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More like vroom design

Looking for inspiration along Route 66, car designers take a turn toward home.

June 03, 2004|Steven Barrie-Anthony | Times Staff Writer

The vision arrived, as visions usually do, late at night.

Anke Mazzei unrolled her frog-green sleeping bag. Lying on the floor of the gutted silver Airstream parked in St. Louis, she saw its reflection on the roof. A mundane observation to most, perhaps, but not to the seven young car designers seeking a muse along Route 66. Inspired, they spent the next two weeks contemplating sunsets reflected against the trailers' aluminum siding.

Returning to work at Nissan Design America in La Jolla, team members were determined to replicate their cross-country experience, to puncture the boundaries between inside and outside, between driver and car. They started work on what became the Actic, a concept car with a reflective metallic interior and electronic ceiling panels that display programmable video images.

But car designing "can be so restrictive," says Jill Canales, a Nissan color designer. So, in the name of creativity and adventure, they decided to move beyond the Actic.

The mavericks struck out on another lark: designing for the home. In their first foray into the field, they came up with three prototypes -- the living cube, teabag lights and chess space -- that turned heads last month at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York and again last week when they debuted in La Jolla.

Despite a flurry of interest -- one woman offered $50,000 for the cube, others $1,000 per teabag light -- Nissan does not intend to open a new retail arm. "We just wanted to have fun and get inspired," says team leader Bryan Thompson.

This latest foray is one in a long line of innovative cross-pollination, of creative types trespassing into neighboring fields and creating things we love. Architect Michael Graves is known for his postmodernist buildings -- and for his teapots and toasters at Target. Frank Gehry designed the Guggenheim Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall and then a bottle and limited-edition case for new Wyborowa Single Estate Vodka. Architect Richard Meier developed a perfume container for Eurocos Cosmetics which, says the company, bears a resemblance to Meier's Museum of Modern Art in Barcelona.

"Most car design studios keep everybody so busy that the designers don't have time to do anything else," says Geoff Wardle, the acting chairman of transportation design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. But allowing designers the freedom to experiment in other arenas "increases the designers' vocabulary of design and interest," which inevitably leads to more innovation in car design, he says. At Nissan, designers are encouraged to have outside projects that are done on company time. "It gets them fundamentally energized, waking up with ideas in the middle of the night," explains Alfonso Albaisa, the company's design director.

Nissan designers have long frequented furniture stores and shows in search of innovative designs with crossover potential, Thompson says.

There is a natural confluence between car and furniture design. "Furniture is one area of design that, like automobiles, is not just about functionality and comfort," Wardle says. Both specialties hinge on conveying emotion, on "appealing to people's sense of making a statement about themselves."

Car designers who also design for the home are a rarity, say industry experts. Like Nissan Design America, Ford Motor Co.'s London-based Ingeni Studio encouraged its designers to work on prototypes from cellphones to football shoes to, yes, furniture. But Ford closed Ingeni in 2003, a little more than a year after it opened, to save money.

Thompson, Mazzei and designer Dominique Marzolf created a "relaxation cube" that makes the environment part of the design. The living cube is an 8-foot-by-8-foot indoor-outdoor resting place "or music room or thinking room," Marzolf says. Elements from its surroundings are embedded into laminate walls. For the prototype -- which will be housed in the lush, grassy Nissan Design America compound -- the designers embedded grass into the walls. The floor is sod. The ceiling dome light is a goldfish bowl, with goldfish in it. (The original fish are still alive and kicking.)

Walls are covered in felt. Inhabitants lounge on the ergonomic horizontal seat built into a wall, listen to music from the iPod connected to speakers or watch movies projected on the wall. At night, the pod glows pleasantly. Lying inside, if you gaze past the fish, you can begin to see the sky. Their other designs have equally serendipitous beginnings. Mazzei was sitting on a plane fiddling with her teabag when the concept for teabag lights hit her: a 2-foot-by-1-foot uncolored silicon "teabag" with a low-energy lightbulb inside. The lights attach to a step-switch that looks like an oversized teabag label.

Finally, the chess space: "Designers are always playing chess," Mazzei explains. So they layered felt to form seats, placed felt over a red plexiglass table and cut squares to form a chessboard.

The designs are "all about environment," she says, and indeed each looks at home in the Nissan compound.

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