Norman Kerchuk hunched over his drafting table and drew the finishing touches on a pair of contoured seats for a cocoon-like automobile interior. The sketch bore little resemblance to the inside of any car on the road today. It wasn't supposed to.
Kerchuk, a transportation design major at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, was working on concepts for the interior of General Motors' Corvette for the year 2000. At the request of GM, students in the advanced course had been assigned to come up with the ideas as a final class project.
As the summer semester drew to a close, Kerchuk and his fellow students scrambled to meet deadlines on their projects and labored over portfolios to show to auto company recruiters scouring the campus for young prospects.
"This is a terrible time right now," said Kerchuk, a graduating senior from Pasadena. "It's not uncommon to stay awake for two days."
For Kerchuk and the other transportation design students, the hard work will probably pay off. About half of the 400 to 500 car designers in the United States and a significant number of those working abroad are Art Center alumni, school officials said.
Although its 70 transportation design majors make up only a small part of its 1,200-member student body, Art Center has earned a worldwide reputation for producing top-notch talent.
"I don't think there's anybody quite equal to Art Center," said Tony Assenza, associate editor of Motor Trend magazine. "Just strictly on the basis of where their grads have gone, they are clearly the leaders in their field."
Whether a car rolls off the assembly line in Detroit, Europe or Japan, chances are an Art Center-trained designer had something to do with the way it looks, industry and school officials said.
Ford Motor Co.'s adaptation of the aerodynamic look that made its debut with the Thunderbird in 1983 was spearheaded by Jack Telnack, Ford's chief design executive for North American design and a 1958 Art Center graduate.
"We think we've establish aero (design) leadership, and Telnack got us there," Ford spokesman Paul Preuss said.
The sleek Audi 5000 sedan, which industry observers say launched the current aerodynamic styling trend, was created by a team that included J. Mays, a highly touted 1980 Art Center graduate who now works for an independent firm in Germany.
At the Honda research center in Torrance, a group of designers directed by Charles Allen massaged Doug Halbert's 1980 sketch into what is now the popular Honda Civic three-door hatchback. Both men came from Art Center.
And in the late 1950s, Toyota Motors sent its former chief designer, Masao Morimoto, to study at Art Center. Morimoto, who retired in 1973, said his studies helped shape Toyota's future. At Art Center he learned the concept of team design and returned to Japan to supervise creation of the Toyota Crown, the company's first big success in the American market in the mid-1960s.
"Before that time, design work (in Japan) belonged to one person," Morimoto said in an interview during a recent visit to the campus. "I learned how to manage a group. It was very valuable experience. Toyota originated its own designs independently, but we wanted exposure to outside ideas. That's why I came here."
Morimoto was the first foreign designer to attend Art Center, but not the last. To accommodate foreign auto makers and to cement ties for future graduates with the industry, the school has since set up a one-year program for professional designers from abroad. Last semester, designers from Citroen and Nissan were enrolled.
Citroen sent Erick De Pauw to Art Center to get more artistic training. De Pauw, 32, has a degree in mechanical engineering and had spent nearly eight years designing car interiors before his arrival.
Kaluaki Yamanishi, a 32-year-old Nissan employee who worked on car exteriors for the Z series sports cars for seven years, said he went to Art Center to learn more about interior design.
All of which makes the competition that much stiffer for students with no professional experience. But those students say they welcome the challenge.
"It brings up the level of the class," said Felix Pabros, a 25-year-old senior. "It's like playing against a better tennis player."
Love of the automobile, students say, is their main motivation for choosing their careers. "I'm just a car buff," Kerchuk said. "I always worked on them. I always had an appreciation for them."
Despite its peaceful setting in the San Raphael Hills and its creative focus, Art Center's approach to education is anything but laid back. The school operates three trimesters a year. Students may attend school year-round and can graduate in less than three years, but the normal course takes four years to complete. It carries a sticker price of $2,895 a trimester.
Founded in 1930