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How Lexus Is Bringing Ancient Craftsmanship to Modern Luxury Cars

As the luxury brand marches into the future, it’s embracing the storied traditions and skills of Japan’s past.

AICHI PREFECTURE, Japan—It's hard to remember just what a massive impact Lexus and Infiniti had when they appeared in 1989. Until then, luxury cars were either American (read: dated and chintzy) or European (expensive and faulty), and buying one usually meant a forced familiarity with the dealership's service department.

No one at the time thought a credible luxury car was within the skill set of the pragmatic Japanese. Honda's then-new Acura division, which entered the market in 1986, had done little to dispel that notion, but then the first Lexus and Infiniti cars appeared, and they changed everything. Everything. These were proper luxury flagships: leather lined, V-8 powered, and smooth as silk. They were five figures cheaper than the Europeans, and they worked flawlessly in the days when first-year cars were expected to be bug-ridden.

Today, luxury buyers can choose a wide range of cars from a profusion of brands, of which Lexus and Infiniti are just two more players. But 30 years ago, they created a revolution; we look back at how Lexus and Infiniti changed the luxury car world in the winter of 1989.

I'm standing inside the Lexus Design Dome, the company's top creative facility, not far from Nagoya, the country's third most populous city. My smartphone, laptop, and iPad have been temporarily confiscated—they all have cameras, and photography is strictly forbidden under the vaulted ceiling of this secretive safe house for future Lexus concepts. At the moment, though, I'm not trying to sneak peeks at anything off-limits. Instead, I'm staring transfixed at a sheet of burgundy cloth lying on a presentation table.

Like an intricate piece of origami, the cloth is pleated in row after exquisite row, each arcing gracefully downward as the folds within the rows gradually grow smaller and smaller. It's a stunning work of fabric sculpture, but it's not a museum piece. This is the door trim included as part of a $23,100 Executive package on the Lexus LS 500 flagship sedan. Each pleated piece is folded entirely by hand—from a single sheet of cloth.

This brings us to Yuko Shimizu. She works at the small Sankyo Co. Ltd. studio in the beauteous Japanese city of Kyoto. Her specialty is hand-pleating wedding dresses. Yet when a sample of Shimizu's remarkable skills came to the attention of Lexus, the automaker realized it had discovered a shining example of timeless Japanese craftsmanship to showcase in its products. The transition from bridal gowns to cars was far from easy. Given the challenges of surviving in an automotive environment—heat, dust, rowdy schoolkids, etc.—the cloth supplied to Shimizu was far thicker and less malleable than any she'd employed before. As a result, it took her four years to perfect the special origami-like technique required to deliver the complex Lexus "L motif" pattern. That Shimizu ultimately succeeded, though, was no surprise. She is a takumi, a master artisan in the traditional Japanese mold. Today, each of her pleated panels requires three days of demanding, hands-on effort to produce.

PLEAT SMART: Assembled around a table of "before" and "after," journalists look on as they learn how takumi transform a sheet of cloth into hand-made art.

I turn to Koichi Suga, general manager of the Lexus Design Division and chief designer of the new LS. "If these are all handmade," I ask, "how many pleated pieces can possibly be delivered given such a time-consuming process?"

"From this supplier we currently receive about 60 cars' worth of panels every month," Suga says.

"All made by one takumi?"

"Oh, no," Suga replies, laughing. "She has added many more people."

"How many?"

Suga ponders for a moment. "Maybe now there are six."

"The history of the European marques may be stronger than ours," says Yoshihiro Sawa, president of Lexus International. "But we are not bound by history. In order to make our brand unique, our concept is based on Japanese culture. Many Lexus customers appreciate Japanese expressions of beauty. Lexus should be different from other brands."

To that end, Lexus is increasingly turning inward, mining the rich traditions of its home country, a culture so attuned to nuance, so devoted to beauty in the smallest details that the Japanese language has 400 words for "rain." Perhaps even more significant, especially given the steady rise of robots in modern auto production, Lexus is resolutely dedicated to the human touch—especially the sublime powers of the takumi.

One does not become a takumi overnight. Or even in a decade. To join this elite circle, the highest level of artisan in Japan, an individual typically spends around 60,000 hours perfecting his or her particular craft. (A takumi might also be, say, a chef or a master carpenter.) That's the equivalent of working eight hours a day, 250 days a year, for 30 years. To give you an idea of just how rarefied such expertise is, of the 7,700 workers at the Toyota Motor Kyushu (TMK) production facilities near Fukuoka (home to the Miyata Lexus assembly plant), a mere 19 are takumi.

Yuko Shimizu creates each door panel by hand. At left, Lexus president Yoshihiro Sawa, a passionate advocate of Japanese tradition.

Yet it is some of these takumi who help make the Lexus LC 500 one of the most stunning and voluptuous sports coupes on the road today. "We almost abandoned the exterior design due to numerous issues," says Tadao Mori, the LC's chief designer. "The front suspension was particularly difficult; we had to make it shorter, but my engineers would not give up until they created a suspension that fit. Also, the deep curves of the bodywork were a challenge. The LC has the widest door in any Lexus model, and it's made of aluminum. At first, we could not make the shape work. The pieces kept tearing. So we developed a new press-forming method." And here the takumi enter the game to save the day. The dies used to make the door panels are completed by hand. "It can sometimes take up to a year to make a particular die production-ready," Mori says. Without any input from humans, the stamping machines can produce a panel with a finishing tolerance of two-tenths of a millimeter. Yet thanks to continuous tuning of the stamping machine by takumi—who use only their experience and the hyper-sensitive touch of their fingertips—the finishing tolerance of each panel is reduced to a mere one-thousandth of a millimeter. In creating the artful curves of the LC 500, machines alone simply could not deliver the exactitude that Lexus designers and engineers demand.

