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The 10 Hottest Designers: Why The Auto Industry Will Come Back Strong

Never underestimate the power of a good design(er) to get them back in the showroom.
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Right now, the world’s auto industry is not tanking. It’s in the tank. With the global economic slowdown, the number of cars and trucks rolling off of dealer lots is little more than a pathetic trickle. That consumers are having their pay cut—partially or entirely—isn’t helping matters any.
Everyone associated with the auto industry says it almost like their leg jerks up when a medical reflex hammer is applied to their knee: “It’s about the product.”
It’s not about the cash on the hood. It’s not about the “sellabrations” or free fast food for a year or some other gimmick. Assuming that the fundamentals of quality, reliability, durability, and affordability are there, then it is about just one thing: Desire. No one—outside, say, Bobby Flay or Rachel Ray—desires a refrigerator.* But a car? That’s another thing entirely.
What will get the auto industry back on track is not clever commercials. Not showrooms with cappuccino and shoe shines. Not gimmicks.
No, what will get people buying new cars and trucks are products that people want to buy. Cars and trucks that are so appealing that kids will put their pictures on their walls and grownups will figure out how to afford.
Cars and trucks that have been—and, more importantly, will be—designed by these 10 people.
We talked with designers. We talked with educators. We talked with knowledgeable people in and around the industry to come up with this list of 10. The 10 designers that have made a mark. The 10 designers that will undoubtedly leave a bigger mark.
The success of the auto industry isn’t going to be found in the hallways of governments, not in the conference rooms of advertising agencies, not in the offices of accountants. It will be found in the design studios. Places where these people work.
*As you will see, one of these designers may dispute this.
Diane Allen: Nissan Design America
It all started in 1984, with an unsolicited phone call from former Nissan design boss Jerry Hirschberg. Diane Allen had just completed her BFA at the Center (now College) for Creative Studies in Detroit and was invited by Hirschberg to come out to sunny San Diego to see if she'd be interested in joiningthe Nissan design team. Although she had originally planned to focus on product design, car designer Vince Desessa encouraged her to think about focusing on vehicle design. So she left Detroit and joined Nissan Design America.
Allen was thrust into the spotlight in late 1999, when then-newly minted Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn announced the automaker would reinvent itself through bold and aggressive vehicle design, starting with the resurrection of the famed Z sports car. Allen was tasked with leading the team that would develop the design for the 2002 350Z. While retro design was permeating the industry at the time, Allen and her team deviated from the fad to develop a design that was modern, yet paid homage to the iconic 240Z. The Z continues to influence Nissan's design direction today, even as its latest iteration, the 2009 370Z-which Allen also penned-hits the road.
Although it might seem that the designer of a sport car would be tasked with designing other sports cars, Allen was given lead design responsibility for Nissan's first foray into the full-size truck segment, the '04 Nissan Titan. She and her team of designers, including four from Japan, trekked across the U.S. to get a first-hand look at how pick-up owners use their trucks. After spending months in the parking lots of several Home Depot and Lowes stores, along with numerous visits to truck stops, the team created a design that Allen calls "modern…in a typically conventional segment." It's as much about form as it is function.
Allen says the best part of her job-besides getting a first-hand look at the cars and trucks of the future-is being a part of a global organization: "It allows for interesting travel experiences providing a greater understanding and appreciation of different cultures." While vehicle design has become her first love, Allen says she most likely would have pursued a career in architecture if things hadn't panned out in the four-wheeled trade. Her favorite vehicle design of all time is the Aston Martin DB9.
Jeff Gale: Chrysler Corporation
When you get a BSc degree from the University of Cincinnati in industrial design, the odds are probably better that you'd get a job at Proctor & Gamble than at a car company. And Jeff Gale candidly admits that getting hired was "somewhat of a challenge." For more reasons than you might think. But it was a goal he was dedicated to making happen, particularly after he'd had an opportunity to have an internship at Prince Corp., now part of Johnson Controls, in Holland, Michigan. "I got really lucky. I was assigned to Studio Zero, and worked with Dale Frye. He was very patient with me. That internship sealed the deal on automotive for me."
