Style California Dreamin’

journalism

TIME: Architecture & Design – September 23, 1991

Style California Dreamin’

Ideas for the world’s autos now come from design studios clustered around (where else?) trendsetting L.A.

Cliches may be cliches, but they are usually also true. The great nuggets of conventional wisdom about Southern California — the easy embrace of novelty, an approach to creative endeavors largely unencumbered by tradition, a profound attachment to cars — are not only apt; they have converged to form an extraordinary new center for automobile design.

Most cars are still dreamed up in Detroit and Turin, Wolfsburg and Tokyo. But virtually all the world’s major automobile companies — 18 to date — have established design departments within an hour or two of downtown Los Angeles. The Japanese were first. Then came special think tanks run by America’s Big Three. So far, an estimated two dozen production-model cars have been shaped by the new California design colony, including, of course, the delicious, almost perfect, and instantly successful Miata, designed by four young Americans (and a Japanese) working for Mazda in Orange County. Now the influx has accelerated, and even the Germans have deigned to establish Southern California design studios — Mercedes last year, Audi last spring and, just last month, BMW.

 Pleasant weather is only part of the attraction. There is a collective sense that to design for Americans requires understanding them viscerally, and a belief that Los Angeles is not just the wellspring of car culture but as close to Ur-America as any one place gets. More prosaically, Southern California represents the biggest automobile showroom anywhere: every year 3% of all new cars on the planet are registered in California, and most of those in Southern California. If you’re to succeed in the U.S., you must sell in Southern California. And to do that, observes Peter Fischer, a marketing vice president at Volkswagen, “you have to see, feel, smell what these customers want.” Says Mark Jordan, who was Mazda’s chief designer on the Miata: “If you can excite the people in California, the rest of the country will take care of itself.” The world’s car companies have been drawn to L.A. by the same giddy promise — a fresh start, anything goes — that has always pulled in immigrants. Detroit has been creating cars its own way for 75 years. In Europe and Japan the conventional wisdoms can be confining, even stultifying. “We selected a place like San Diego for our design studio,” says Gerald Hirshberg, Nissan’s chief U.S. designer, “because it had no track record, no history. It feels like almost anything is possible out here.”

 But the rationale is not simply the need to meet the demands of the American car market or harness the spirit of innovation. From the homogeneous vantage points of Japan and Germany, the exuberant free thinking seems to be a function of L.A.’s slam-bang Anglo-Afro-Latino-Asian ethnic mix — cultural democracy by default. “The Southern California area is like a melting pot — there are so many different races,” says Mitsubishi vice president Satoru Tsujimoto. “From those different backgrounds, there are many different values. So there are many different designs.” For companies acutely conscious of their need to sell cars all over the world to people of wildly disparate sensibilities and experiences, California seems like an unsurpassed multicultural proving ground.

 The intellectual epicenter of this design cluster, which runs from Ventura down to San Diego, is the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Among car designers, no institution is more highly regarded. The Art Center exists in cozy symbiosis with the industry: working designers, such as Geza Loczi, who heads Volvo’s studio in Camarillo, train students like Michael Ma, 26, a Vietnamese refugee who graduated this August and went directly to work for the Mercedes studio in Irvine. Ten of the 18 Southern California auto-design studios are run by Art Center alumni, and their staffs are dominated by fellow graduates, including Mazda’s Mark Jordan.

 The studios are small, usually consisting of 10 to 20 designers, most of them American (10 of 13 at Mazda, all 20 at Mitsubishi). Because their headquarters are thousands of miles away, the designers stationed in California exist in splendid — and creatively productive — isolation, relatively free from the kill-joy scrutiny of bean counters, marketing drones and engineers. “After a year in the U.S.,” says Gerhard Steinle, chief of the Mercedes studio, “I see how important it is to be away from the factory.”

 The California design shops do seem blessedly free of the factory-like organization that prevails in Detroit and elsewhere. Designer Alberto Palma, 27, interned at General Motors in Detroit before coming to work for Toyota in Newport Beach. He found the GM experience “kind of stuffy. Everyone was divided into units for different aspects of design. Here we can sit down and talk about a project from ground up.” Jack Stavana, Mazda’s director of product planning and research who masterminded the marketing of the Miata, agrees. “Frankly,” says Stavana, who worked for Chrysler for five years, “I needed to get out of Detroit, because there weren’t fresh ideas there. We start with a fresh sheet of paper.”

 It is the Japanese companies that seem to take their Californians most seriously. Of the two dozen or so cars that have been largely or entirely designed in California over the past 15 years, most have been Japanese, notably the Miata, Honda’s sporty CRX and Toyota’s Celica. Mercedes, which set up shop only last October, plans to have a California prototype by the end of next year. The other Europeans are proceeding more timidly. The sort of California innovations Audi expects in the near term, for instance, are tilt- down steering wheels and dashboard coffee-cup holders.

 The American automakers opened their studios in 1983 and 1984, and Chrysler’s brand new LH model — an intriguing would-be car with the wheels 10 in. farther back than standard to create more legroom and a stabler ride — is mostly a California creative product. But, in general, Detroit has been typically cautious in handing design responsibilities to the Californians. Ford’s chief designer, Jack Telnack, allows that the recent Thunderbird and Escort models have only been “influenced” by notions from their people on the coast.

 The Miata, with its convertible top and intense colors, is the only product of the Los Angeles studios that exudes a distinct regional pizazz — the first truly postmodern automobile, both a reinterpretation of and an improvement upon nostalgically recalled classic sports cars. Yet despite all the drafting tables suddenly clustered together, the Miata does not signal the emergence of a canonical L.A. style.

 The Californians do seem inclined (or ordered) to develop cars of a certain general type — determinedly jaunty, self-consciously American. Having proved themselves unsurpassed at manufacturing and mass-marketing reliable, well- engineered cars, the Japanese seem to have descended on Los Angeles specifically to master the improbable art of creating cars that thrill. The most successful California designs have been tough-but-smart, fun-but- practical Middle American vehicles (Toyota’s Previa minivan, Nissan’s Pathfinder, Isuzu’s Trooper and Amigo) or else sports cars that temper the species’ inherent sexiness with a certain grownup decorousness (the Celica, the Miata).

 The most interesting, thoughtfully conceived new cars coming out of Southern California may, in the end, owe less to local free-spiritedness than to the simple wisdom of hiring a few talented people and allowing them to work, leaving their problem-solving sessions and reveries undisturbed by the anxious buzz of corporate headquarters.

Many of their fetching schemes — Toyota’s inflatable car; Izuzu’s moon-unit Expresso minivan; Michael Ma’s Tatanka, a sort of 21st century Beetle — will prove too impractical, too expensive, too weird. But the great achievement of the new California design colony is that such cars are being imagined and prototypes built. After decades of nothing but uninspired nips and tucks, of corporate blandness, of timid styling, automobile designers are being allowed to design again.