by Tony Whitney

(Photos of this event can be found at – ed.)

Automotive designers are an interesting group of people. They tend to be individualistic, highly creative and rather independent of the corporate systems in which they work. They can create products that become part of our history, like the original Ford Mustang or the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, although every now and again they make the headlines for styling “dogs” that are laughed at for generations.

Get a group of top designers from around the world together in one place and the sparks can really fly – and that’s exactly what the organizers of the Toronto auto show do every year with their Design Forum. The brainchild of the remarkably energetic Canadian International Auto Show public relations manager Beth Xenarios, the Design Forum is now in its fifth year and attracts more interest and attendance each time around.

This year, an audience of auto industry executives, design students and media were entertained by a stellar panel of designers. Participating were Ken Okuyama, design director of Italy’s Pininfarina; Anne Asensio, Advanced Vehicle Design Chief at General Motors; Stephane Schwartz, Design Director, Nissan Europe; Hans-Dieter Futschik, Director, Large Series Center, Mercedes-Benz; and Marek Reichman, Design Director for Interior Strategy, Product Design Process, Ford Motor Company. It’s typical of the international nature of the automobile industry that the panel included a Japanese working in Italy (Okuyama), a French woman working in the US (Asensio), a Swiss working in the UK (Schwartz) and an Englishman working in the US (Reichman). Only Mercedes’ Futschik actually works in the country of his birth.

Each designer gave a presentation on aspects of his or her work, and then joined together for an afternoon panel discussion under the witty and knowledgeable guidance of one of the most widely respected people in automotive journalism: Automobile Magazine editor Jean Jennings.

Ken Okuyama amused Forum delegates by telling them that when he first started at legendary 75-year-old Italian styling studio Pininfarina, he was told not to sign his work or attend client presentations – the notion being that customers wanted “Italian design from Italian designers.” Times have changed: Okuyama was closely involved with such recent projects as the Enzo supercar for Ferrari and is now very much at the forefront of activities at Pininfarina. Like other design studios with international clients, Pininfarina now draws from styling talent on a worldwide basis. “We want to attract people because they’re good, not because they’re Italian,” said Okuyama. He told the forum that today, Pininfarina employs more than 2,500 people and is not just a styling studio; among many diverse activities, it designs 80 per cent of the world’s retractable hardtops.

Anne Asensio is a major design force at General Motors and many believe her to be the most influential woman in the industry right now. Although she has a background with Renault in France, where she worked on Megane and Twingo models, she clearly enjoys the challenge of working with a huge corporation like GM. She emphasized that designers at GM had a lot of “brand character” to work with and the task of giving each brand its own identity was an exciting one. She pointed out that Chevrolet had a “fantastic heritage,” and that GM’s Hummer brand “reflected American values.” The future looks bright for GM, with the Pontiac Solstice sports car and Saturn Sky roadster on their way. Fuel cell vehicles were also presenting designers with all kinds of unique challenges.

Nissan Europe’s Stephane Schwartz works from the automaker’s London design operation and enjoys the mix of cultures that populate the locale where the office is sited. “It’s a complex, vibrant society and is very inspirational for a designer,” he said. The Swiss designer sees London, with its varied architecture, openness to modernity and “cool Britannia” role on the international scene as an ideal setting for a creative team. Nissan is a company that came very close to financial disaster not too many years back and many believe that it was a freer approach to design that turned things around. Today, Nissan and its upscale brand Infiniti are much admired in the industry for their styling originality.

Hans-Dieter Futschik is part of a very large team, the Mercedes-Benz technical centre, which employs more than 9,000 people. He told the audience that Mercedes operated design satellites in Los Angeles, Italy and Tokyo to tap the international pulse. The Italian operation is concerned only with interiors, but since excellence in this area is a key part of any modern luxury car, this design branch is critical to the company’s success. Mercedes-Benz employs designers from 20 countries, including Canada. Using images of Mercedes-Benz automobiles of years gone by, Futschik explained how stylists developed a “sedan face” and a “sports car face” over the decades, both distinctive, but unmistakably Mercedes. He spoke of Mercedes’ “traditional fundamental values,” but added that these values should not stand in the way of advanced approaches to design, as typified by the new CLS model – a sedan with the look of a coupe. “We’re especially proud of the tail of that car,” Futschik added.

Marek Reichman is one of a large number of senior people at Ford Motor Company who hails from the UK, but even so, he’s one of a team that is currently reviving the Lincoln and Mercury brands. The aim is to give the Lincoln “global appeal,” even though offshore markets are not high on the list of priorities. He stressed the importance of vehicle interiors in winning over buyers faced with many choices. It was all a matter of looks, feel, touch and even smell. Part of this emphasis on interiors is due to the fact that people are spending more time in their vehicles commuting to work. “The average commute in North America is now 25 minutes and it’s growing,” he said. He added that that fully 25 per cent of drivers were happy in their cars during the commute. Ford clearly aims to raise that figure with design work by Marek Reichman and his team. “It’s the exterior that gets people into the showroom,” Reichman concluded, “but it’s the interior that seals the deal.” He also pointed out that 80 per cent of automobiles now include features that were once considered luxuries.

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