But there was another possible direction that he could have gone, because his first internship was at Kenner Toys, and he admits that that experience of designing toys was a whole lot of fun. "It was a blast," he says, then recalls that they were working on Nerf footballs back then, and one of the sculptors was a minor league pitcher with a good arm and given the football project. . .well, it wasn't your ordinary office.
And there was a chance that Gale, now 37, wouldn't get the opportunity to secure a job at a vehicle manufacturer. He says that when he was looking for a job, there were three companies that he'd never heard back from in response to his resume, portfolio, and follow-up calls. After he'd been working he met some designers at the companies-which he doesn't name-and learned what had happened. They spotted his name and quickly tossed the material. "They thought it would be a security risk." A security risk?
It's this: Jeff Gale's father is the former chief of Design at Chrysler, Tom Gale. They were afraid, he learned, that if they were to hire him, he'd tell his dad what they were up to. "My father, who is the biggest influence on me, instilled virtues, like integrity. You know when to speak about things, and when not to. I took that for granted." Apparently not everyone did. (And those of a suspicious nature probably regret their paranoia.)
But after he graduated in 1994, he caught a break and was hired by General Motors as a designer. He moved to Chrysler in 2000, and is now the design manager of the Advanced Exterior Studio.
Who his father is raises the question: Is that why he became a car designer? Actually, it wasn't necessarily a slam-dunk. He admits that when attending Rochester-Adams High School he wanted to be a car designer-but there weren't a whole lot of design classes available. So he took drafting and architectural drawing ("We worked on the board-T-squares, triangles, protractors") and the like. He attended a Saturday morning class at the College for Creative Studies. But even so, he recalls of his nascent automotive design intention, "My dad asked, 'Are you really sure?'"
Jeff Gale is probably best known for his design of the 2009 Dodge Challenger. And what is probably as well-or better-known from the standpoint of the vehicle but not the designer ("I don't think if you asked anyone in the parking lot of a grocery store they'd know who designed it"), there is the 2008 Chrysler minivan. Yes, the same guy who designed the muscle car designed the minivan. One car that he worked on that he wishes was more widely known-as a vehicle, not as he being the designer-is the Magnum SRT8. He worked on the standard Magnum but wasn't the principal designer of the vehicle. He got to create the one with the 20s, wheels he designed. ("If I wasn't designing cars, I'd design wheels. I'm the biggest geek in the Design Office when it comes to wheels.")
As he thinks of cars that he really admires that he didn't design, he runs through the '32 Ford, the Mopar muscle cars ("I have a '70 Road Runner"), moves on to the Lamborghini Muira. . .then poses the question: If money was no object, what would he buy? "A Ford GT. I know it's not one of our vehicles, but that vehicle, inside and out, is an excellent statement of design."
Richard Gresens: Whirlpool Corporation
It wouldn't be surprising to see a photo of Richard Gresens next to the definition of the word diverse in the dictionary. That's because the man who designed Ford's seemingly boxy Flex crossover has also penned everything from farming equipment to space-aged electric vehicles.
After receiving a BFA from the College for Creative Studies, Gresens began his career at Volkswagen in Germany, where he worked on the 1989 Futura concept car and the Sharan minivan-which shared its platform with the Ford Galaxy, exposing Gresens to the Ford design team. He left VW and became a freelance designer, during which time he designed the Consequento city car for Swiss electric car maker Horlacher. Gresens returned to the U.S. and settled in Boston, taking up temporary duty selling Saabs (which he says gives him a better appreciation of automotive outside of the studio) before doing freelance work for Solectria, where he designed the Sunrise electric car. In 1995 he joined the design firm William M. Schmidt Associates in a suburb of Detroit. There he worked on everything from agricultural equipment for AGCO Corp. to concept cars for Esoro and Rinspeed. He went to Ford in 2000, working on both the Ford Five Hundred sedan and Mercury Mariner compact CUV before leading the Explorer and Flex design programs.
