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Design Remains More Art than Digital Science

Designers search for the balance between passion and hard data.

by on May.08, 2014

GM Designer Tom Peters with the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette. He led the exterior design team.

While sophisticated technology has become an essential tool in the modern automotive styling studio, it still requires a human touch to bring designs to life.

“The artistic aspect is critical to car design,” stressed Tom Peters, the lead designers at General Motors for performance cars, during a discussion on car design at a meeting of the Automotive Press Association. “It’s through the human touch the passion is instilled in cars,” added Peters.  “Our products are very tactile, you have to engage the senses.”

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Designed for You!

Though infotainment systems and fuel economy have becoming increasingly critical, competitive elements in today’s auto market, design remains one of the most important factors for shoppers choosing a new vehicle, studies reveal. In fact, there are many who contend that this is a new “Golden Age” for stylists as even brands like Toyota and Hyundai that traditionally settled for “plain vanilla” styling push for more passion in their products.

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What is It? Many New Car Designs Defy Categorization

Is it a coupe, a crossover or a hatchback? Maybe a little bit of them all.

by on Sep.20, 2013

Infiniti's Q30 doesn't readily invite categorization, says its designer, Alfonso Albaisa.

As the Infiniti Q30 concept car rolled onto the stage during the Frankfurt Motor Show media preview last week, design chief Alfonso Albaisa noticed puzzled expressions throughout the audience. “It defies characterization,” Albaisa said, suggesting that the Q30 might best be thought of as “not a coupe, not a hatch and not a crossover but a fusion of the three body styles.”

During the two days of Frankfurt press previews, Infiniti wasn’t the only automaker to roll out a design that didn’t fall into any easy or traditional category. There was also the Opel Monza which might alternatively be described, depending upon your viewing angle, as a wagon, sedan, coupe or even a sports car. For lack of a better definition, designer Mark Adams said he’s settled on the British-style “Sporting Brake.”

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“What is that?” was a phrase one heard quite frequently during the Frankfurt Motor Show media preview.

And the biennial German auto show wasn’t unique.  It’s becoming more and more difficult to define many of the vehicles – both products and concepts – showing up at other recent automotive events.

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Cadillac ELR, Ford Atlas, Nissan Resonance Win Auto Show Design Awards

Former GM “car czar” Lutz honored for design role.

by on Jan.17, 2013

Team members celebrate the EyesOn Design Production Car Award for the Cadillac ELR.

According to the latest consumer surveys, good fuel economy is the number one factor for potential car buyers.  But put two vehicles with similar mileage together and you can be all but certain most customers will opt for the more stylish model.

No wonder good design plays such a significant role in drawing the public to an auto show like the North American International Auto Show, or NAIAS, in Detroit.  And a group of professional stylists have weighed in on which of the nearly 60 cars, trucks, crossovers and concepts had the most visual appeal.

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The 2014 Cadillac ELR, the luxury maker’s new plug-in hybrid, got the nod winning the EyesOn Design Award for Best Production Vehicle.  And in a first-ever tie, the Ford Atlas and Nissan Resonance shared honors with the EyesOn Design Award for Best Concept Vehicle.

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Bangle Given Lifetime Achievement Award

Controversial former BMW design chief honored.

by on Jul.17, 2012

Chris Bangle, shown with his design team during his years at BMW.

He is one of the most influential designers of the last two decades – and one of the most controversial.  All of which added up to a Lifetime Achievement Award for Chris Bangle, the former BMW styling boss that gave the world the notorious “Bangle-butt.”

The annual Design Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Bangle this week during the annual Eyes on Design Automotive gala, the capper to a weekend event that focuses specifically on styling. And controversial as he might have been, there are few that would argue that Bangle didn’t have a significant impact on the shape of the modern automobile.

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“Chris was constantly exploring new ideas and innovations in design, as seen in the GINA concept,” noted Alec Bernstein, director of advanced communications, BMW DesignWorks USA.

Now running his own design studio in Turin, Italy, the 55-year-old Bangle became BMW’s first American design chief in 1992, quickly creating a splash with the Z9 Gran Turismo concept.  Few designers seemed more willing – or ready — to relish controversy, Bangle either penning or overseeing a series of distinctive and often debated products during his 17 years with the Bavarian maker.

