In the past half century, Japan's motor industry has come from nowhere to become the most powerful and most profitable in the world, turning out cars of superb quality, even those that are entry-level. Somehow, though, those millions of excellent vehicles have never managed to express any visual links with Japan's extraordinarily rich aesthetic culture. Up to now, with only a paltry few exceptions, to say that a car "looks Japanese" has been derogatory, meaning in fact that it is essentially nondescript, a pale imitation of something American or European. As Japanese car design has become more professional and the cars aesthetically equal or superior to those from the West, that dismissive phrase has evolved. No one thinks a poor design is Japanese anymore; now we say "looks Korean" or "looks Chinese" when we want to denigrate a clumsy shape. But for all the improvement, Japanese cars still don't have any intrinsic national characteristics.
Efforts have been made to incorporate traditional nonautomotive design themes, most notably in the Nissan Jikoo four years ago. When I was a student at Art Center long ago, we used to try to define exactly what an "automotive" shape might be. We looked at each other's sketches and with youthful certitude pronounced a design "automotive" or "not automotive." We might have been guilty of pretentiousness, but in fact it was - and is - a perfectly reasonable way to look at car proposals, and by that either/or standard, the Jikoo was a total failure. It was beautifully made, with superb examples of traditional Japanese materials and craft methods, but it was also extremely dorky and simply did not look like a car that anyone would want to drive anywhere, except in a parade as a clown car.
In the past fifteen months, though, a series of brilliantly conceived and executed concept cars from Mazda have shown the world that long-established Japanese sensibilities can indeed be expressed in such a way as to embrace both cultural imperatives and the senses of motion and emotion that are central to the worldwide love of automobiles. Amusingly, just as it took Freeman Thomas, an American, to create the quintessentially German shape of the original Audi TT, it has fallen to a Dutchman working for an American parent company to give Japan its own breakthrough car-design direction.
Laurens van den Acker, 42, is a true cosmopolite. He speaks five European languages and is making a serious effort with Japanese. He has lived in seven countries, including Japan. He worked in Italy and Germany (with Audi) and has been associated with the Ford Motor Company for nine years in a series of posts in which, as he puts it, "I've done my share of wacky cars." He did that well enough to have been named deputy general manager of Mazda's Design Division in February 2006 and to become its general manager shortly thereafter. I asked him about the cars that most influenced him in his career and found that they consisted of two three-car series, both created before he was born: the General Motors Firebirds I, II, and III and the Bertone B.A.T.s 5, 7, and 9 . . . perfect antecedents for his larger Mazda series.
Van den Acker inherited a concept-car program that called for four cars in just one year. He noted that three excellent Mazda concepts had been done prior to his appointment, but they were not coherent; each of them was original and innovative, but with no reference or visual link to the other two. He decided to make sure that the four cars - now expanded to five with the Furai for the 2008 Detroit show - were representative of just one vision, however separate they might be in purpose. He pushed for a "family feeling" in the concepts, even though they were created in four separate studios in three countries by multinational design teams.
The Mazda Design Division encompasses 325 people - 100 of whom are designers, the others being modelers and technicians. The modeling staff at Mazda is extraordinary, van den Acker says. He has worked in many places, including Turin, but has never encountered a team as sensitive and capable as this. He found that Mazda had "flip-flopped a lot," never consistently following a single developmental line, and his brief to his designers was that they needed not so much to seek new directions but to "turn up the volume" on the zoom-zoom idea for the future. He says that he shocked his designers by telling them to do whatever they wanted, consistent with staying clearly connected to established Japanese aesthetics. "The first tries were not very good," he says, but he pushed his staff to go further in the new direction, which was related to garden art and to the control of nature. "Soft, not aggressive," he said, and the ideas kept getting better and better.