A victim of Ford's shedding of white collar staff, the ever-resilient Gresens is now putting his imprint on home appliances at Whirlpool as the company transforms its product development process to be more innovative through emotional design.
Gresens credits former Ford design director Helmut Schrader as being a huge influence in his life, helping him understand "how to deal effectively with the multitudes of factions in the design studio through patience, listening and smart decisions."Given his varied design assignments it's not surprising that he is influenced by the design of railroad trains-everything from streamliners like the Burlington Zephyr (a.k.a., the Silver Streak) and streamlined Milwaukee Road Hiawatha to the modern Shinkansen and ICE trains. In the realm of automobiles, his favorite vehicle design of all-time is the '70 Plymouth Superbird-in lime green: "It's great that something so outrageous made it to the road," Gresens says. Another vehicle design he's fond of is the Terex Titan off-road earth hauler-another lime green-colored creation. "The enormity of scale of that truck is unbelievable," he says.
Jin Kim: Calty Design Research
If you think about it, the 2007 Toyota FJ Cruiser has an appearance of off-road capability write large.
If you contrast that with the 2008 Scion xB, the second generation of the boxy vehicle that proved to be remarkably successful given prevailing notions of what cars are "supposed to" look like, they seem to be worlds apart. Yet they do have something in common, which is 31-year-old Calty designer Jin Kim.
Consider: the '07 FJ has its roots in the 1960 Toyota Land Cruiser. The original xB was based on the Japan Domestic Market bB. Yet Kim has been able to take these cars and put his own distinctive mark on them.
It might seem, however, that Kim's stock in trade might be vehicles that are essentially rectangular but with rounded edges. But then we ask what vehicle design he did that he wished was more well known, and he cites a concept car that debuted at the 2004 New York Auto Show, the Lexus LF-C sport coupe, which is light years away from the FJ-the assignment that he cites as his biggest break-and the xB. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Art Center grad (he's worked at Calty since he graduated in '01) says that Giorgetto Giugiaro is the biggest influence on his work because, "He is a master designer who designed cars that look iconic yet futuristic." And in this vein, he says that the Pininfarina Rossa, designed for Ferrari and which had its debut at the 2000 Turin Motor Show, is his all-time favorite vehicle:"The designers took a lot of the classic cues of the traditional Ferrari look, but made it more modern."
So what would he be doing if he wasn't designing cars? "I would be doing entertainment design for movies or video games." Given the evidence of the work he's accomplished in the time he's been at Calty, chances are they'd be something along the lines of Grand-Theft-Auto-Meets-Blade-Runner.
Earl Lucas: Ford Motor Company
While it is clear that there is an increased emphasis on the quality of vehicle interiors across the industry-and is a particular focus at Ford-imagine what Ford designer Earl Lucas had to consider when he was working at Reese Design in the late '90s: He was designing aircraft interiors...for the Sultan of Brunei. While the buyers of the 2003 Ford 150 (he joined Ford in '99) may not have been billionaires or royalty (although statistically, some probably were), Lucas's work on the interior of that vehicle certainly had a greater impact (he also worked on the exterior and wheels of that truck).
His most recent work is certainly something that is of considerable importance: he is Exterior Design Manager, Taurus/MKS.
One of the projects that he's worked on at Ford that he is particularly pleased with is the Edge. As he puts it, "It was the first product that I worked on where there was no previous model. It was an all new vehicle from scratch. When starting this project, I was excited about possibly starting a new icon for Ford." While the Edge may or may not become an icon, one vehicle that he worked on that is rapidly gaining that status is the Ford Flex. "All the interior creature features and the attention to detail makes it, in my opinion, a very handsome vehicle." Given the wide-ranging props that the vehicle has gotten for its high-quality and highly functional interior, he's not alone in his assessment.
Lucas's interior design talent was undoubtedly enhanced by his studies at the Center (now College) for Creative Studies, it is actually something rather close to home. When asked about his biggest influence, Lucas replies, "This is going to sound like a momma's boys comment, but I would have to say my mother, Vessie Lucas. She is an interior decorator and she exposed me at a very early age to color, texture and, most of all, the ability to see what something could be versus what it is today." And as for his inspiration beyond people, "It is my faith in God. Understanding that there is something bigger than us keeps me in the proper mindset. Keeps me humble."
