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By TAMARA WARREN
AutoWeek
1-26-03

The Design Forum once again drew some of the world’s best designers to Detroit’s Cobo Hall for a day of collaboration, insight and celebration of design. (Photo by Glenn Triest)
It’s 2003. Product is king of the car world and the designer holds royal court. That was the feeling at the 10th Annual AutoWeek Design Forum, an event that celebrates style and design inside and outside the castled walls of the automotive realm, and held in conjunction with the North American International Auto Show.

J Mays, the uber-cool vice president of design at Ford, put an exclamation mark on the daylong event with a keynote after-dinner speech to more than 700 attendees. He spoke of creating the product aesthetic.

Mays defined design as “creative intelligence that satisfies emotional needs.” He teased young designers with lessons learned from his time in corporate America. “Never delegate motivation,” said Mays, whose design work includes the concept that became the New Beetle. “You don’t need a clean sheet of paper. History doesn’t start with you.”

Though obviously weary from the work leading into the auto show—where Ford unveiled an unprecedented 15 show and concept vehicles—Mays mustered up his trademark energy for the crowd that included Ulrich Bez, CEO of Aston Martin; Patrick le Quement, vice president of corporate design for Renault; and Wayne Cherry, vice president of design at GM.

The Design Forum drew designers, auto executives, college professors and students, journalists and industry voyeurs, who had the chance to tour the auto show floor following lunch.

Kicking off the morning’s agenda was Antony Grade, vice president of design car programs for Renault. He set the tone early. “To innovate, you must have a taste for
adventure,” Grade said. Grade depicted designers as a rare breed. “We have our minds open. We’re sponges in a sense, we absorb everything we see around us.” Grade said Renault’s French designers were particularly distinct in this category. “America is
getting further from Europe.”

Yet cultural perspectives of designers are no longer clearly cut along company origins. Anne Asensio, a French designer who left Renault nearly two years ago to become executive director of interior design for GM, spoke about the freedom designers have been given at GM. “American design is all about feeling an emotion and expression,” she said. She said a design team’s work speaks for itself. “We have capability to communicate through a design with images, models, clay and concept cars. This is our strength.”

Imagery of cruise ships and haute couture that the upscale Maybach customer favors were part of the presentation by vice president of design for DaimlerChrysler Peter Pfeiffer, who has played an integral role in Mercedes design over the past 20 years. Pfeiffer’s historical look at several generations of Mercedes design showed a clear path of where the company came from, readily extrapolated into an idea of where it is headed.

As different as the shapes are, the profile of the Maybach owner contrasts even more sharply with that of the Honda Element’s target buyer — a 20-something with dreadlocked hair and a few surfboards. Element project leader Eric Shumaker chronicled the metamorphosis of the Element design process from dorm-room-on-wheels philosophy to production vehicle. He borrowed from a Detroit adage to explain the research that was invested in the design.

“Take time to make the rubber hit the road,” Shumaker said. “I liked the Element process. I find it very parallel [to what I do],” said John Lasseter, vice president of Pixar Animation Studios, whose credits include executive producer of the movie Monsters, Inc., director of A Bug’s Life and two Academy Awards for the Toy Story films. “That’s why I come.

I’m a car nut,” Lasseter said. He had also attended the 2000 Design Forum. “I love design. It’s not just automotive design. It’s pulling philosophies of design from other elements. It’s a process, some kind of way of thinking.”

Designers agree that creative principles are universal. Gavin Ivester, general manager of Puma, is a returnee to the faculty. Ivester, who counts among his credits the Apple PowerBook and was a team leader for Nike, now heads a team that makes products
that Sid Watkins wears trackside at F1 events—Puma driving shoes. “I purposely gave a talk that is all about creativity,” Ivester said. “Designers are focused on
the future. Auto design is the modern sculpture.”

The speakers participated in rigorous question and answer periods that proved as entertaining and enlightening as the speeches themselves. Several designers and AutoWeek editors then gave tours of the auto show floor, providing their own take on this year’s designs.

The dinner reception was topped off with a presentation of the AutoWeek Editors’ Choice awards with Cadillac Sixteen named Best in Show. GM’s Cherry accepted the award in what will be his final auto show at the helm; at 65 years old, the design vp is looking for a successor. Ford’s Mays and the crowd acknowledged GM’s return as a design trendsetter with the Sixteen. Mays prefaced his speech with a gracious compliment to Cherry, well received by the crowd. “That is the best auto I’ve seen come out of General Motors since the good stuff Bill Mitchell did,” Mays said.


(Photo) Fords Jay Mays
 

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