But arguably no model generated more controversy than the 7-Series, known internally as the E65.  BMW was an also-ran in the premium luxury segment and had decided it was time to tackle rival Mercedes-Benz’s dominant S-Class.  The new 7-er was bigger, bolder – and featured such unusual design elements as its hooded headlights and huge decklid – which critics quickly dubbed the Bangle-butt.

Initial reaction was anything but positive.  Sales slipped sharply and Time declared the new 7-Series one of the “50 Worst Cars of All Time.”  But after a slow start the demand began to click, eventually becoming the best-selling 7-Series ever.  It ultimately helped BMW overtake its Stuttgart rival to become the best-selling luxury automotive brand.

Of course, that’s just one of the more distinctive designs to emerge from the BMW studios under Bangle’s reign.  He also brought forth the Z3 roadster and its successor, the Z4 – as well as another love-it-or-leave-it design, the Z Coupe.

Bangle introduced the concept of “flame surfacing” to BMW, allowing the maker to use the latest computer technology to create distinctive, if not always elegant, compound surface curves and bold design elements like the 7-Series’ rear deck.  A student of industrial design and architecture, Bangle has often pointed to Frank Gehry as one of his strong influences.

Martin Smith, a senior designer with Ford, suggests Bangle has steered automotive stylists to provide more “surface entertainment.”

Patrick le Quement, of Renault, meanwhile, suggests that Bangle’s “designs have a great deal of presence, and they’re well proportioned. He’s been highly influential. My only concern is his use of concave surfaces: they’re hollow shapes and lack that tightly muscled look I feel helps design.”

Whichever side of the debate one falls on, however, it is clear that Bangle continues to have an influence on automotive design even after leaving BMW to work on his own.

Student Designers Look to the Future

Michelin Challenge Design winners focus on Mexico City’s problems.

by on Dec.06, 2011

Students were asked to come up with a design that would help make the automobile viable in mid-century.

Is there a place in tomorrow’s world for the automobile? Perhaps no place is the answer more uncertain than crowded, smog-choked Mexico City, which is precisely the challenge faced by student designers participating in the 2011 Michelin Challenge Design competition.

The project asked the students to come up with vehicular solutions that could make it possible for the automobile to be part of the solution, rather than the problem.

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“Through this competition, we can explore the vision these future designers have of the industry and where mobility solutions are going. Today we join the CCS faculty and our panel of judges to celebrate the work, ideas and vision demonstrated by this talented group of designers,” John Moloney, vice president of original equipment marketing, Michelin North and South America, as the winners of the program were announced.

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Classic Cars, Modern Influence

High Museum shows 18 cars that influenced modern design.

by on Mar.30, 2010

This 1953 Porsche 550 LeMans was successful both on and off the track.

By the 1930s, motor vehicles had already proven their utility so the first stylists in Europe and North America began shifting their focus to more expressive design — leaving behind what turned out to be an indelible impression of the automobile as art.

A new exhibit at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta highlights 18 unique vehicles built between 1930 and 1965 that reflect a period often seen as a “golden era,” but which has continued to have an enormous influence on the look of modern automobiles.

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“This exhibition will showcase the greatest feats of engineering and luxury design from 1930 to 1965, when cars became synonymous with success, power and wealth,” says High Museum director Michael E. Shapiro. “Created for the privileged few, the luxurious, custom-built automobiles embodied speed, style and elegance, and influenced art, architecture, fashion and design.”

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Revisionist History: Was the Pontiac Aztek Merely Ahead of its Times?

Progenitor of the Cube, Soul, xB and other funky hip designs - or just plain ugly?

by on Jul.07, 2009

Was it the ugliest vehicle ever made or a trendsetter ahead of its time?  The 2001 Pontiac Aztek is shown here with a pop-up tent, part of an astounding line of accessories that made it the equivalent of a Swiss Army knife on wheels.

Maybe if you put a bag over its...tail? Was the Pontiac Aztek the ugliest vehicle ever made or a trendsetter ahead of its time?

I’m used to having people stare at me when I drive by.  Well, not me, exactly, but the various cars I rotate through, on a regular basis.  Call it the head-turn factor, if you will, for it’s one indication of how well a product stands out in today’s competitive and overcrowded automotive market.

Some vehicles grab your attention because they’re just plain beautiful, the Mercedes-Benz CLS, for example; others because they’re rare and exotic – a Bentley or a Lamborghini.  Then there are the odd ducks that simply stand out, and these days there are a whole bunch of them coming to market.