So what's the favorite car design of a 38-year-old guy who has worked on vehicles like the F150, Edge, and Flex? Perhaps not what you'd think: the 1970 Ford Mustang. "I go back in forth between the 429 Boss and Mach I because the Mach I has the hockey stick graphics and the black hood but the Boss-great name-has more horse power. The shape of this car is remarkable."
And if he wasn't designing cars, perhaps it isn't so surprising: "I would probably be designing aircraft interiors or some other type of transportation. There is something about seeing my ideas moving that has always fascinated me."
Dave Lyon: General Motors
When talking with a designer, the subject of all-time-favorite vehicles came up. "One of the people on the top-10 list," we said, "cited the Lamborghini Muira as his." And the designer said, without a microsecond's hesitation: "Dave Lyon." He was right. Lyon said, "It had a huge impact on me when I first saw it." Evidentially, it continues to, given the awareness of his choice by others in the design community.
But it was a person who has had a huge influence on Lyon as a designer. During the summer of his senior year at the College for Creative Studies, Lyon was hired by legendary designer Homer LeGassey (GM: 1942-'55; Chrysler: '55-'59) to work in what Lyon calls a "job" shop. "I learned more in that summer with Homer LeGassey than any other year of my life." He had the opportunity to work on the 1990 Oldsmobile Expression concept car, which brought him to the attention of GM Design management. So upon his graduation in '90, Lyon went to work at GM Design, where he is now executive director for North American interior design.
While it might seem that working at the same place for nearly 20 years (and nearly half of his life, as he is 40) might cause one to be in a rut. But this is not the case for Lyon, as his career with GM has had him working in South Korea, China, Australia, and Italy. The Italian job, perhaps given his aforementioned admiration of the Lambo, is something that stands out in his career. He lived in Turin for six months and had the opportunity to work with Stile Bertone. "Italy changes your whole perspective on life and design."
The vehicles that Lyon worked on that are undoubtedly well known by most are the 2001 Buick Bengal concept and the first-generation Cadillac CTS production car. The car he wishes more people were aware of was the original Buick LaCrosse concept. (Lyon was chief designer at Buick when he was in his early 30s.)
When asked what he'd be doing if he wasn't a car designer, he risks what he thinks may be "too nerdy" an answer and replied, "It's a toss up: art direction for the next three Star Wars movies or visualizing the appearance of new dinosaur fossil discoveries." What more need-or can-be said?
Jose Paris: General Motors
It's a long way from Madrid, Spain, to North Hollywood, California, but it is a journey that José Paris has made with considerable success. The 37-year-old, who was born in the Spanish city won a scholarship in '95 that took him to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He recalls that even as his biggest break. Audi's sponsorship put him in into car design, which he describes as "just another impossible childhood dream." But a dream fully realized.
After a period in Ingolstadt, Germany, with Audi, he returned back to the west coast of the U.S. in 2000, as he joined Ford's Brand Imaging Group in Irvine, CA. During his time at Ford he worked on the 2002 Ford MA concept car, a vehicle that he wished was more widely known. In 2006 he joined General Motors, at the 5350 Advanced Design studio in North Hollywood, where he remains today, as a creative designer.
Like many designers today, Paris admires the work being done at Apple, work performed by the team headed up by Jonathan Ive, head of Industrial Design, at Apple, and, of course, CEO Steve Jobs. About their work, he says, that it is "always an inspiration." He adds, "On their best products, the way they mix whimsical ideas with a flawless technical execution is a constant reminder of what good design is all about."
On a more personal level, Paris is greatly inspired by his nine-month-old son:"He is making me reconsider what I have accomplished so far as a designer. Transportation is at a critical moment, and I would like him to be proud of how his father was part of the solution."
A big admirer of 1970s concept cars (e.g., the '70 Lancia Stratos), he says that when he saw the 1937 Bugatti Type 57C Atlantic coupe, "my jaw dropped."
