel in the Mullen Five is probably my favourite part of the entire car. It stands for sportiness and calmness at the same time. Just the steering wheel alone should be able to tell the entire story of the vehicle." Of course, a quality CMF concept is critical to the completion any interior concept, and Thurner was fortunate to have two experienced and gifted hands guiding the process. Lapine recalls,
“It was important was to integrate with Andreas’ and Charles’ design philosophy early on, treating each team member’s vision in an inclusive manner and creating the core CMF DNA of the project together. We selected and applied colours and materials to enhance Charles’ vision of floating and light elements, but also to create different experiences within the two models.”
"The materials create a sense of harmony from a visual point of view, but also include a unique feeling of touch and a distinctive smell"
Material choices were made around the ideas of wellness - congruent with Andreas’ and Charles’ vision of a private retreat - but also sustainability, and, this being the pandemic, availability. Of note were the recycled wool used on the seats and surfaces, the recycled wood wallpaper used on the supports of the instrument panel, and various leathers dotted around the cabin.
“There were important topics we needed to touch on, like sustainability and health, while creating a soothing interior. We used recycled wool textiles and wood wallpaper that can be developed using sustainable fibres instead of veneer. These materials also use less chemicals and binding materials, which means less overdying and painting,” says Lapine. “It might be somewhat limiting for the colour choices, but in the end, it creates a soothing and healthy experience for all senses. The materials create a sense of harmony from a visual point of view, but also include a unique feeling of touch and a distinctive smell. Plus, they feed into the sustainable lifecycle of the product overall."
A subject of debate in the design community – from fashion to architecture to automotive design – vegetable tanned leather can be more sustainable than “vegan” leather, which is petroleum or plastic based. Newer, plant-based (truly vegan) leathers are not yet widely available. And so, the decision was made to use vegetable tanned leather. Similarly, the colour palette for the interior reinforced Coldham’s design concept for light and floating elements. Annette and Lapine let the origin of the material suggest its final colour. The recycled wool is a soft gray, the wood wallpaper is a soft brown.
As mentioned earlier, two models of the Five were developed, and there are some noteable differences in materials and finish. The five-seater launch model includes a Champagne coloured exterior and a light grey interior with seating for five, and wool and leather seats. In contrast, the four-seater Touring model is silver in colour, with a darker IP and more leather. An additional entertainment screen and console are placed between the reclining rear seats in the Touring model.
All members of the team mentioned the unique design process, not only the abbreviated timeline, but the technologies that allowed for remote collaboration. Like most design studios working through the pandemic, innovative ways of remote working and considerable learning curves were necessary to accomplish the tasks before them. Thurner notes that the digital modeling by Christoph Sieber, located near Munich, and the clay modeling by Mario Cazares in Southern California were critical in achieving a very realistic concept for Mullen’s team to review. And finally, at the end of April 2021, just four months into the design process, all digital models and bills of materials were turned over to the capable hands of Toshi Iwasaki at Phiaro to create the final concept cars.
Andreas credits the maturity and experience of his team, their passion for design, and lean structure of the team for the success of the Mullen Five concepts. Their efforts were validated by the public response at the L.A. Auto Show and by the awarding of the Mullen Five a ZEVA (Zero Emissions Vehicle Award) for Best SUV. Beginnings are such delicate times. But the right team, the right project and the right client make for a strong foundation going forward. With the Mullen Five project, Thurner design has achieved all three, and can confidently look forward to the future.
Manufacturer: Mullen Automotive
Design: Thurner Design
Lead Designer: Andreas Thurner
Interior Design: Charles Coldham
CMF Design: Annette Thurner and Sabine Lapine
Digital Modeling: Christoph Sieber
Clay Modeling: Mario Cazares and Andreas Thurner
Concepts built by: Phiaro Design, Toshi Iwasaki, president and CEO
Project began: Late December 2020
Launch: November 2021, L.A. Auto Show
Words: Karl Smith