There’s the Kia Soul, made famous by those hip little hamsters in a commercial that’s gone mega-hot on You Tube.  Nissan’s weighed in with its own offering, the decidedly funky Cube.  And, of course, we can’t ignore the xB, now in its second generation.  The boxy crossover was the product that put Scion, Toyota’s youth-oriented brand-within-a-brand, on the map.

What do they all have in common?  They’re basically all boxes on wheels, and more than a bit retro, with a hint of the classic, full-sized van in their DNA.  That said, their designs are all a bit out of the norm, they’re definitely not minivans, nor are they SUVs.  Each has a decidedly distinctive take on an otherwise fundamentally simple shape.  The asymmetric Cube tries hard to be cute, Scion is L.A. street smart and Soul boasts hip-hop sensibilities, with its flashing interior lights.

Subscribe to TheDetroitBureau.comBut above all, they’re designed to deliver maximum functionality – which is, after all, the thing that boxes, or vans, if you prefer, do best.  So, it should be no surprise that the combination of form and function is connecting so well with today’s buyers, especially young ones also attracted to the reasonably low price tag of these three models.

Then again, maybe it should be a surprise.

It wasn’t all that long ago that American buyers turned a big thumbs down on another quirkily-styled box-mobile that attempted to combine incredible functionality and flexibility — arguably a good bit more than the newer Soul, Cube and xB – and a bold styling statement.

I’m referring, of course, to the late and largely unlamented Pontiac Aztek.

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Ford Shuffles Design Heads

Ian Callum takes over Americas, Peter Horbury goes to Volvo.

by on Apr.01, 2009

TK

The gregarious and decidedly "politically incorrect" Horbury now returns to Sweden and Volvo.

Faced with the sudden departure last week of design-head Steven Mattin from loss-making Volvo, “to pursue other opportunities,” Ford Motor Company is sending Peter Horbury, executive director Ford Americas design, back to Gothenburg, Sweden, as vice president of design. Moray Callum, currently director of design for cars, Ford Americas, will replace Horbury as executive director, Ford Americas design in Dearborn. Both positions are effective May 1. 

Horbury was Volvo’s design director in 1991, where he attempted to bring some more rounded shapes to the stolid and boxy Swedish brand, at a time when its safety marketing position was being successfully challenged by European and Japanese makers. The 1992 hybrid-electric ECC concept, with an extreme aerodynamic shape, was the first visible sign of his desire to move from the angular forms of the 850 model it was based on. However, it was not until 1997 that the influence of the gregarious and decidedly politically incorrect Horbury was felt in a meaningful way, when the first production cars appeared, the C70 and ’98 S80. Horbury rounded the look inside and out, and contributed the car-length shoulders still in use today. Volvo cars was acquired by Ford in 1998 for more than $6 billion and incorporated into its fledgling Premier Automotive Group.

In 2002, Horbury was appointed executive director responsible for studios of all the PAG brands — Jaguar, Land Rover, Volvo and Aston Martin. After moving to the United States in early 2004, Horbury developed a “new design DNA” for the Lincoln brand, initially expressed in the MKR Concept and evolving  into the MKT and Lincoln C Concept. Volvo is the only remaining brand of  the now failed PAG at Ford. Sales of the others during the last two years raised desperately needed cash. Volvo, too, is currently for sale and rumors of Chinese bidders abound.

“Peter is returning to Volvo at the perfect time to lead the design team in developing the next generation of Volvo products,” said Stephen Odell, president and CEO, Volvo Cars.  (more…)

Design Sustainability and the Race to Green

Pasadena Art Center summit features car design experts plus a green racer girl.

by on Feb.27, 2009

Chevrolet Volt: Wishing will make it so?

Chevrolet Volt: Wishing will make it so?

The Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California is a storied institution that has brought forth numerous automotive styling luminaries, including Wayne Cherry, J Mays, Henrik Fisker and Chris Bangle. For the past several years, the Art Center has hosted a Sustainability Summit that explores the role of design in addressing key environment challenges.

Among the Center’s graduates is Bryan Nesbitt, General Motor’s vice president of design for North America, who opened a panel discussion of what might lie around the many curves ahead on the road to sustainable mobility. Perhaps predictably, that panel — which included Bill Reinert, manager for advanced vehicle technology at Toyota USA, and John Waters, president of Bright Automotive and formerly of GM’s EV-1 team — didn’t agree on what’s just around the bend, let alone farther down the road.

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