If he wasn't designing cars? "I would go back and finish my architecture studies."
George Saridakis: Ford Motor Company
"After graduating with a bachelors in science in aeronautical engineering and subsequent management courses"-which led to a post-graduate diploma in Quality Management-"I wanted to try something more creative. I liked cars a lot, and could draw, so I started work on a portfolio during a year out of studies, and while working at odd jobs." This certainly sounds almost implausible, but it is how George Saridakis came to be where he is today, design manager within Ford's production car development studio. He continues, "I applied to the only Masters course in vehicle design at the time, the prestigious Royal College of Art in London. With a class of no more than 12 students a year, I held little hope of being accepted." But this aeronautical engineer with knowledge of quality, who "liked cars a lot, and could draw" was accepted. And he was to receive his MA from the RCA, a period that had a profound influence on what was to come: "As a student, and design virgin, at the RCA, I started working with other designers and was overwhelmed by their creativity and inspirational artwork." As he worked toward his final degree project, he says, "I drew inspiration from the talent I saw all around me, helping to mould my own aesthetic and design taste." And what a surrounding of talent it was. He names those who stand out: Jozef Kaban, who is now at Skoda; Per Ivar Selvaag, who is now at BMW; Xitij Mistry, who is now at Ford. . .and J Mays ("for his approach to car design-capturing the spirit of a car by expressing its own unique story through its sheet metal much like a cinematographer expresses a story through film." Following his graduation, he went to work for Toyota (from 1997 to 2000), and notes, "I remember fondly Izoroku Yamada who, although a tough and uncompromising teacher during my early Toyota days, taught me discipline and precision applied to the sensitivity of creating beautiful lines and surfaces."
Saridakis has been at Ford since 2000, working in various studios, including Lincoln and Advanced Product Creation. The car that he's probably most well known for, at least among the design community, is the Ford Shelby GR-1. . .although that will undoubtedly be trumped by the 2010 Mustang, among designers and the public at large alike. "The public's perception of car design is, on the whole, very different to the reality of our profession as seen by our design peers. Being more well known in general terms is often a reflection of the aesthetic merits of a product, horrifyingly ugly or achingly beautiful, or whether or not it's an iconic product beloved by the masses or a faceless me-too product with no real identity."
Vehicle designs that he admires certainly have identity in spades: Aston Martin DB4 Zagato, Citroen DS, Alfa Romeo Stradale, Alfa Giulietta Sprint, and "hands down" the 1959 Ferrari 250 GT SWB.
So what if he wasn't designing cars, what would it be? Airplanes? "Houses. I would love to be an architect." And if he wasn't designing at all? "I would have loved to have studied medicine. Maybe in my next life. . . ."
Gary Telaak: Audi AG
Inspiration can come in many shapes and sizes. For Gary Telaak, head of Audi's exterior design studio no. 2 in Ingolstadt, inspiration comes in the form of a corkscrew designed by Carl Mertens Besteckfabrik GmbH & Co. KG, a company that's been producing flatware since 1919. "I love design that is stamped functionality," he says, then asks, "Do you know the bar accessories from Carl Mertens? They are a wonderful example. The corkscrew, for example, has fulfilled its purpose in form for nearly 100 years." He explains, "Of course, there are an abundance of possibilities to open a bottle of wine. But none wakes up so much satisfaction in me as to look forward to the opening of the bottle as with this bar accessory. I celebrate it. It is not possible to improve on this piece." Style. Simplicity. Function. "I prefer clean and precise design that goes directly to the point."
Telaak credits his Greek roots-he also lived in Argentina and Venezuela and speaks five languages-as the foundation for his design ethos ("I am a big fan of Greece, the way of life, the mood, the flair") that's a reflection of the work he has done since graduating from the Automobile Design College for Art in Pforzheim, Germany, in 1996. While he started his career designing buses for DaimlerChrysler EvoBus unit, Telaak quickly landed at Audi where he's spent the past 10 years designing the exterior of the second-generation A3, TT and A8.
