—— Can you tell us what Calty is and what your mission is?
Calty is Toyota Motor Corporation’s (TMC) southern California (Newport Beach) automotive design studio. We were established back in 1973, which was a rather bold move at that time because none of the other companies were here. To me that is what Calty is all about ̶ staying one step ahead of the game in design and thinking. That kind of risk taking, forward thinking and leadership tends to show up in our designs and California’s car-culture is a vital part of that process. That was the thinking behind the creation of Calty - to bring Toyota closer to American tastes and sensibilities. It’s even reflected in our name Calty, which is derived from California and Toyota.
Certainly one of our goals was to get closer to the American market, where our products would be sold. We wanted to study American lifestyles, what people here aspire to and what they need and want from their vehicles. California provides the ideal environment to accomplish this since it is a hotbed of car-culture, where cars transcend transportation and have become a way of life. Add to this California’s diversity of cultures, lifestyles, values, and ideas... when you expose designers to all of this the possibilities are endless. It really lends itself to innovative ideas and new ways of thinking and that is critical to Calty’s ability to provide Toyota with the kind of input that keeps us ahead of the curve in design. A lot of our work really revolves around advanced concepts or show-car concepts trying to find the next trend and trying to predict future buying habits. This kind of thinking has been reflected in our production designs from the very first Calty-designed vehicle, the 1978 Celica, and more recent vehicles like the Matrix, RAV4, and our FJ Cruiser Concept. We’re always striving to keep Toyota at the forefront of design.
—— How closely do you work with Japan or are you mostly autonomous?
It really depends on the type of project. There are three categories of work we do at Calty. One is research, in which we develop show-car concepts that attempt to look ahead to future design trends and lifestyles. In that capacity, we work independently of TMC in Japan, and we propose our own ideas.
Another category is advanced-design. What we do here is to look at the next generation of a particular vehicle and make recommendations for changes to portions of the vehicle’s architecture. In this category we usually work with the chief engineer in Japan to find out what’s going on his mind and we provide input and feedback regarding the latest trends, tastes and what we think will appeal to American car buyers.
Our third category of work is competition design, which is the process of designing a new vehicle for production, and that is assigned from Japan. TMC solicits concepts from all of the Toyota design studios in the U.S., Japan, and Europe, including Calty and we all compete to have our design chosen for production. If we have one design selected per year, we consider ourselves to be doing quite well and that generally is what we shoot for. These competitions can be very demanding and stressful in that we have to earn everything we get, but they’re also incredibly gratifying when it’s your design that gets selected.
Lastly, we also have our own in-studio competitions. Designers are divided into teams of two to five, and then each group submits their design. Some sketch their concepts while others rely entirely on computer graphics, but each team must presents something. Then upon selecting a winner, the competition phase ends and we all work together to further refine the prevailing design.
—— When your designs are adopted is it all or nothing or are features taken from various designs?
That’s a good question. Sometimes we don’t get everything we wanted and sometimes our designs from the past have influenced production cars. It’s not that you would look at our initial idea and look at the production car and see a literal translation but on some level we’ve influenced their manner of thinking and quite possibly changed the direction of a particular design. On occasion we get the whole thing right and just about everything is directly adopted, but other times it’s more of an influence statement. Even when a car makes it to production it may very well influence the thinking, not just within our company, but throughout the industry such as the Previa minivan. It had a unique platform and design features that made it successful from a design standpoint and its “one box” profile made it stand apart and its influence can be seen in the design of numerous other minivans.
—— How is Calty different than some of Toyota’s other design studios in Japan or Europe?
Well to some extent we are the same in that we all compete for design work. So in that sense we are not that much different from other Toyota studios, but we are different in terms of our point of view and what we present. Being in California our point of view or “take” on a vehicle will necessarily be different and maybe be a little bit more skewed to U.S. tastes. Still we’ve had success in designing cars for use beyond the U.S. market and for certain global Toyota products such as the current RAV4. That was a Calty-design that has been successful in Europe, Japan and the U.S. It can be a challenge designing for other markets though and it always forces us to widen our perspective and think globally, since a particular vehicle may be marketed in many different regions. Another example would be the Calty-designed Prius, the gas-electric hybrid vehicle, which was introduced in Japan in 1997, but didn’t come to the U.S. until later. Other times we can concentrate on more of a pure American taste with some products such as the Camry or Avalon.
