The American automobile industry is in dire straits, with liabilities in many areas far greater than its heavily mortgaged assets. There are numerous reasons for this sad state of affairs, but central is that Detroit has been building less desirable vehicles than those made by foreign manufacturers. Cutting health costs, renegotiating labor contracts, selling off profitable finance divisions, or buying bits in China won't fix the situation, however important all those efforts may be. Detroit will stop its decline only when it resumes making cars that people really want.
To do that, both design and engineering must not just reach parity with the best of Europe and Asia, they must surpass them. And it's not impossible. The 2008 Chevrolet Malibu certainly looks better than the '08 Toyota Camry, although we don't know yet whether it will be as reliable and durable as America's best-selling car.
Crises are nothing new in the car business. But with recession an imminent possibility, people wonder about the very survival of Ford, Chrysler, and even General Motors. Having lived through a recession when I started my automotive design career, I thought it would be instructive to discuss the future with young designers whose position today is similar to what mine was a half-century ago. So, I spoke with some young design graduates working in their first automotive design jobs for American car companies (as I was in 1957), to compare their comments with my memories.
I began with a pair from GM, Robert Jablonski, 26, and Min Young Kang (Kang was coy about her age, citing feminine privilege). Both graduated from the College for Creative Studies (CCS) in Detroit two years ago and completed their first design together - the Hummer HX concept, which was unveiled at the Detroit show in January.
Kang, a South Korea native who was somewhat shy and reticent, says she was honored to participate in the design of the Hummer HX and that she thinks GM is the only car company with a truly cosmopolitan portfolio of products worldwide. But standing next to the Hummer he helped create, Jablonski opened up about his passion for design.
"The interior must fulfill what the exciting exterior promises," Jablonski says, noting that there is still a small stigma attached to interior design. Jablonski, who always had a penchant for drawing, couldn't decide if he wanted to be a fine arts painter or an art teacher, the only paths that seemed open to him. Luckily, a teacher in Rochester, Michigan, encouraged him to look at CCS, and as soon as he saw some of the transportation students' work at the school, he was hooked. "If it jumps out at me, I go for it," he says. "School was tough, but it was a lot easier than working at GM. Professional work is more restrictive, but the creative atmosphere is ten times greater."
The Hummer HX is the result of teamwork, something Kang and Jablonski - and their classmate David Rojas, a native of Peru - seem to take for granted. It's a sharp contrast to the lone-wolf individuality that was encouraged in the days of GM design chiefs Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell. Back then, the only whole-vehicle design control was from the top; designers might not even be allowed to see the front end of a car for which they were sketching rears. Bosses did the integration by selecting disparate elements, and each designer jealously sought to impose his (there were no female designers) ideas.
Teamwork is in at Ford, too. I talked with three young women who worked together on the Lincoln MKT concept vehicle: Amy Kim, 26, and Joann Jung, 31, both from South Korea and both educated at the Art Center College of Design in California; and Jennifer Hewlett, 27, from Detroit. The latter two have been at Ford for five years, but Kim, an exterior and interior designer, has just two years' experience. Originally aspiring to be a painter, Kim thought the automotive work she saw in art school was glamorous, even if it took a lot of effort and teamwork. She chose automotive design because she liked "being able to make cool sketches" - not to mention her father was "into motorcycles," so she grew up around machines. "You can tell a story through a car, giving birth to a real personality," Kim says.
As a child, Jung wanted to be an architect largely because of an architect uncle, but she ultimately decided that buildings "were too big." After she started at Art Center in 1997, Jung came to think of "a car as a small building" - an imaginative point of view that has the virtue of being absolutely true when you think about it, although I had never heard it so expressed. She has interesting insights in a number of other areas, including thinking of the car as a destination, not simply the means of reaching one. "It is necessary now to spend more time in a car, so it might as well be a third home," Jung says (the first two being your dwelling and your work space). She sees much greater application of electronics, voice-activated controls, and all the other things that are actually possible now but are only sporadically applied.
Hewlett, a CCS graduate, was a multimedia artist "who wanted differences to come together in harmony." As a former jewelry designer, she is concerned with finer details and thinks car interiors don't get the attention they deserve today. "The unexpected, the surprises in cross-functionality, the converging solutions - all that is just a start," Hewlett says.
Curious about what these young designers drive, I found that Hewlett has a Volvo XC70, Kim a Land Rover LR3, and Jung the first car she ever bought, a Jeep Wrangler. "I brought it with me from California. It's a toy car, and I love it." That's not so different from what it was like when I was a young designer and most of the new Detroit hires had Austin-Healeys, Porsches, Volkswagens, and other imported cars rather than domestic vehicles.
Lou Gasevski, 26, is another import. At Chrysler for two and a half years, he graduated from CCS in the same class as the three Hummer designers and was the principal interior designer of the Dodge Zeo concept car at the Detroit show. Born in Macedonia, he came to the United States in 1998 with almost no English, learning it through evening classes. Clearly he learned well, as he is the most articulate designer in this group of seven outstanding young professionals. He also speaks Serbian, Bulgarian, and his native Macedonian and understands Russian. Like Jablonski, he is married. He comes from an artistic family - his grandfather was a painter, and his father, with a masters degree in art, owned a printing company. Ljupco (he changed his legal name to Lou when he became a U.S. citizen) attended a specialized art high school and expected a career in graphics and print-making in Macedonia, but Balkan turmoil put an end to all that.
Once again, a teacher in Rochester encouraged a talented student's artistic bent and led Gasevski to CCS in Detroit, and once again, the sight of model cars and renderings fired an impulse to join the ranks of car creators. The fact that one high school could produce a couple of car designers at the same time mirrors my own experience. During the 1950s, five of us who ended up at GM had gone to the same Los Angeles high school at about the same time, our automotive interests encouraged by a teacher who allowed Fisher Body Craftsman's Guild model-making to be a legitimate wood shop project. We tended to be greasy-fingernail, work-on-cars people then, something that has essentially disappeared as a possibility for young designers. Fortunately, perceptive high school teachers are still with us, to the good of the industry.
One theme that arose from our discussions is the importance of design software to neophytes in the business. Most drawing is now done on electronic tablets, not paper. "Shoe designers now build twenty shoes in a day with instant prototyping," Gasevski says, "and we need to be able to realize three-dimensional objects as quickly, perhaps with holograms, things we can see in three dimensions even if we can't touch them."
This group of attractive, intelligent, thoughtful, and highly skilled young people have also accepted the idea of "green" cars, believing that it is and will be important for designers to think about societal needs as well as about cars as dynamic sculptural objects. Nobody cared about environmental issues when Detroit was at its peak, but even then, neophyte designers thought (against the grain) about increasing safety and reducing the size and weight and aerodynamic drag of cars. We have won on safety and gained in drag reduction, but today's cars make 1950s behemoths look like lightweights. That will change as a new generation of engineers face up to the mandate of the new 35-mpg CAFE standard. And when they do, there will be a new crop of skilled, experienced, and not yet jaded or fatigued designers to give them form.
The automotive industry may be in trouble, but automobile design today is not.