Inside Cadillac’s Escala Concept Car

How the vehicle's interior design is influencing the future of the brand

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When it debuted at the 2016 Pebble Beach Concours d’Élegance, Cadillac’s Escala concept marked their third and final statement in a five-year trilogy of concept cars celebrating expressions of the journey (the Ciel), the drive (the El Miraj) and the arrival (the Escala). Prior to its unveiling, we spent several months charting the Escala’s development at the GM design studio in Detroit. Our first feature focused on the car’s aspirations and the process to create it. The interior of the car is a deep story unto itself, with its layered details, creative material use and considered design.

Though the Escala may never get produced, it embodies stylistic cues and material statements that provide clues to the brand’s aspirations as well as its capabilities. In an increasingly competitive market, Cadillac recognizes the need to not just be in the luxury market, but to once again be one of the segments strong voices in defining it. To that end, the Escala represents trends in color, material, fabrication and lighting—each in compelling ways.

The thinking behind materials extends past décor—it’s about the designers’ vision. Gaia, the unique exterior color, has nine layers of paint and changes in different lighting conditions. The use of fabric as a luxury statement is evident, evoking fine tailoring and not just an abundance of leather to signal a high end cabin. A new, more complex and labor intensive stitch pattern was created using special thread helps bring the fabric to life, especially in the areas where it meets the still very present leather. The Escala celebrates metal and hand-layered wood as well and, in perhaps the car’s most intriguing interior element, the two are brought together in a piece of trim that transitions from metal to wood.

Inspired by some of the classic cars shown at Pebble Beach Concours d’Élegance over the years, Andrew Smith, Cadillac’s Executive Director of Global Cadillac Design, sought to capture yet modernize the historic separate cabins for driver and passenger; the trim does this in an effective yet subtle way. This one element proved difficult to design and develop, testing the skills of the company’s metal, wood and fabrication craftspeople. To effectively demonstrate the design intention Laetitia Lopez (one of the designers on the color and trim team) crocheted string and mounted it around a rod, showing how the knots could expand and contract.

Crafting a concept car—a project that is often accomplished in under a year—takes a village and often relies on the skills of many partners and vendors. As mentioned, the Escala came to life entirely in Cadillac’s Detroit design/production studio, leveraging the talents of the many designers and fabrication members—woodworkers, leather workers, metal fabricators, 3D-printing specialists, graphic designers and more.

The fabric used on the dash, doors and seats was carefully selected. “The vision from the start was to see the material transpire, just a one on one construction,” Sharon Gauci, Director of Design for Global Color and Trim at Cadillac, explains to CH. “It doesn’t have any additional developments, it just speaks so cleanly and it’s so modern in its appearance.” That said, it’s tough enough to take the wear and tear of use in a car interior, thanks in part to the stitching. “The amount of experimentation to get there was extraordinary,” she continues. “Not only was it a matter of trial and error with the stitch, but also discovering the type of thread to be used, the needle size. Over a month it was constant dialogue and engagement, these guys visiting [the workshop] downstairs to work through ideas on how we would trim the seams so they’d be precise, and look beautifully crafted and speak to being modern and simple in appearance”

The open-pore wood veneer in the dash was formed onto wavy aluminum to create a striking surface, warmly enveloping the cars unique, large OLED display. “It’s engineered in these kind of strips,” Gauci says, “Kind of a marquetry or parquet effect, which mirrors that precision pattern we have in the vehicle.” Its use helps define the spatial transitions, and the interaction between it and the metal feels fresh and modern. The metal nods to the that on the outside, like the large, visible exterior door hinges.

The luxury market has gone from national design to international design, and China’s influence is clearly seen in the segment’s attention to the comfort of the rear passengers. The Escala’s front leather seats are geared more to driving, while the (mostly) fabric seats in the rear of the cabin are warmer, inspired by a comfortable, modern lounge chair—and this impacted aesthetics, of course. “This is another transition area between covert and overt that we used with materials,” explains Jennifer Kraska, Cadillac’s Interior Design Manager. “The front seats are meant to have more of a sporty look because it’s a driver focused area, meant to be more a driver’s environment whereas the rear of the car is meant to be more lounge-like and more open, serene.”

The Escala brings back the brand’s iconic goddess, first introduced as a sculptural radiator cap designed by William Schnell in 1930, this time etched into the cut crystal control knob in the car’s center console. The goddess brings an iconic element of Cadillac’s design heritage back in a modern way. “This is when you get brainstorming, and talking in these creative sessions, and it’s like, ‘OK, we want the goddess to be part of the story because we feel it’s important.’ We don’t want to overdo it, so we ask, ‘Where are the opportunities?'” Gauci continues.

The brand’s precision pattern is subtly used throughout—on the pedals, the tire tread, even engraved on the metal controllers.

The Escala’s technology is a marriage of sophistication and understatement. Two curved OLED screens are layered in the dash—the foreground providing essential driver information and the wider background offering information and utility for all passengers. Graphics, however, interplay between them in appropriate modes like navigation and all features are controlled with the goddess dial in the arm rest. Mixed-modality plays thru to the rear-seat entertainment as well. The large screens operate as expected, but then retract in to the headrests of the front seats, leaving only a sliver of the bottom display in view. In this mode the passenger sees only the basic necessities—time, weather, estimated arrival, etc.

The cabin is large both due to the car’s size (bigger than any of the brand’s existing sedans) but also because the center or “b” pillar has been removed, providing an open and unobstructed layout and view. The center armrest is ergonomic yet sculptural, reflecting the curving in the dash.

The overall feeling is luxurious yet also very restrained. Rather than a “I’m so luxurious” statement the Escala speaks a refined, modern and elegant language, demonstrating the continued evolution of Cadillac’s design language and the technical ability to create interiors and build them successfully.

Images by Josh Rubin