His biggest break came in '98 when he was given direct responsibility for the exterior design development of the second-generation A3, a vehicle he says he most identifies with: "My biggest success has been the A3 because I still get the most feedback on this car, even today." After the A3, Telaak took on the daunting challenge of revising the iconic TT roadster and coupe, which resulted in a series of debates as to how far the team could push the design envelope from the original: "The new car had to be recognizable in the blink of an eye as a TT," he says.
His admiration for Audi heritage is symbolized by the car that he says is his favorite vehicle design of all-time: The Audi Quattro Sport. "The car is animalistic. It isn't a beauty in the classical sense, but it expresses its inner beauty through the sound of the five cylinders with quattro all-wheel drive. It's pure pragmatism." His visceral connection with sound is reflected in his second love-and the career path he would have followed had he not ended up in auto design-music. He's a fan of jazz-fusion drummer Bill Cobham, a founding member of the Mahavishnu Orchestra: "I love his precise playing that goes directly to the point."
Mike Torpey: KIA Design Center America
When asked to name the biggest influence on him-and not a person-Mike Torpey, senior exterior designer at Kia Design Center America, responds, "Growing up doing Freestyle/BMX trick bike riding in the 1980's. I'm sure it shaped me more than any other pursuit: being part of a passionate community of innovators and creative risk-takers. We all lived in a world where originality was king-and yet there was tremendous respect for each other's unique style." Which in many ways speaks to what's essential for a designer today: passion, innovation, creativity, originality, respect, and community.
Torpey, 36, has had a comparatively brief but notable career. A graduate of College for Creative Studies in Detroit (May '98), he was working an internship at General Motors during the summer of '97 and came up with a design proposal called the "Barcelona." He recalls, "Wayne Cherry and Jerry Palmer both took it very seriously, and while I was back at school completing my senior year at CCS, they had it scaled-up, verbatim, as a full-size foam-and-fiberglass design model-and used it as a major influence in creating the look of Cadillac's 'Art & Science' design philosophy. That design got me a job with GM-right back in Cadillac." And while he's no longer at GM-he was there from '98 to '05-some of his ideas from the Barcelona live on: "There's still abstracted elements of that design in Cadillac's newest stuff-things like the strong diagonal spline line, Euro-centric wheel flares, and the 'up and over,' L-shaped vertical headlights and taillights. The Vizon Concept that I designed in 2001 inherited a lot of those details."
Torpey joined Kia in 2005. His first assignment was the development of the Soul, which appeared as a concept at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in '06: "I was sent to Korea to create that design after only five weeks with Kia, and given scant little time to do so. I think that's why the design came out so pure, actually, and probably why it translates so well into the production version." The 2010 Soul is being released in '09. They followed up at the '09 NAIAS with the Soul'ster, an open-air concept. Torpey says: "It seems to validate that the Soul has tremendous additional potential. I'm just really curious and intrigued to see where it goes next."
The influences on Torpey are varied. "For design," he says, "it would definitely be Syd Mead. His approach to pure, elegant shape and timeless simplicity is unparalleled, I think. But I never met or worked with that guy, so he's not so much a true mentor influence." As direct influences: "I would have to split the honor between Preston Bruning and Milt Antonick, two well-storied design veterans who I interned for. Between them, they each designed one of two things that probably influenced me most as a kid getting excited about design: 'Pres' Bruning designed the majority of GM's World of Motion Futuristic Design Experience at Disney's EPCOT Center, which I saw as a kid [it was one of the original EPCOT pavilions; it closed in 1996], and Milt Antonick, who as a hotshot 'young gun' and subsequent Chrysler Studio Chief in the 1960s and 1970s, personally penned or directed all 3 generations of the Plymouth Barracuda, my absolute favorite muscle car since age 9."
It isn't just the design chops of these two men that influence Torpey: "Seeing such great talent, coupled with a humble work ethic and unbridled passion/enthusiasm, even late in their careers, was incredibly inspiring. I feel tremendously privileged to have had a chance to work with both of these guys, know them, and learn from them. For sure though-getting the chance to personally thank each of these guys for what they had created was perhaps the greatest thing."

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