A Designer for All Seasons
Though he had trouble coping with the cold the first time around, Larry Erickson has made Detroit his home and teaching future designers his vocation.
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Christopher A. Sawyer
Cloverdale is a small California town 90 miles north of San Francisco where Larry Erickson's dad ran the local service station and garage. He learned a lot about fixing and modifying cars during his childhood, and spent a lot of time drawing pictures of cars, trucks, and just about anything that moved on wheels under its own power, but knew that he would have to leave the bucolic surroundings if he was to accomplish anything other than following in his father's footsteps. "It was a beautiful place to grow up," he says, "but I felt the need to leave if I was going to get anywhere in life." It didn't take long before Erickson, who never realized car design was a profession before he read about it in a magazine, graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA in 1983, and headed to Detroit where he took a position in GM's Advanced Aero Studio. He lasted until the first snowfall, and moved back to California.
The next 18 months were spent in Southern California designing interiors and exteriors for busses at Bartlett Design, working with surfboard and motorcycle designer Tracy Nelson, and teaching at Art Center. It was Erickson who counseled one of his students, Chip Foose, to go to work for legendary hot rod builder Boyd Coddington rather than work for Ford. (Erickson designed hot rods for Coddington in his spare time.) After he returned to GM in 1985. Says Erickson, "It didn't take long before I realized I still had a lot to learn, so I went back to GM and worked in one of the advanced studios under Dave Holls." It was a great match as Holls, a man best known for the fins on the 1959 Cadillac, was an unrepentant fan of the hot rod genre, and kept Erickson's extra-curricular activities off the radar of then-GM Design chief Chuck Jordan. That is, until Erickson nearly ended his GM career for a second time.
Erickson, who was spending his weekends designing a hot rod for Coddington, lent a co-worker pictures of the secret project that he then mistakenly left on his desk where anyone could see them. And it wasn't just anyone. It was Jordan who had earned the nickname "The Chrome Cobra" for his balding pate and legendary temper. "They were taking bets on whether or not I'd make it to the end of the day," Erickson recounts with a laugh. Worry soon changed to delight as Jordan, who was smitten with Erickson's design for ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons' Cadzzila, congratulated him on the classic yet modern reinterpretation of a post war Cadillac Sedanette. It wasn't the last time Jordan would be impressed with the minimalist hot rod overtones characteristic of Erickson's work, however.
Erickson moved to the Cadillac studio and was handed an advanced design concept and told to make it a production vehicle. "We went in on a Saturday, leveled out the decklid, smoothed the body sides, and pushed the wheels so the fenders looked like they were formed around them," he says modestly about the design that became the 1992 Seville/STS. It was so successful that Jordan asked him to create an in-house challenger for Pininfarina's winning design for the next Eldorado. At the last minute and against all odds, Erickson's crash 22-day design was chosen for production.
Once again, however, Erickson left GM, though this time it had nothing to do with the weather. He moved across to arch-rival Ford where he was put in charge of its Small and Medium Car Vehicle Center Design Studio in Dunton, England. Just about 2.5 years later, Erickson was recalled to Dearborn and worked under Doug Gafka on the 2005 Mustang. Though quick to praise both Gafka and J Mays for their leadership on the project, the Mustang has the same hot rod-like crispness, wheel-centric stance, and clean body sides seen on the 1992 Seville and Eldorado. It is only the short smile he gives after the similarity is noted that betrays his pride in the designs. Next, a short stint in Ford's Strategic Design Group allowed him to break out of the "surface first" view of vehicle design, and follow an approach that saw the design process as an interdisciplinary combination of function, image and fashion, as well as form.
It is this sensibility that Erickson brings to the job he took in August 2008 as head of Transportation Design at Detroit's College for Creative Studies. Though he says a growing need for mass transit will create new opportunities for the coming generation of designers, he doesn't think personal transportation designers are no longer necessary. Fragmentation of the traditional product segments in the auto industry will increase the demand for designers capable of producing even more variations off common platforms. He believes it is a world well-suited to CCS. "We are in the middle of a town where people make things," he says. "As a result, we graduate very grounded people you can put straight to work because they know what the industry is about and what they are getting into." They even know how to deal with the weather.
Erickson will oversee the move of the Transportation Dept. from CCS's main campus to the Argonaut Building in Detroit's New Center area. Donated by GM, Harley Earl established the auto industry's first design department within its Albert Kahn-designed walls. It is from this building that CCS will graduate the first students to complete its new Master of Fine Art degree, and welcome the initial students to CCS's design-focused charter middle and high schools. "There is a need for designers to have innate drawing skills as well as the interpersonal skills to interface with the rest of the product design team on many fronts," says Erickson. "This understanding and the ability to receive and process information is what we are trying to bring to our students."
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