Form follows emotion

An interview with CUPRA's head of design, Jorge Díez, and Francesca Sangalli, head of color & trim

CUPRA Formentor
CUPRA Formentor

»Iconic«, »revolutionary« and »amazing«: CUPRA is definitely not stingy with euphoric terms to describe its own brand universe. But what would probably cross the line between healthy self-confidence and overbearing arrogance in other brands is, however, part of a very likeable »loud« communication style at the Spanish automotive brand, a confident attitude full of emotion and pride. We spoke to CUPRA Head of Design Jorge Díez and Francesca Sangalli, Head of Color & Trim Concept & Strategy, about CUPRA as a design driven brand as well as emotion and rebellion in their work as designers.

»CUPRA Design Obsession« was the title of the media event hosted by the still very young car brand from the SEAT and Volkswagen family at the Palacio de Cibeles  in Madrid at the end of April. CUPRA presented itself as an emotionally charged, dynamic and, last but not least, versatile lifestyle brand as part of an elaborately staged visual show, which included avatars walking down a virtual catwalk as models embodying individual brand values and celebrating the (facelift) world premiere of two of the brand’s key models, the new CUPRA Formentor  and Leon. With CUPRA Design, the founding of a new independent design studio was also announced, which from now on will not only be responsible for the (merchandise) products of its own brand, but will also implement cooperations with coherent external brands. Following the event, Chapter  met with CUPRA’s Head of Design, Jorge Díez, and Francesca Sangalli, Head of Color & Trim Concept & Strategy, for an interview and gained exciting insights into the unconventional CUPRA design and brand DNA.

Chapter  With a brand that is still quite young like CUPRA you seem to have the rare freedom to work free from the possible »ballast« of a brand’s heritage and history. But at the same time, it’s now up to you to develop unique design elements and distinct principles so that a CUPRA is immediately recognizable as such. How are you dealing with this challenge, and how would you describe your approach to it?

Jorge Díez I would say that first, it’s all about building a strong character. And I think an important thing is to have some design elements that are transversal to all car models, but on the other hand, not too many elements. Some brands create a new design and then copy-paste it onto all their cars, and in the end, they all kind of look the same. So you somehow lose a bit of the wow effect, like the individual personality. So for us, the target is more like this: all models will be members of our family but have their very own personalities. For example, when you look at the lights, this element will be something more transversal within our product range; you will always recognize that as our new signature, but we will always play with something totally different as well. Every model needs to have its own personality—always very self-expressive and very powerful.

Francesca Sangalli And then, for sure, the whole color concept. I would say that this is something that differentiates CUPRA from other brands. Like copper, which is one of the CUPRA brand identity elements. And also, this rawness of the colors is typically us. When you look at the color palette of CUPRA, it’s really not decided by the marketing strategy. In the automotive industry, there are usually color decisions according to a certain marketing specification, like we sell 30% in red, 20% grey, and so on. We don’t do that, and I think that’s what really makes a difference. When you see a CUPRA passing by, you can recognize it only by its unique colors. And something that is also becoming very, very important to us and all the products that we are creating, is the parametric design as a way to give value to the surface and create a differentiation between surfaces as well. It makes the car very dynamic, also very graphical, and very vibrant—it’s never flat. So I would say all that is definitely very CUPRA.



The new CUPRA Formentor


Chapter  We’ve just experienced the world premiere of two very important models for CUPRA, the new Formentor and Leon. Are there any specific design elements that you would like to point out, and what are your personal design highlights of these two redesigned models?

Jorge Díez  I think with the new CUPRA Leon and CUPRA Formentor we’re trying to express what we love so much: true emotion. In the end, we are coming from Barcelona, a truly emotional city, and we tried to transfer the culture of our city to our cars. The result is a very expressive car that somehow reflects the way we are. Both redesigned models have a stronger front and some new iconic design elements, like the triangular matrix LED lights-our unmistakable new signature. The same triangular lighting design also acts as a framing point for the central CUPRA logo illuminated in the rear, which for us represents the heart of the car. So all in all, I think it’s a very expressive design, very characterful.

Francesca Sangalli  Inside the car, we tried to create three very differentiated interiors. And all of them are following very much—or even reinforcing—the DNA of CUPRA design. We are trying to create a lot of different textures, enhanced with new materials, while also embracing a more sustainable approach. The entire idea of the parametric design, for instance, is applied to the deco part in the front. And the parametric technology is also used for the perforations that add sophistication and refinement to the parts. This makes everything very vibrant in the interior. All in all, we have three interiors, one is made of textile, which gives the sportiness a new look, with a lot of graphical elements that really catch your attention. Also, the leather interior with embossing and metallized particles creates this special color effect. And of course, the colors we used—the whole color palette is very, very CUPRA. I’d say it’s neutral with a twist, with a special focus on the finishing effects, which are making all colors kind of undefinable. It’s actually not so easy to pinpoint which colors these are; that’s why we are creating their own names too, like Century Bronze, Enceladus Grey—all inspiration is drawn from nature. And it’s all a little bit raw, which is really the essence of CUPRA, I would say.

