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Wheels of Fortune : Pasadena's Art Center,the Automotive World's Leading Design School

August 30, 1987|CHERYL CROOKS | Cheryl Crooks writes frequently for Time magazine

HENRYJUSKEVICIUS WAS ALWAYS crazy about cars. When he was 10, he built a three-wheel vehicle powered by a lawn-mower engine. His weekends as a teen-ager were spent helping friends customize their cars. To Juskevicius, nothing could be grander than becoming a designer of cars.

His mother, trying to steer her 16-year-old son in the right direction, gave him "Wheels," Arthur Hailey's novel about the automobile industry. One passage in particular stuck in his mind: "The ranks of auto company designers were heavy with expatriate Californians whose route to Detroit . . . had been through the Art Center College of Design, Los Angeles." If Art Center was half as important to becoming an auto designer as Hailey suggested, then, Juskevicius thought, "that's the place to go." He wrote for information.

No other school of design has had such influence in the field of auto design during the past four decades as Art Center. Throughout the industry it is known as the No. 1 school for auto design. Auto companies look to it as a major supplier of imaginative, young talent. In fact, half of the designers working for Detroit's Big Three in 1984 were Art Center graduates. As Tom Gale, Chrysler's vice president of product design, says, "Art Center is very, very special in our mind."

Yet Art Center maintains a relatively low profile. There are those who live just down the street from its secluded, 176-acre Pasadena campus who don't even know it exists. First-time visitors, winding their way up the quiet, residential, two-lane road to the college, are likely to miss its entrance. The college's main facility is a single, striking, long rectangular structure spanning two hilltops. Diagonal steel struts support exterior walkways, giving the building a skeletal appearance. (Art Center leases additional classroom and studio space in Pasadena's Old Town neighborhood.) To the east and south, beyond the school's grassy sculpture garden, is a sweeping view of Pasadena cut up by freeways.

Art Center offers its 1,150 students 10 majors, but it is distinguished by its auto-design program. Those in charge, however, do not think of Art Center as mass-producing auto designers. "Our role is to identify those students who have the creative talent to be able to do those things beyond the normal scheme of reference, to be able to make that creative leap to do that that hasn't been done before," says Ronald C. Hill, Art Center's industrial-design chairman. "We provide a framework within a dense and compact curriculum to build their skills in communication and to nurture their creative skills." In other words, Art Center doesn't teach talent--it primes existing talent to be productive for the student and society. And that was Edward Adams' intention. "Tink" Adams, as his friends knew him, was a successful New York advertising designer and illustrator during the late 1920s. He had studied at Chicago's Art Institute and American Academy of Art. But his education, Adams believed, hadn't prepared him for a professional career. After moving to Los Angeles, Adams, in 1930, founded a school to bridge the gap between the academic and professional worlds.

At first, the school, then located in Los Angeles, offered courses primarily in commercial and fine art. The department of industrial design and the transportation-design major were added in 1946. The new program, headed by former General Motors' designer George Jergenson, was the only one of its kind in the country and put Art Center well ahead of other design schools. "For a long time," says Hill, "Art Center was about the only institution teaching auto design per se." Only within the last 20 years have programs at other schools, such as Detroit's Center for Creative Studies, come close to equaling that of Art Center's.

Art Center also differed from other design schools because Adams required its faculty to be working professionals: Those teaching transportation design at Art Center are either consultants, owners of their own design studios or staff designers with one of the major auto companies. It's a policy that has received high marks from the auto makers. "The school is only as good as its instructors," says Jack Telnack, chief design executive at Ford Motor Co. and an Art Center alum. "Being involved in the real world of design keeps them completely in tune so that they can direct students in a more meaningful way."

HARRY BRADLEY spent 17 years as a designer with General Motors. He now heads his own design studio, Bradley Automotive Design & Illustration in Palos Verdes, and works as a consultant with Japanese and European auto makers. On Thursdays, however, Bradley teaches Advanced Transportation Design for sixth- and seventh-term students at Art Center. (Eight terms are needed to graduate. The school operates three terms every 12 months so that students can complete their degrees in 32 months.)

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