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Black auto designers set the standard for some of the most popular--and stylish--cars on the road

FEW CONSUMERS BUY A CAR OR LIGHT TRUCK BECAUSE they're enamored of the vehicle's double-wishbone suspension or the engine's torque. Purchases are generally driven by looks--alluring shapes and inviting interiors. Car manufacturers prosper by making people feel warm and fuzzy about several thousand pounds of steel, glass, and rubber sitting on a showroom floor; and styling plays an integral role in creating that appeal.

Determining what automobiles will look like is the job of an elite group of designers. In a business where it can cost billions of dollars to transform a car from an artistic concept into a product ready for the marketplace, innovative designers are an automaker's ace in the hole. A well-executed design (Chrysler PT Cruiser) can propel vehicle sales to record heights, but one that's widely panned by the public and the automotive press (Pontiac Aztec) can be the kiss of death. So it's easy to understand why one high-ranking car executive refers to designers as the "lifeblood" of the auto industry. Roughly 550 of these ultracompetitive folks practice their trade worldwide, says Clyde Foles, a professor of industrial design with the world-renowned College for Creative Studies in Detroit. Of those 550 designers, however, only a handful--maybe 25 to 30--are black.

Foles, who's taught industrial design at the College for Creative Studies for 21 years, notes: "Even though we get a small number of black students ... there is a higher level of consciousness of style."

But he admits that in order to attract more blacks to the world of industrial design, "there just has to be more communication to students in high school." Adds Foles, "I think they would find it to be a glamorous option."

BLACK ENTERPRISE tracked down six members of this elite group. They hail from the United States, Canada, and England, and range in age from 31 to 50. They work with Detroit's Big Three, as well as with top German and Japanese automakers.


Title: Senior exterior designer

Company: BMW

Latest Project: Designing full-size exterior proposals for future BMW models.

BMW designer Ivan Lampkin's career has followed a traditional trajectory. The son of a Swiss mother and a Guyanese father, Lampkin was a self-described "car freak" growing up in London.

Following high school, he studied car design at the Royal College of Art, located in the heart of London. After that, Lampkin set out for Turin, Italy, and the Pininfarina design house, best known for the sensuous car bodies it creates for Ferrari.

That led to a four-month Pininfarina internship that was "fascinating," Lampkin says. "I couldn't speak a word of Italian when I arrived. I learned rapidly, though."

After Pininfarina, Lampkin signed a contract to do design work with Audi for a year and a half, relocating from Italy to Munich, Germany, in 1991. When his contract with Audi expired, Lampkin went next door to the offices of BMW He was assigned to the interior design team and crafted the seats now used in the BMW 3-series. He's now a senior exterior designer in BMW's California studio.

Like all auto designers, Lampkin can't divulge what he's working on, but says it generally takes three to five months for BMW car sketches to become a full-size mock-up. Secrecy is paramount among those who determine the automotive shapes of the future.


Title: Director exterior/interior Studio 3 and Product Identity

Company: DaimlerChrysler

Latest Project: Currently working on interiors for the new Vi per and Jeep Liberty.

Auto designs are often shrouded in secrecy. But the cloak-and-dagger routine is old hat for DaimlerChrysler designer Ralph Gilles, who fashioned the interior of the new Jeep Liberty SUV.

Gilles had been sketching cars since he was 5, but had designs on a career as a doctor. However, a high school calculus course convinced him otherwise, and, to the delight of his parents, Gilles enrolled in a two-year college as an engineering major.

"Every time I was supposed to be listening to a lecture," Gilles recalls ruefully, "I'd be sketching cars." Deciding that car design was the best fit for his talents and inclinations, Gilles dropped out of school after one year.

Needless to say, his parents weren't thrilled. But an influential aunt remained firmly in Gilles' corner. She wrote a letter to then-Chrysler Corp. Chairman and CEO Lee lacocca, seeking advice on how her nephew could get into the field of car design. A Chrysler vice president responded, advising Gilles to contact the College for Creative Studies. He graduated from the school in 1992.

"Chrysler hired me before I had even gotten my graduation papers," says Gilles, who has helped create interiors for the Dodge Intrepid and the Chrysler 300M. He dreams of putting together a coffee-table book on auto design so he can generate funds for minority students to attend design colleges.


Title: Design manager

Company: Ford Motor Corp.

Latest Project: Currently working on designs for future Ford models.

Like the talents of most auto designers, Earl Lucas' talents surfaced early. The Dallas native was just 3 when he began to draw. But unlike most of his contemporaries, Lucas didn't devote the ink to just sketching automobiles. His passion was jewelry.

