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Inside CALTY

We pay a visit to one of the leading design studios in the U.S., one established by Toyota more than 25 years ago.
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Calty Design Research. Yes, a design house. Fifty-one people strong. Located in Newport Beach, California. Not far from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, a school that, like the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, is known for developing some of the auto industry's best designers.

The establishment of Calty can be thought of as a gutsy/prescient move by Toyota Motor Corp. Gutsy because in 1973, when it opened, no other car company had a design studio in southern California. Prescient because SoCal has become populated with automotive design studios at a Starbucks-like rate.

("Calty," as it might be discerned, is a collapsed combination of the words "California" and "Toyota.")

1978 was a signal year in some regards at Calty. The organization moved from El Segundo, hard onto Los Angles, south to Newport Beach. The property on which Calty is sited is lovely, particularly in comparison to the environs around. . .Detroit. In 1978, David Hackett moved from the Detroit area, where he'd been working, for 15 years, for Ford Motor Co. as a designer. He, in effect, rolled the dice to take his family west. At that point, the first Calty-designed vehicle had appeared, the 1978 Celica.

Asked to comment on the environment, Hackett, who is now the executive director at Calty, points out that in effect, the streets of SoCal are "a rolling museum." Its temperate clime allows cars to last longer than in other places, where the environment and the means to deal with it are more aggressive (think: snow, salt. . .Detroit). You can see vehicles buzzing along like authentic Beetles of the `60s or rumbling along like Testarossas. In other words, it is a good environment for designers. On one of the walls within Calty there is a modern history of the automobile, with photos and magazine pages and other memorabilia tacked up, providing the designers an opportunity to check the pulse of what was and to give them ideas about what could be. The Pacific Coast Highway is like that wall, but in four dimensions.

Creating Cars

In developing a design, the people at Calty are given input from the vehicle's chief engineer (they do cars, trucks and vans). "He controls the entire development of the vehicle," Hackett says. "He provides an idea of what he's looking for—not the surface. It's enough information to allow us to interpret what he wants."

In addition to the Calty studio in Newport Beach, there is a design center in Europe, Toyota EPDC, which recently made a move from Belgium to the south of France, and another in Japan, Toyota Tokyo Design, which is also in a new facility. Toyota Design Headquarters is located in Toyota City. Although the studios are on their own when it comes to "blue sky" design work, specific vehicle programs put them in competition with one or more of the other studios. Among the vehicles styled at Calty are the 2000 Celica, the Prius, the forthcoming Avalon, and the Lexus LS.

In the case of the 2000 Celica (which was designed at Calty by Alan Schneider), Tadashi Nakagawa said that the car was "for the young and the young at heart." What that means in terms of metal, glass and rubber was up to the people at Calty to determine. They were given details about such things as packaging, price and position, but then had to come up with the solution to the design challenge, knowing that other Toyota designers were working on the same vehicle (all programs include a competition with another site).

Hackett says that so far as he is concerned, it is up to the designers to start with "a clean mind and a clean sheet of paper." He doesn't think it is a good idea for designers to have an image tucked away in a drawer that they pull out in order to fulfill a design program. Typically, designers for Calty (as well as for other studios in the area) are hired directly out of design school ("We're looking for `idea people,'" he remarks).

Once Calty has been selected to take a theme and fully develop it, there are occasional visits to the studio from engineers. Schneider was sent to Japan for three months, and Hackett himself spent several weeks there. "It is our responsibility to make sure that the design is feasible," he says.

But he points out, "Toyota engineers can develop complex sheet metal. We have a lot of confidence in them." He adds, "We know they like to be challenged."

One of the aspects of design that Hackett thinks is sometimes overlooked by people is that styling is just one factor in the equation. "Styling must be in balance with functionality," he says. In other words, it is not only the shape of the vehicle that matters, but also things like visibility, ergonomics, fuel economy, price, quality, and resale value. "It's not just one thing leading the dance—which is why good design works," he maintains.

On the Value of CAD

There is a lot of personality in good automotive design. Most automotive companies are on the move toward virtual modeling. "Eventually," Hackett says, "we may get to the point where the physical model won't be necessary." The reason: "Anything to cut down time." Making a physical model from a digital model is more time-consuming than making the digital model and calling it good. Hackett has some reservations, however. "It's quicker," he admits, then pointedly asks, "But is it better?" Toyota has developed its own CAD/CAD system, Toyota Caelum; it is not used at Calty: "We do CAD work, but not the type required for production." That detailed work is typically done back at HQ in Toyota City.

Calty designers use Alias/Wavefront software for design, which provides the means to provide high-quality images.

But they still make clay models.

Hackett makes an observation about the skin of the Calty-designed 2000 Celica: "There's a lot of movement of the surface; it takes a skillful hand to render it." Digital tools notwithstanding, the human element remains paramount.


The early version of the 2000 Celica.

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