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Inner Ideas

Buick’s Liz Wetzel dreams up influential interior design aesthetics

By Jacquie Goetz Bluethmann

Page 26

Most Fridays Liz Wetzel can be found surrounded by other GM designers on her team, each sharing his or her latest inspirations. These creative sessions might include discussions of current events or assessments of emerging technologies. To be sure, they always involve a free flow of conversation about the ever-changing world and corresponding evolution of automotive design.

It’s a ritual that Wetzel and her team cherish. For Wetzel, it’s about the opportunity to mentor her young team as much as it is about ideating on interior design aesthetics – not that the latter is any less exciting for the now director of Buick Interior Design. It was Wetzel who directed the interior design team behind the Buick Avenir concept car that debuted at the 2015 North American International Auto Show to major fanfare and more than one coveted industry award.

Design is Wetzel’s life calling, and she has carved out a career feeding that interest. These days, Wetzel, a GM lifer and the fourth generation in her family to pursue an automotive career, is touting the 2016 Buick LaCrosse and the work she and her team did to increase the level of sophistication on the interior of the vehicle’s latest model.

“Buick is all about beauty,” she said. “Today’s LaCrosse is very modern in design. In terms of material usage, there’s a handcrafted essence. There’s stitching on the doors and the console; soft tactile touchpoints are everywhere.”

Wetzel’s design calling came early in life and directed her toward studies at the University of Michigan’s School of Art and Design bound – or so she initially thought – for a career in industrial design. “That meant I could have ended up designing anything from toasters to televisions,” she said with a laugh.

But a visit to the GM Design Center in Warren marked a turning point for her career ambitions. “It seemed so exciting,” Wetzel said of seeing automotive designers and their brainchildren up close.

She promptly switched to automotive design, pursuing additional training at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies in the evening to build her portfolio. GM hired Wetzel right out of school in 1986, and she joined a small team in advanced engineering. The experience gave her exposure to leaders in GM Design who reviewed her team’s design proposal and liked what they saw. Wetzel subsequently was invited to study at GM Design for a year. She has never looked back.

Wetzel’s almost 30-year design career has seen her touch almost every GM brand during her time with the automaker. Among her most memorable career experiences was working on the interior of the Cadillac Seville STS in 1996.

“I really was able to hone my skills on this project and worked with a passionate group of people,” she said. “I had lots of autonomy and really, really grew.”

Another career highlight was being named the company’s first female vehicle design chief for the Buick Rendezvous. “This was significant because I was responsible for the whole car – interior and exterior,” she said. “I quickly had to learn something new.”

Wetzel also found her time as director of interior design for GM’s Opel and Vauxhall brands to be invaluable. The role entailed an almost three-year stint in GM’s European Design Studio in Rüsselsheim, Germany.

liz wetzel pull quoteUpon her return to Michigan, Wetzel was named to her current position. When the opportunity to work on the Avenir concept came up, Wetzel was thrilled. The car was to convey Buick’s future design direction aesthetically, and the entire program entailed a short turnaround of six months. “We knew this was to be a showpiece and, hence, all about design,” she said.

The design interior was developed by Wetzel and her team in Warren, and handed off to a team in Australia to build to final completion. “This was a global collaborative effort,” she said. “The final car came over on a boat, and we saw it just days before the reveal. Every hour counted.”

The Avenir was the hit of the show, earning the coveted 2015 EyesOn Design award for “Best Concept Vehicle.” The recognition is particularly fulfilling for Wetzel because it’s bestowed by other top minds in design. “The judges are people famous in automotive design, as well as other types of design,” she said. “We were recognized by our peers, which is really quite special.”

Jacquie Goetz Bluethmann is a metro Detroit freelance writer.