—— In terms of the Toyota design philosophy, is there something that makes a Toyota
Well we all understand Toyota’s well earned reputation for quality and from a design standpoint I think it translates into our designs. Toyota generally develops their surfaces in a very sophisticated manner, in a way that they always look refined and highly tuned. We’ll never release a vehicle with a raw or unfinished look, unlike some designs you’ll see on the street. Often times I’ll see some cars on the road and they don’t look like they were quite finished. They should have gone through another round to refine their shape and consequently they have some visual problems from certain angles. Toyota’s always exude a very solid sense of sophistication in their surface development. Beyond that, for us at Calty we are always trying to propose some innovative new way of looking at surface. We think what the customers really crave is the feeling that they are getting something new when they buy a car ...something beyond what they had... a new era of design. We feel customers spend a lot of money on these products and they deserve to feel they’re driving something special.
—— What are some of the products designed by Calty that we might be familiar with?
The list is fairly long, but one of our most recent successes has been the new Corolla Matrix which came out last year and really appeals to young people. As I mentioned before, the 2001 RAV4 was designed at Calty and we really took it in a new direction. We’re also quite proud of the Lexus SC400 or Soarer in Japan, which we did over 10 years ago, but which we think is still a beautiful coupe. Another favorite and one of the mainstays of our truck line-up is the Tacoma pickup, which we infused with more of an American flavor. The popularity and longevity of that design has been fairly remarkable.
—— Where does Calty find the people that help you to create these leading-edge designs?
We find most of our people through the design departments of universities, in particular those programs that specialize in transportation design. We’re always on the look-out for new talent and our two key sources for the most part have tended to be the Art Center College of Design right here in Pasadena, CA and the College for Creative Studies, in Detroit, which is the program that I attended. In addition to these we routinely have various people forwarded to us from Japan, so we always have an interesting mix of talent.
—— When did you get the bug and know you wanted to be a designer and do you still take an active part in designing?
I probably didn’t really know it until I was a teenager. I always liked drawing and was geared toward creating art and working with my hands so transportation design offered me the perfect chance to blend my artistic and technical interests. It’s really reflective of my personality too... I’m not really a pure artist or engineer so it’s a great balance for me.
As for designing... my role now has changed and isn’t so much as a hands-on designer anymore. Now my main focus is to guide and evaluate and try to keep everything in perspective. It’s my job to have the big picture of what we want to accomplish firmly in mind and to communicate that to everyone else involved and to make sure the process and designs keep coming along.
—— Lately there has been a retro-trend in styling, from VW, Ford and even Toyota, what do you think are some of the reasons we’re seeing this?
I think for some companies it is a really good idea. It gives us a chance to draw upon the history and draw upon some of our past designs that have become icons. Some of these designs have been symbols of past glories and people have responded to them in a big way, so I feel they are still relevant today. They have had a big impact, are popular, and to me it’s a smart move to bring some of those cars into the future, modernize them, and draw upon their familiarity. For customers it enables them to finally get the car they’ve always wanted, but maybe never could afford when they were a kid.
—— Is there anything on the horizon that we should be on the lookout for from Toyota
Our goal at Calty is to continue to propose show car concepts, the advanced concepts that hopefully we can display. Our intent with those is to be experimental and try to gauge the public’s response to an idea and that in turn may give Toyota the confidence to proceed in its development. A good example of this would be our new FJ Cruiser Concept that we just showed at the Detroit International Auto Show. We simply felt there was a demand for a product that had a more pure, more honest, more tool-like function and appearance from an SUV. That was our inspiration for the FJ Cruiser and so far the response has been great.
(05-01-2003 issue, Interviewed by Terry Nicholas)