New-CUPRA-Formentor Interior


Interior CUPRA Formentor


Chapter  Talking of the essence of CUPRA, what always strikes me is the brand’s strong connection to its origins, its roots in Barcelona. How important is it for you, as a designer, to emphasize this Spanish heritage?

Jorge Díez The city of Barcelona is amazing! You can see and feel this special, vibrant vibe everywhere. And it is sometimes said that CUPRA’s design is inspired by local architecture. I prefer to say that we are inspired more by the people, how they behave, and who they are. Because in the end, people make the brand—the attitude, the passion they have for things. Even sometimes, we are a bit louder as well. And this loudness is probably also reflected in the expressivity of our cars.

Chapter  So, would you say that it’s essential for any new designer joining your team, that he or she has a profound understanding of these mentioned roots and thus of the social and cultural environment that influences the brand?

Francesca Sangalli Well, I think even if they don’t have to obviously be Spanish, they definitely have to understand the character of the brand. And I think everyone, once you come and live here, really feels the vibe. I’m Italian, for instance, but I immediately felt very much at home here. And Barcelona, above all, has a lot to offer in terms of inspiration.



CUPRA Formentor


Chapter  You’ve already mentioned the people of Barcelona and the culture, but also the local architecture that inspires you. Where else do you both draw inspiration for your creative work as designers from?

Jorge Díez For inspiration, we always try to move away from the automotive industry. Because sometimes people who work in car design are observing too much of what their competitors are doing. But we try not to look at others, because if you do, you won’t be able to create something really new. So actually, we draw inspiration from completely different things, such as nature and a lot of other things and areas that have nothing to do with car design.

Francesca Sangalli Yes, absolutely. And actually, that is also the purpose of all the partnerships outside the automotive world we enter into. Because when we talk about CUPRA, it’s not only about the cars that we are making, it’s the entire world, the entire feeling, and the entire lifestyle. And these partnerships, like the one with MAM, the sustainable jewelry brand from Barcelona, we’ve just presented, also play a major role in identifying and reinforcing those values on which our brand is based.

Jorge Díez And the most important thing about our brand partners is that they have the same mindset as we do. And talking of mindset, I think you can see our vision as well in the CUPRA Garages. We want everything that you touch or feel—everything related to the brand—to feel like CUPRA. And we really go down to the smallest detail here, even our offices, of course, our whole communications, our advertising campaigns, literally everything that we do.

New Cupra Leon Design


The new CUPRA Leon


Chapter  Something I always notice about CUPRA is that the tone of voice is mostly characterized by really strong emotions, with the use of quite strong terms such as rebellious, revolutionary, radical, or even aggressive in relation to the exterior design. While rather common descriptions in automotive design, such as harmonious or elegant, are rarely used with CUPRA…

Jorge Díez Yes, absolutely. I think most car brands, when they talk about design, use terms like harmony or elegance. So this is very, very different at CUPRA. Of course, some people are looking for perfection, but sometimes you also need to break this harmony, so you can also have different details that give you a strong personality. This is why we want to create emotion, and changing some things is part of our philosophy of breaking rules and breaking limits.

Francesca Sangalli What you said about the tone of voice is absolutely true. It’s like a statement, in a way. As a brand and company, we want to communicate something different with regard to the homogeneity that often prevails in the automotive industry. It’s about seeing things from different perspectives, being authentic, and being bold about what we offer. And as Jorge said at the presentation, it’s not for everybody to like us. But it’s good that some really love us.

CUPRA Dark Rebel Concept Car Design Chapter


CUPRA DarkRebel show car


Chapter  And I also assume that it gives you an unusual amount of freedom in your work to have a CEO like Wayne Griffith, who is also very design-savvy.

Francesca Sangalli Yes, I think what you are mentioning is definitely the strength of this company. Honestly, from the perspective of a person who works at CUPRA, the strength is that everybody is going in the same direction, and everybody really believes in that direction. So all the departments are working really well together, and we have a CEO who is always open to something new. All that gives us the confidence to go ahead and constantly try to explore new territory.

Jorge Díez Absolutely, and as mentioned, we always try to find things that you’ve never seen before. And even if they are a bit crazy or over the limit. All that is part of the culture of our company, and also to be able to make mistakes. And with Wayne (Griffith), this is really easy because he always tells us: Jorge, Francesca, provoke me! Go, don’t worry. And you can see this in cars like the Dark Rebel showcar, where we had absolutely no limits in the creative process. So as a designer, it’s a privilege to work for CUPRA. [CS]