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Life After Art Center : For Many Graduates, Employment Is Just Down the Freeway, at One of : Southern California's New Design Studios

August 30, 1987|CHERYL CROOKS

ART CENTER ALUMNI are employed by virtually every major auto company in the world. The roster is lengthy and includes Henry Haga, director of General Motors' Advanced Concept Center; Jack Telnack, chief design executive at Ford; Richard Soderburg, head of Porsche's advanced concept studio; Jan Wilsgaard, Volvo designer; Chris Bangle, Fiat's advanced concept studio chief, and Charles Allen, with Honda Research of America.

Other Art Center graduates work in Southern California design studios. Richard Hutting came back to Southern California after a tour of duty in Detroit to open his Concepts Center California in Valencia and is now under contract with Ford. Tom Matano spent some time with General Motors in Detroit and Australia and BMW in West Germany before becoming chief designer for Mazda's design studio in Irvine.

It's no coincidence, say auto industry executives, that these design studios are located close to Art Center. "Certainly the ability to attract and recruit the very brightest people is one of the things we had in mind," says Chrysler's Tom Gale.

The Southern California design studios represent long overdue recognition, on the part of the auto industry giants, of this area's influence on auto design. After all, if California were a nation, it would rank seventh in car sales among the countries of the world. The California market is crucial to the major manufacturers. A company cannot make it big without selling cars here. "Even major companies like Mercedes-Benz or Fiat must succeed in California to succeed in their own country," says Harry Bradley, an independent designer and Art Center instructor.

Toyota was the first to put a design studio in Southern California. Its Newport Beach studio opened in 1973. Others soon followed. For the Japanese, their outposts here allowed them to tune in to the American market in order to make products more suited to the American life style and culture. "For a designer, you've got to be close to where the consumers are and where the trends are," explains Mazda's Tom Matano. "If you look at it in that context, Los Angeles is a pretty good place for us."

The domestic companies, which were having an increasingly difficult time moving their cars on the California market, were challenged by the inroads the Japanese had made into Southern California. "It became clear," says industry analyst John Hammond, "that they didn't understand this market as well as other areas of the country." And so they, too, began setting up design operations in Southern California.

Today, 11 auto companies, foreign and domestic, have studios here. Their charge: to capture what Ford's Telnack describes as "the California ingredient."

"Nobody can really seem to define it, but it's there," Telnack says. "I guess I'm almost treating California as another country. I think the cultural differences are significant enough to warrant a studio in California, and it has paid off for us." While the California studios of other major domestic companies are developing products to be built down the road (and, indeed, the cars created by Art Center students seldom look like anything on the road today; instead, they are road-hugging, aerodynamically styled, dome-shaped, space-age chariots shielded in black glass and high-tech armor), Telnack says consumers can expect to see the results of Ford's investment in Southern California in the "very near future." The contributions of Japan's California studios are already visible in Mazda's RX-7 sports car and B2000 trucks, Toyota's Celica line or Honda's Civic CRX. Not surprisingly, says Art Center's Bradley, "many Japanese cars of the last 15 years have been designed here in Los Angeles by Art Center graduates right out of school."

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