Auto Inspire Interview: Zulf Ali, Director of Interior Design, Rivian

The Automotive Inspire interview series features inspiring stories from people working in the mobility industry.

The design formula for luxury battery electric vehicle interiors hasn’t changed much since Tesla invented it in 2013 with the Model S sedan: a minimalist cabin with a giant screen, eco-friendly materials and very few knobs or buttons.

When the screen is off, the dashboard looks bare. When the screen is on, there can be an overwhelming flood of information. Overall, BEV interiors are starting to look a little too similar.

That’s not the case at Rivian, where the new R1T pickup interior was created by a design team that threw out the rulebook.

Yes, the interior has a large central screen and a digital instrument panel, but it has a unique appearance that fuses new technology with old-school style and luxury.

“The approach was to take inspiration from the non-automotive. We didn’t want to look at what’s happening in the automotive world right now,” said Zulf Ali, Director of Interior Design, Rivian during our recent Video interview on Automotive Inspire

“We decided to look at great mid-century American design that is super timeless. We wanted to bring some of that. If you look at Frank Lloyd Wright houses and Inge chairs, they have a sense of simplicity and timelessness. They look like they were just designed, not 50 years ago.

For example, dashboards have traditionally been designed around HVAC system air vents, which are usually prominent features. Rivian designers have made the air vents invisible, creating a new look accented with real wood trim.

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Another brilliant idea is a powerful flashlight that sticks out from the edge of the driver’s door. It’s an idea probably inspired by Rolls-Royce, which stores an umbrella in the same way.

“The owners tell us they would like both doors to have flashlights,” Ali says.

Among fans, flashlights have become a key part of Rivian’s adventurous brand image because they are so accessible and useful.

Ali leads a team of diverse and passionate designers at Rivian. Last year we interviewed Richard Vaughan, Director of Design Quality, Perceived Quality and Craftsmanship.

Vaughan, author of six books on British luxury cars and a nationally renowned car collector, tells us how he got his start by sending sketches to top car designers when he was a teenager. Designers criticized them, invited him to visit their studios, and a career was born.

This year we caught up with Ali, who also has some incredible stories to tell, including one about how he and his mother hid the nature of his college education from his father for four years because his father insisted that he becomes a doctor or an engineer.

Neighborhoods: When did you first become interested in car design?

Ali: At a very young age. I was surrounded by cars growing up (in London). My dad – I blame my dad for my love of cars – he would bring home Ford Capris, Datsun Zs, watch him work on them, spend quality time with him, get to know the vehicles… I was just mesmerized by art, the beauty of it, the smell.

Growing up, I didn’t know there was a career you could potentially have in automotive design. It wasn’t until I was old enough to go to the stores and open car magazines and see all these renderings of new vehicles. Just looking at all those beautiful renders and knowing there was an opportunity to be an automotive designer was super inspiring. My mom always bought me Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars and that only added to the passion. Cars were everything.

Neighborhoods: Automotive design is an extremely competitive field. Sometimes parents or friends try to talk people out of this career path because it is so difficult. What challenges have you faced in pursuing your career dreams?

Ali: Trying to convince my father from an early age was one of the most important and difficult parts for me. My father was very conservative, a pillar of the community and he wanted me to become a professional such as a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer.

My mother was much more supportive. I got my passion for cars from my father, but my mother was a fashion designer – I think that’s where I got my creativity from – so she understood what my passion was.

Neighborhoods: How did you convince your father that you could make him proud by being a car designer?

Ali: We had to convince. For a very long time, I hid the fact that I was doing art and design in college. My mom was supportive, supported me throughout and kind of covered for me. It wasn’t until the end of my senior year in college that I told him what I was doing. It was a hell of a secret for a while. It wasn’t until I won the Rose Society of Arts architecture award.

I gave him the award and invited him to the award ceremony. After that it was 100% support from him.

Neighborhoods: This is a good lesson for budding designers. If you want people to support your dreams, you have to prove that you can do the job at a high level.

Ali: That’s the good thing about the creative realm. You can actually physically see something. As difficult as it is to convince someone that you want to get into a creative field, it’s actually easy to prove to them that you can show the fruits of your labor.

Neighborhoods: You have worked for several traditional car manufacturers. What attracted you to Rivian?

Ali: As a designer, you always push the boundaries and try to come up with something new. When it gets repetitive, it starts to wear out. It’s as if you were put in a box and wanted to get out. I saw this opportunity with Rivian because #1, I believe in electrifying vehicles and what they can do. The technology behind it is amazing. I wanted to be part of a team that was trying to make the world a better place. When I came to Rivian, looking at the (vehicle) packages, it allowed me to really push the boundaries like I wanted in conventional vehicles. For example, EVs don’t have transmission tunnels (the big bump in most vehicle floors), so you have all that space to play with. You can really push the boundaries and use the platform to your advantage. So when I arrived at Rivian, getting a blank sheet of paper was a dream come true.

It’s still discouraging. You’re given a blank sheet of paper, but that means you’re trying to establish a mark that has nothing in the story you can pick out and touch. But the search for a new face is also the most exciting part of the journey.

Small touches like the flashlight are another part of brand building. We also have detachable audio system speakers which enhance the experience of camping, being with family and so on. They are part of the ecosystem we have designed to enhance the owner experience.

Neighborhoods: What is the meaning of camp cooking? (An electric grill that pops out of Rivian’s unique transverse storage tunnel behind the cabin.)

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Ali: The camp kitchen is a classic opportunity to have an electric car platform. You could never do that with an ICE vehicle. You still have the transmission tunnel. Being able to design multiple options in this area, like the camp kitchen, is part of the experience of people going out and enjoying their lives and spending time in nature. This makes it a lifestyle vehicle, not just a pickup truck.

Neighborhoods: What was the thought when you started designing the interior of Rivian trucks?

Ali: I have worked on a few trucks in my past. The first thing we would do when we started sketching interiors is look at the air vents and try to design around them because they are usually such dominant features. We usually made it a huge feature, but what the team here wanted to do was something completely different, so vents were the last thing we were thinking about.

We wanted to design a clean interior, this was #1. The truck is designed for off-roading with the windows down, the interior gets dirty. It is therefore essential to have beautiful large bold surfaces that are easy to clean. Sustainable materials are also part of the story. Vents were the last thing we wanted to think about. We wanted the vents to go away and the tech to be at the forefront of the interior.

Neighborhoods: Has your dad ever had the chance to get into a Rivian?

Ali: My father is no longer with me, but my mother and my brothers have been very supportive. My dad was alive when I started with Rivian, and we kept in touch about what I was doing before he died. I’m sure he would be proud of me today.

Betty K. Park