Interior Motives

As director of interior design for General Motors, Michael Burton is trying to make GM’s cars a little less…general.

story by Damien Scott // photography by Chris Clor

If you’re rolling in an American whip made after the Nixon era, chances are your interior is about as fly as the kicks sold at Wal-Mart. Lansing, Michigan native, Michael Burton set out to change that. With no idea how to break into the design game, Burton sent a letter to General Motors with a couple of his sketches and actually got a response encouraging him to keep truckin’. After scoring a full ride to Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, the kid who practiced spelling by reading the backs of cars went on to become the first black designer to work at all of the big three auto groups. Now, as director of interior design for GM, he’s the man behind the stylish, brand-belying interior of the new Buick Enclave. RIDES caught up with him to find out how Buick got its swagger back and why he loves Donks. Check the technique.

If you’re rolling in an American whip made after the Nixon era, chances are your interior is about as fly as the kicks sold at Wal-Mart. Lansing, Michigan native, Michael Burton set out to change that. With no idea how to break into the design game, Burton sent a letter to General Motors with a couple of his sketches and actually got a response encouraging him to keep truckin’. After scoring a full ride to Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, the kid who practiced spelling by reading the backs of cars went on to become the first black designer to work at all of the big three auto groups. Now, as director of interior design for GM, he’s the man behind the stylish, brand-belying interior of the new Buick Enclave. RIDES caught up with him to find out how Buick got its swagger back and why he loves Donks. Check the technique.

What were the main goals when you started working on the Enclave’s interior? When I came to Buick, I took it on as a very personal assignment, because I remember my uncles and how they used to drive the Deuce and a Quarters and Riveras. Relative to interiors, GM had a mandate: Heighten the interior quality and execution of the interiors across the board. It had to have appropriate tolerances, appropriate gaps, appropriate gloss levels and high use of premium materials.

How’d you go about bringing that old soul back to Buick?
Before my team put pen to paper, I had them look at Buicks as far back as the 1930s. I had a pretty young team, so I wanted them to see the old-school and learn what was good about [them]. We also looked at vehicles like the Rolls-Royce Phantom because I wanted them to understand what premium automobiles did well. At the end of the day, it comes down to the line vocabulary of the shapes and forms that the premium luxury cars use that make people feel like they’re having a premium experience. I wanted my team to have an understanding of that.

Why do you think American car interiors were stale for so long?
To be perfectly frank, I don’t think we understood the interior assignment as well as our competitors did. The emphasis was always put on the exteriors.

GM cars are the standard in the emerging Donk scene. What’s your take on it?
I think it’s wonderful. Those cars had a spirit and an essence about them, so when they are exaggerated with that kind of stuff they become even more animated. You can’t make something cool. That’s what happened with the Escalade. No one was trying to make the Escalade cool—[the urban community] took it and ran with it. And we learned from the urban culture experience. I mean, you can now get chrome rims on almost every production car. I love it.

How can more African-Americans get into the auto industry?
I try to do my part to make African-American youths aware of this option. They have to understand their abilities and their challenges and be willing to persevere to follow their dreams. There’s a plethora of opportunities, and we’re such a talented group of individuals. We can’t rest on our laurels and blame the Man. Make your goals happen. It can happen. I’m a living testament to that.