"The same design principles that are used to make [fine jewelry] are used to make cars." He wouldn't discover that until much later, when he attended the Center for Creative Studies College of Art and Design in Detroit (later renamed the College for Creative Studies). But the school's international reputation for auto design was lost on Lucas, who majored in crafts. After two years, he switched to industrial design.

Car design turned out to be "a little more competitive than I initially thought," Lucas recalls. "I stayed up many a night sketching, perfecting my technique. To this day, I still do that."

After graduating in 1994, Lucas interviewed at Ford and was turned down--twice. So he headed to the Lear Corp. in Southfield, Michigan, an automotive supplier that put him to work designing auto seats and door panels.

Three and a half years later, Lucas returned to Texas to join a firm that designed aircraft interiors. But the car business was "in my blood." So Lucas reapplied to Ford and was hired in 1999. The creativity Lucas has displayed in Ford's Dearborn, Michigan, design studio has found its way into the interiors of the 2001 Explorer and the last Z3 Escort.


Title: Lead product designer

Company: General Motors

Latest Project: Currently working on designs for future Saturn products.

At General Motors, interior elements of the latest Chevrolet Impala and the four-door Saturn were dreamed up in part by Crystal Windham.

A seven-year GM employee and Detroit native, Windham knows of only two other women of color working in her profession.

A late bloomer by designer standards, Windham never thought she had artistic talent until a 10th-grade teacher saw some fashion and hair-design sketches she'd drawn. She was directed toward the Center for Creative Studies, where an instructor introduced her to auto design.

"It was a challenge, so I went for it," says Windham, wino regularly visits Detroit-area public schools to introduce black girls to car design. "They need to see someone in that position and be able to ask questions. Young girls aren't exposed to the field early enough."

In addition to creating the freshest designs, Windham keeps close tabs on the work of top furniture designers, stoking her creativity.

"I try to put myself in the mind of the customer," Windham explains. "When I'm creating a vision, I keep in mind that there are engineering and manufacturing constraints to deal with, but I try to let my creativity flow."

The best car designers expose themselves to the many facets of art. "They're open-minded and have a willingness to look at artistic ideas, regardless of where they come from," she adds.


Title: Executive director of Corporate Brand Character Center

Company: General Motors

Latest Project: Currently conceptualizing and developing new vehicles for GM's North American brands.

The dean of black auto designers, General Motors' Ed Welburn followed a career path eerily similar to Gilles'. When Welburn was just 2 years old, his parents would ask him to draw pictures of cars for their amusement. A Howard University graduate who majored in product design and sculpture, Welburn was 11 when he wrote GM for advice on what courses a prospective auto designer should take. The human resources representative who answered his letter was still there when Wellburn was hired.

Now in his 29th year with GM, Welburn directs the automaker's Corporate Brand Center. A design team of 50 people work for Welburn, who's in charge of developing new concepts for GM, as well as creating the company's show cars.

Welburn has consistently sought to enlist more blacks in the business, and has served as a mentor to young black designers at GM. One designer who benefited from Welburn's tutelage is Dave Smith, 37, now the chief designer for GM's Saturn division.

"When you look at the marketplace and you look at how our customers are changing, it's important that we have a team that is sensitive to, and understands, our customers," says Welburn. "There's a certain texture, a certain flair, that black designers at GM have brought to their work," adds the Pennsylvania native.


Title: Digital designer

Company: Nissan

Latest Project: Exterior design for the 2005 Xterra

In the past, new car models were sculpted out of clay, but computers are radically changing the way new designs are crafted. The task is now being performed digitally, spawning the job title digital designer, which is Shon Jones' position at Nissan in Lajolla, California. Originally from suburban Detroit, Jones is the only black member of a design staff of about 50.

"This whole digital realm is still in its baby stages," said Jones. "Besides being able to build three-dimensional car models, I also do renderings and I do animation." After graduating from high school, Jones attended a three-year, GM-sponsored program that taught him how to make clay car models, as well as how to draft cars using pencil and paper and computers.

He worked for GM for 14 years and has assisted in the design of practically every vehicle GM currently has on the road. Feeling a desire to improve his career opportunities, he left to join the Lear Corp., where he designed automotive interiors. Jones then moved to Nissan in November 2000, turning down offers from Volvo, Jaguar, and GM in the process.

"I literally love what I do; I'd do it for free," says Jones.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
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Title Annotation:Black auto designers
Publication:Black Enterprise
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2001
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