Ever since artist Donald Judd moved to Marfa in 1971, the tiny Texas town has been a retreat for creatives across disciplines, from painters and architects to actors and writers—even car designers. The latter may seem unlikely, but it’s not when you consider the car to be an extension of your home. You bring your travels into your decor, why shouldn’t auto designers take the same approach?
That’s a key part of the thinking for Mara Kapsis, a young color and trim designer at Chevrolet, whose trips to Marfa can be directly tied to the look and feel of the 2018 Chevy Equinox (just take a look at her Pinterest board). “The whole team loves to travel,” says Kapsis. “We always feed off of each other and workshop ideas. It’s nice when someone sees that you’re developing a concept, and they’ll say ‘Oh, I just did this trip, and I saw something you’d like there.’ Or ‘Here’s another example of that.’”
Car design wasn’t always where Kapsis envisioned herself—Detroit is a long way from her hometown of Melbourne, Australia—but she grew up surrounded by craft. “My mom was always sewing; regularly we would have sewing projects going on at the dinner table,” says Kapsis, who learned how to knit and cross-stitch from her grandmothers. “Visiting a fabric store could be the highlight of the day,” she jokes.
It’s unsurprising that textile design came naturally to Kapsis. She studied the medium at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, and it was through an internship during university that she first learned that car design. “I really had no idea it was even an option as a career,” says Kapsis. “I didn’t know people did that.”
She loved it so much that after graduation, she worked full-time for General Motors for four years, but then decided to take a break and try something more personal. She launched her own homeware business, making screen-printed table linens and cushions in floral-based patterns. Kapsis created the designs and textiles, and her mother helped with the sewing.
They sold their goods at markets throughout Melbourne, an experience that showed Kapsis how much she enjoyed engaging with her customers and learn what they were, or weren’t, drawn to. “It was a lovely way to connect with people, which I wasn’t always doing previously,” she says. “In a studio sometimes, you just keep working, and you’re looking at your trend research and your materials, but it’s really important to always think about who you’re designing for.”
And it’s something she’s carried over when she decided to rejoin GM and relocate to the United States to be a part of the 10-person Equinox team. “We want to get into the mindset of the customers,” she says. A huge part of that involves being on top of the trends, and predicting what you’re going to want in your car three or four years from now.
Case in point: the embossed pattern on the seat fabric of the Equinox. “It’s based on some of the trends around the hexagon shape that we’ve seen in home design and architecture,” says Kapsis. “It has a slant to it so it creates some movement across the seat. There’s a lot of work that goes into the scale of that pattern, looking at a lot of different variations so we can make sure we get exactly the right fit. We’re always playing with ideas to see how we can add extra embellishments.”
Here, Kapsis dishes on her personal design style and favorite places for inspo:
How would you define your personal aesthetic?
I wouldn’t say my style is eclectic in an extroverted way, but I’m definitely trying to collect different pieces. I think to keep things calm, and textures are really important thing for me, as a color and trim designer—like the textures of your sofa, combined with the cushions that you choose and the coloring of your ceramics. Sometimes, it’s a bad thing to be a designer because you’re like “Hang on, that has to go there or that has to go there.”
What designers and artists do you look to for inspiration?
An Australian textile brand, which creates the most beautiful textiles. They do a lot of collaborations with other artists and people from lots of different fields.
For inspiration in materials. It’s always an amazing to see what they’re doing.
The furniture brand does great work in terms of interesting combinations of textiles and colors. The do little pops colors in unexpected places.
Your favorite places in Detroit for design inspiration?
They stock a range of different designers and artists, featuring homewares and jewelry.
Two sister stores that carry a lot of local designers making accessories, homewares, paper goods, and more.
Really beautiful textiles; they’re doing an indigo-dyed men’s tee shirt.
The history of the institution is just amazing.
The textiles of the iconic design brand are unmatched.
This is where we work, and it’s an amazing Eero Saarinen building. You forget sometimes, then you’re sitting on this beautiful Knoll chair or there’s a tulip coffee table. There’s this amazing, rich history, and it’s really inspiring to be in that environment.