Automotive design often exists with one end-goal in mind: functionality. It’s about whether or not that vehicle will get you from point A to point B—without endangering, obstructing or upsetting a driver and passengers. But transitioning from a sketch to a moving vehicle involves many steps and teams of mechanics and designers. “I’m always looking at art, wondering how an artist created that; what did they use? What techniques? How did they achieve that effect? Maybe that’s part of the car designer in me because car design is such a process-intensive endeavor,” Kevin Hunter, president of Toyota + Lexus‘ Calty Design Research studio, says. While walking through Art Basel last year, we spoke with him about art and how it influences him personally, his creative process and the design team at large.
How do you get inspired by art?
I like Pop Art because there’s a fun aspect about it. I think there should be a fun element in design that kind of pulls you in. That casualness, sometimes poking fun at things once in a while, is interesting. It’s kind of based on industrialization and pop culture—it’s a fun view of society and what’s going on in the world. I find that fascinating. I love Lichtenstein. I’m a big Robert Rauschenberg fan. There’s usually some kind of social messaging in there somewhere.
I appreciate art that has high craft and took some skill, precision, time and thought to generate. I appreciate those artists, especially, that put that kind of effort into their work. For me, all art isn’t great. It’s personal… but I tend to gravitate toward well-crafted precision art.
How you feel about art can be very emotional and personal and hard to judge, right? You either appreciate and admire something or you don’t. It connects with you in some way or it doesn’t. Would you say you can separately appreciate the texture or the craft or the materials and the use of those materials? There are a lot of ways to appreciate the components of art even if the final result isn’t something emotionally or visually pleasing to you.
I tend to try to dive into the process. I’m always looking at art wondering how an artist created that. What did they use? What techniques? How did they achieve that effect? Maybe that’s the car designer in me because car design is such a process-intensive endeavor. You really have to think through it carefully, deeply, to get a good result. I’m always trying to reverse engineer art and understand how they did it. It’s interesting to me.
Like anybody else, I think a piece has to draw you in graphically, through color or patterns. Then, beyond that, I’m trying to look at the depth of what they did. Maybe the level of difficulty of what they did. It appeals more to me when there is some layering of processes involved to get to that result.
So much of the art we are drawn to is laborious to create. Process-oriented work reveals a layer of patience so few of us can identify with—or monotony, which all of us can identify with in some way.
I don’t have that level of patience to the degree that some of these artists put into these pieces. It’s fascinating to me, the number of hours. It can be really tedious, but car design can get that way too—it can be laborious and tedious; working out design and engineering solutions. Getting into CAD development can be very tedious. There’s a lot of execution that you can relate to some of the struggles that artists went through.
There are some interesting parallels. When you have a design brief, you start sketching, people gravitate toward a certain direction, settle in on a sketch and the car is designed—in many ways—from that initial rough sketch. But to your point, it takes a long time to go through clay and 3D-modeling and all kinds of stuff to get it through the process.
Technology is, in my opinion, enabling us to get tighter on the execution end because we can collaborate more easily with data and technical information. It frees up a bit more time at the creative end, which sometimes gets pinched a little. It’s a very important part because you’re establishing direction at that point. Once it’s established there’s a heck of a lot of work to be done, and you can’t go back after that—there’s no turning around. We have to make sure we’re right about our direction.
If you’re not inspired, you’re not going to do good work
How do you balance working on a dozen projects that are somewhere between just starting out and being a couple years in? How do you keep the team focused and inspired—or better yet, how do you encourage exploration?
What a designer creates and what an artist creates is very personal to them. It’s based on their life experiences, their abilities, what they learned, what they didn’t learn and what they like. It’s really important for them to get themselves inspired. I don’t look at myself as being able to inspire what they’re going to do but maybe I can inspire them to go out and look at things and be free to explore and be comfortable exploring ideas. Because that’s the starting point—that’s the root of it all.
If you’re not inspired, you’re not going to do good work. That can be the hardest part: encouraging them to get out and look at the world, but to do it through your own lens; don’t do it through my lens, or anybody else’s, that’s a personal matter that you have to understand and appreciate and have a passion for because only then will it be good.
I always think we’re not going to find our inspiration from looking at other cars. So, go out in the world and look at other things. That’s where we’re going to find fresh ideas for our work.