At every stage of the assembly process, Lexus vehicles benefit from the human touch. At right, takumi Toshiyasu Nakamura, who hand-cut the prototype for the cut-glass inserts in the LS.

Yet another takumi produced the remarkable kiriko cut-glass door trim available as an option on the LS sedan. A technique dating to Japan's 19th century Edo period, kiriko is known for its shimmering reflections of light and has been used to create everything from whiskey glasses to flower vases. For the first-ever application of kiriko in an automobile, Lexus supplier Asahi Glass Company (AGC) turned to master glass craftsman Toshiyasu Nakamura, who first hand-drew a distinctive pattern of his own design directly onto a sheet of glass. Next, realizing that a fixed panel of glass would not catch light the way a moving tumbler in one's hand would, he perfected a new technique in which, using a diamond wheel, he hand-cut the intersecting lines at altering angles, resulting in a uniquely beveled surface that almost sparkles when it reflects light. After Nakamura completed his glass prototype—again, entirely by hand—AGC used an all-new 3-D digital scanning system to capture his creation before reproducing it via a special molding process. From mold to finishing, polishing, and strengthening with a rear-mounted metal plate, each panel of Lexus kiriko glass travels to eight different facilities and takes 18 months to produce. Mounted alongside Shimizu's pleated door panels, Nakamura's cut-glass inserts create an interior ambiance the likes of which you won't find in any other automobile.

A cord dangles over the line's entire length. Should a worker find even the tiniest flaw he or she is encouraged to pull the cord—stopping the line entirely.

Takumi are also involved in the new-model development process. For instance, to create a full-size clay mock-up of the forthcoming Lexus LC 500 Convertible (expected to appear in 2020), one master modeler—a man with 30 years of experience at his job—hand-fashioned the shape over a foam buck using only special warmed clay, a few simple hand tools, and the unfaltering keenness of his eyes. The entire process required about four months of painstaking shaping, scraping, and smoothing. Only when the takumi was finished with his handiwork did machines enter the process, the finished clay model being scanned by a CAD system.

Even those Lexus workers not fully qualified as takumi take a hands-on approach in the building of Lexus vehicles. At the Miyata assembly plant, highly trained inspectors hand-check body gap tolerances to one-tenth of a millimeter, and each inspector must pass a quick hand test every morning before being allowed to perform the task that workday. And every single worker on the assembly line has access to a cord that dangles over the line's entire length. Should a worker find even the tiniest flaw as a partly assembled car rolls by, he or she is encouraged to pull the cord—stopping the line entirely until the defect is corrected (a process that may take as much as 5 to 10 minutes). This is not a rare occurrence; workers have stopped the line as many as 100 times in a single day. Yet even with this insistence on quality above pace, the Miyata plant alone manages to turn out some 1,760 Lexus vehicles daily.

Machines play a huge role, but humans have the final say. Takumi fashioned the clay model for the upcoming LC500 convertible using only their eyes and hands. They sculpted the clay archer in the background "just for fun. "

Over dinner one evening, I ask executive vice president and LC chief engineer Koji Sato where Lexus is headed. "Our core tech will always come from hybrid," he says. "We have the history for it, and hybrid is really good for pure, easy driving. But we are making design a priority. Lexus needs to be an emotional brand, distinctive. It's what we call 'L Finesse.' It's why we're incorporating traditional Japanese craftsmanship in our products. Our customers are expecting amazing, and we must answer."

Count on the takumi to play a starring role in that reply.

Inspirations & Creations

Tea Ceremony|

Dating to the ninth century, the formal Japanese tea ceremony—even in modernized form—is a ritualized, highly choreographed art requiring years to master. (Some practitioners achieve the status of takumi.) "The way of tea" (chado) honors harmony, purity, and simplicity. It's one of Japan's most revered and influential traditions.

Kaiseki Dinner

A "haute cuisine" meal of small portions and multiple courses renowned for its meticulous preparation and the masterly aesthetics of its presentation. Like the tea ceremony, it celebrates simplicity, quality, and expertise. Often served at ryokan (traditional Japanese inns).

Sashiko Stitching

A time-honored form of Japanese quilting often used in martial arts uniforms because of its strength and beauty. Lexus UX chief designer Tetsuo Miki incorporated sashiko patterns into the vehicle's leather seats.

Artwood

Available as optional trim on the LS sedan, Artwood is a complex, time-intensive process wherein takumi laminate layers of woods, often using the "Yamaha technique" (the same method the maker uses to create its pianos), to create "unique trees"—patterns that do not occur in nature.

Engawa

An open-air extension of wood flooring around the edge of traditional Japanese homes that bridges the inside and the outdoors. In the UX, Lexus designers used the engawa effect to make it appear that the upper instrument panel extends through the windshield. This helps improve the driver's field of vision.

Washi Paper

Used in such Japanese arts as origami and sushi presentations, traditional washi paper is largely made by hand. The new Lexus UX crossover features interior trim that replicates the paper's unique fiber patterns for a calming and aesthetically pleasing finish.

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