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Auto designer shifts gears

Mazda's former design director takes on a new challenge at a San Francisco art college

November 27, 2002|John O'Dell | Times Staff Writer

Tom Matano, retired global advanced design director and chief designer for Mazda Motor Corp., couldn't sit still. A day after leaving Mazda on Aug. 31, he stepped into his new job as head of San Francisco-based Academy of Art College's growing industrial design school and its automotive design program.

Matano, 55, said he just didn't want to slip into retirement and fade away. "I've got a lot of ideas and knowledge about design up here," he said, pointing to his temple. "And I want to share it. Besides, being around young students keeps you interested."

A native of Tokyo, Matano (his Japanese surname is Tsutomu) took part in an engineering program at Seikei University but found little joy in what he once called the engineer's "cold and scientific" work.

So in late 1969 he hopped a freighter owned by his grandfather's company and came to the U.S., where in 1971 he enrolled at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.

After graduating from that school's transportation design program -- which claims to be the alma mater of nearly 70% of the professional automotive designers working in the U.S. and Europe today -- Matano joined General Motors Corp.'s design team, first for Oldsmobile and later for a GM subsidiary in Australia.

In 1983 he went to BMW in Germany to work on the redesign of the 3-Series, but left after a year. Munich, he said, was a beautiful city, "but too cold in the winter."

Matano returned to California in 1984 to run Mazda's Irvine-based North American Research and Design Center and began working with the team that was designing the Miata roadster, which resurrected interest in the open two-seat vehicle when it was introduced in the U.S. in 1989.

More recently, Matano oversaw or was part of the teams that designed various generations of the rotary-engine-powered RX-7, the Tribute crossover SUV, the 6 sedan and the upcoming RX-8 four-door sports car for Mazda, which is controlled by Ford Motor Co.

Matano said he was attracted to his new job in part because the Art Academy has an open-enrollment policy that makes the auto design program more collegial and less cutthroat than those at Art Center and Michigan's Center for Creative Studies.

At those schools, aspiring auto design students must compete for admission based on a faculty critique of their portfolios.

"My idea," said Matano, "is not to try to compete with the other schools, where everyone is constantly worried about being at the top of the class and getting a job with one of the big auto firms, but to provide these students with a better quality of basic design education."

After all, he said, "that's what they came here for, and it shouldn't make any difference whether they actually go into auto design or not."

The academy, founded in 1929, has buildings scattered around San Francisco and an enrollment of about 6,800 students in 10 programs.

The industrial design program Matano heads has 260 students, 70 in transportation and the others in product, toy and furniture design specialties, he said.

As for his own learning curve, Matano said that after being out of school for 25 years, "just trying to remember all the processes and the special language [of academics] has been tough. You forget all that very quickly when you leave school."

He'd also forgotten what being a student was like, but got a quick refresher when he reported to work and found that finding housing in San Francisco wasn't going to be a snap: "I had to live for five weeks in the dormitory." There was a back-to-school party in the room next to his the first night, he recalled, "and all night long I was awake with the people going up and down the stairs and the [stairwell] doors opening and closing."

Matano and his wife, Kako, decided to keep their main residence in Irvine. "I have five cars and you can't have a five-car garage in San Francisco," he said. But they bought a small condominium near the former Cadillac dealership on Van Ness Avenue that houses the academy's industrial design program.

He's still a bit of a Mazda loyalist and drives around San Francisco in his silver RX-7, but he tells students not to be concerned about brands as they are working on design projects. "That makes you tied into a design theme, and you should be wide open."

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John O'Dell writes about the automobile industry for Highway 1 and the Business section. E-mail: john.odell@latimes.com.

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