Volvo Car USA’s new head of design draws inspiration from aerospace, furniture


LAS VEGAS—Nick Gronenthal arrived at Volvo at a crucial time as the luxury brand strives to become an all-electric brand by early 2030.

Gronenthal, who previously worked at electric startup Canoo as well as Faraday Future and BMW’s Designworks, joined Volvo Car USA in July as head of design and leads one of its three styling studios worldwide.

Volvo’s EX90 flagship, which made its North American debut here at CES, is at the vanguard of a wave of fresh models.

Gronenthal, a graduate of ArtCenter College of Design, is based out of the Volvo Design Concept Center in Camarillo, Calif., north of Los Angeles. The studio, which opened in 1989, is credited with the exterior design of the original XC90 SUV, among other designs, and works alongside Volvo design studios in China and Sweden.

Gronenthal, 41, spoke with Staff Reporter Jack Walsworth on the sidelines of CES. Here are edited excerpts.

Q: How big is the design team in California?

A: It’s about 20 people. We’re a small, focused studio. We’re an advanced concept studio. We focus on not just production vehicles that are going through the normal product cycle that we design all the time like we see here [points to EX90], but advanced programs that are sometimes decades down the road.

From where you stand in California, what does your role entail? Do you work in cadence with the locations in China and Sweden?

We’re a big team. Each teammate has their speciality. Us being the advanced studio, we do that advanced work but also production work. Robin Page is the global director of design based out of Sweden. Robin is my boss and we work on interior, exterior design, the same as Shanghai and Gothenburg. We’re in those competitions, we send designs over back and forth. We’ll get a brief and then I’ll work with them. I talk to them weekly. Every week, we have meetings and we go through our design process from the beginning sketch phase. We send them over. We have a conversation with the design leadership team in Sweden and choose designs to move forward.

How much design comes from the U.S. location as opposed to the other two locations?

It depends. Automotive design is primarily based off competition. We have multiple designers working on the same program. They’ll work on their own proposals and they’ll advance further, further, further until it becomes one vehicle. Obviously, one person doesn’t design the car by themselves. We work as a massive team. It depends on who gets selected and what moves forward.

What are some of your design inspirations?

All kinds of stuff. I love planes. I’m a huge aerospace guy. I’m always constantly looking at aerospace. They tend to be much further down the road than us [automotive design], sometimes 30, 40 years ahead. Some of the planes we see now were designed in the ’80s, for example, and they’re still out there coming out as new. We think they’re new, but they’re old technology already. I’m constantly intrigued by that, how advanced that sector is [and] that industry. On the creative side, I’m a huge furniture fan. I collect furniture and redo it myself. I’m always really intrigued by the amount of creativity that comes out of furniture design.

Do you envision elements of the EX90 design making its way into other Volvos?

I think across our brand range you will see things that… I’m not saying that they’re going to be completely similar to this, but I think it’ll be a cohesive lineup. You will see an identity and a brand language that is across all of our vehicles.

From a design perspective, is implementing technology such as lidar a challenge?

That kind of stuff is a big challenge. We work a lot with where you put it, how are you gonna get it there. You go through trial and error and deal with all kinds of actual failure until you find the correct position for something like that when executed. For here [EX90] where it [lidar] is there, it’s optimal for the position that you need it to be for safety. In my opinion, if that saves one life, it’s worth it to have a technology like that.