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DESIGN

New cars, classic mood

Designs by J Mays, showcased at MOCA, combine his vision with an emotional tug he feels from the classics.

November 17, 2002|Susan Freudenheim | Times Staff Writer

Las Vegas — J Mays is driving a brand new red convertible Thunderbird with the top down. It's a beautiful day, the traffic on the Strip is unusually light, and he's smiling, snug in the bucket seat, knees just above the bottom of the steering wheel, one hand steering, the other resting on the bright red gearshift. Short cropped hair, Brioni suit, black mock-turtleneck. Very cool.

A young woman pulls up beside him, rolls down her window and asks how much the car sells for. Automatically, clearly used to such questions, he tells her, "$35,000 list," and when she says, "Good-looking car," he smiles and quite genuinely responds, "Well, thank you." For no apparent reason, as he speaks she looks sharply at him and asks, "Did you design it?" Mays tips his head slightly, clearly taken aback by the question in this anonymous setting, and responds, "Yes, I did."

How did she know? Was she for real? Las Vegas, with all its false facades, layered realities and incongruous juxtapositions, seems the perfect setting for such a Memorex moment. And Mays, vice president for global design at Ford Motor Co., who's in town briefly for a show of specialty automotive equipment, has become best known for re-designing such classics as the T-Bird. He may just be the perfect subject for such a question -- which really is not as simple as it sounds.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 20, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 12 inches; 448 words Type of Material: Correction
Chevrolet Caprice -- An article in Sunday's Calendar section about Ford Motor Co. design director J Mays included a quote from Mays referring to a 1963 Caprice owned by his family when he was a child. In fact, Chevrolet, the manufacturer of the Caprice, did not produce that car until 1965. Mays misspoke -- his family's car at the time was a Chevrolet Impala.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 24, 2002 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 63 words Type of Material: Correction
Chevrolet Caprice -- An article in last Sunday's Calendar about Ford Motor Co. design director J Mays included a quote from Mays referring to a 1963 Caprice owned by his family when he was a child. In fact, Chevrolet, the manufacturer of the Caprice, did not produce that car until 1965. Mays misspoke -- his family's car at the time was a Chevrolet Impala.

Yes, he did design it. And, well, no, he didn't.

Mays is the hands-on director of the design team that created the new Thunderbird, which is based on the 1950s and '60s Thunderbirds but isn't really the same at all. It's updated, refined, spiffier and very 2000s, as authentic a new car as the Venetian Hotel (which he's just passed) is an authentic new hotel, and as different from an original T-Bird as the Venetian is from Venice. Which is what life appears to be all about these days. The new is about the old, looking forward means looking back -- from the techno-reissues of classic pop singles to the appropriations of artists like Sherry Levine, who has photographed other photographers' work, or Kenny Scharf, who has incorporated familiar cartoon figures in his paintings, to the feel-good comeback of hippie fashion. Still, it takes a visionary to make the new into more than the old in a way that is just right for today.

"Retrofuturism: The Car Design of J Mays" opens today at the Geffen Contemporary at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art. Organized by Brooke Hodge, MOCA's architecture and design curator, this is, she says, the first museum exhibition to be devoted to the work of a single American car designer. The question of how automotive design fits into a larger cultural context seems particularly relevant at a museum like MOCA, which in one of its first shows, in 1984, presented "Automobile and Culture," an examination of the overlap between cars and art.

Likewise, Mays, who sees the world as a palette for his designs, is comfortable skipping from discussions of Las Vegas to art, movies, rap music and fashion, despite the fact that he sees his own work as fundamentally linked to the classical geometry of Modernism.

Exploratory gestures

Mays' philosophy is that every good design elicits an emotional response. Much like a movie, he says, a car takes your imagination to places you haven't been for a while, or have never been. "You don't actually lay the entire story out," he says, "but you put just enough clues in the design of the vehicle that the customer can connect the rest of the dots in their mind."

At 48, Mays seems both wise and unimpressed with himself, comfortable making grand statements and yet not ready to give up his involvement in the minutiae of creating new products. Both very urban and also decidedly rooted in middle America, he was born and raised in Maysville, Okla., a town just south of Oklahoma City that's named for his family and that, at the time of his childhood, had a population of 800. The single-initial (no period) first name, he laughs, is not an affectation, but the result of unimaginative naming practices in his family. "Like J.R. Ewing," he says.

After studying journalism at the University of Oklahoma, Mays skipped out to Pasadena's Art Center College of Design to study car design. It was the late 1970s, and he quickly stood out for his conservatism. "He was more focused than everyone else," remembers Richard Pietruska, an instructor in the transportation department. "He was pretty clean-cut and was more interested in designing an aerodynamic look, when the other students were interested in radical styling."

Upon graduating in 1980, Mays moved to Germany to work for Audi AG, where he designed the Avus Quattro concept vehicle, a sleek sports car that eventually evolved into the Audi TT. He broke into the big time, however, when he returned to the United States for Volkswagen and, in collaboration with Freeman Thomas, developed the prototype for the new Beetle, revealed in 1994 as Concept One.

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