Alfonso Albaisa on Infiniti design

The Infiniti Q30 concept is an intriguing combination of coupé, hatch and crossover in a compact size. It’s been designed with Europe in mind and to help Nissan’s luxury arm establish itself amongst younger buyers who are predicted to make up 80% of global luxury sales by 2020. The confident design, with its sweeping roofline, reflects the marque’s unique approach to luxury cars. We caught up with Alfonso Albaisa, Infiniti global design director, at the 2013 Frankfurt Motor Show to find out more.

Infiniti Q30 conceptDesign Talks: What was your intention with this concept car?

Alfonso Albaisa: This segment is quite new for us. We have shown concept cars in the past but the Q30 is quite believable. We wanted to see how we can capture the Infiniti feeling with its seductive pose and raised feeling. The feeling of the car is supposed to be elevated. This isn’t supposed to be a crossover or hatchback – something in-between.

DT: Where was the car designed?

AA: Its origins of the car was in California, then it spent some time in Japan, and the full-size clay model was made in the Paddington design studio, and it was built in Italy.

DT: How do you express your Japanese heritage and remain a global brand?

AA. Infiniti is a global brand even though its roots are in Japan. We speak of performance, precision, passion and provocation – all international attributes. The poetry with the double arch of the grille, where the top arch is the real one and the lower one is a reflection in the water, or the crescent cut that represents the last stage of the moon before it goes dark, are very Japanese in their DNA. Yet the execution makes its different.

We have every nationality in our studios so the crescent cut became much more powerful, more solid; the double arch grille is higher with an F1-raised nose position, and the sculpture is quite Latin, seductive and passionate. The line of Japanese DNA is not a linear one, but the main thing it must be super seductive – this is our unique selling point.

DT: There have been some interesting changes within the company lately with the appointment of Johan de Nysschen, former CEO of Audi of America, Simon Cox as design director and yourself returning from Nissan in the US. What are your plans for Infiniti?

AA: We have nine projects on the go now. The whole portfolio is being renewed and Johan, our new CEO, has been able to inspire the temperament. The Q30 concept is real looking, we were careful not to make this a concept car. The future is more sculptural, a lot more provocative. There are some very good luxury cars, ours will be much more sensual, provocative and seductive. We need to create noise. We are not like the other ones. We need to be some kind of black sheep.

DT: How does your involvement with Formula One impact on your work?

AA: Formula One is the highest level of racing. The inspiration comes not just from the speed but the passion of those engineers making these cars. It makes you feel there are no limits and no end to perfecting performance. [Racing driver] Sebastian Vettel is now part of our company, is involved with the tuning. It is the oxygen that makes you run faster.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Read our previous interview with Alfonso Albaisa as he discusses the future of mobility and the zero-emission car.

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | | | Published by Banksthomas


Trends from the Frankfurt Motor Show

Frankfurt is Europe’s largest and most significant car show where we get to see new trends in design and technology, and gauge the future of mobility. This year, however, there really wasn’t a unified voice – instead car companies appear to be finding their own solutions.

The popularity of the compact luxury crossover type car remains as strong as ever with most premium marque’s offering their take on this. Jaguar’s C-X17 perhaps took centre stage for its excellent execution and maintaining the brand feel. Other highlights were the Infiniti Q30, fusing hatch, coupé and crossover styles to create a rather sensual sculpture.

Audi’s Sport Quattro coupé is also a welcome edition as it marks the return of the 80s icon. Plus it was great to finally see the production BMW i8, the second car to join the electric sub-brand, which maintains much of the concept car’s intriguing design for a distinctive BMW electric vernacular.

Read our full report on the 2013 Frankfurt Motor Show here.





Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | | | Published by Banksthomas

Design team discuss Infiniti Emerg-e

A month before the Geneva Motor Show a few of us were called to Park Royal Studios in West London for a preview of Infiniti’s latest design study. Emerg-e joins the 2009 Essence and 2011 Etherea – collectively they speak of the marque’s design direction.

To put all this into context Nissan’s luxury arm, which existed in the US as a premium brand, entered Europe in 2008 – the move prompting a much needed rethink of its design language.

The cars were introduced gradually to key European countries supported by identical showrooms, all carefully designed to resemble luxury boutique hotel lobbies (for more on this read our report on Infiniti).

Nissan group design director Shiro Nakamura called Infiniti at the time ‘the seductive alternative’. And it is with cars like Emerg-e that the marque aims to seduce buyers of established premium European brands.

The name Emerg-e refers to an emerging concept for sustainable mobility that merges the conventional combustion engine and the electric powertrain. This is a fully engineered prototype featuring a range-extender drivetrain mounted mid-ship, and in the flesh it certainly makes its presence known.

We caught up with the main trio in design Nakamura, Francois Bancon of advanced design and head of Nissan Design Europe Victor Nacif at the event. Here are some of the images from the day and the full report which was published in Car Design News.

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Infiniti: The seductive alternative

It is the era of ‘challenger brands’ – smaller companies that confront powerful firms by simply being individual, fun – almost irreverent. Opting for a strong narrative that portrays almost a human touch, they are gaining customer respect especially at a time when big brands equal big money, and the greed associated with the current economic slump.

Apple is one of the most successful challenger marques, its boss Steve Jobs famously claiming: ‘Why join the navy if you can be a pirate’. With innovative and timely products – iPod, iPhone and iPad – it has managed to muscle in neatly on PC’s market hegemony. But can this be applicable to the equally competitive world of cars?

Carlos Ghosn Renault-Nissan’s chief executive officer seems to think so, which explains has positioning of Nissan’s luxury arm Infiniti in Europe. ‘Infiniti is not about doing what everyone else is doing,’ he boasts. ‘It is not about copying traditional, conservative notions of luxury,’ he says concluding: ‘We will not try to be all things to all people, but everything to some people.’

Infiniti’s life to date has been a rather complex one. Although Japanese, it does not exist in Japan – its sole market being America where it has enjoyed relative success for the last 20 odd years. The products sold there have been rather dull and the expansion to Europe has prompted a rethink of the marque’s design language.

Arriving in Europe almost two years ago, the cars were introduced gradually to key European countries supported by identical showrooms, all carefully designed to resemble luxury boutique hotel lobbies. There are now 38 dealerships dotted across Europe.

A strong brand identity has been at the heart of the European launch. Nissan Group Design Director Shiro Nakamura who directed the Euro launch with immaculate precision from his Tokyo base – even the staff’s business cards were signed off by him – said at the time: ‘It is the seductive alternative’.

Italy and Spain were instantly seduced, but crucial markets like Germany and the UK have proved trickier partly for the lack of a favoured executive saloon model. The arrival of Infiniti M this year hopes to change all this. The idea is that M’s individuality will win over customers from heavyweights like BMW, Mercedes and Audi. Design is therefore one of its high selling points.  Based loosely on the evocative 2009 Essence concept car, the M is a strong representation of Infiniti’s new design direction, revealing a confidence lacking in its previous products.

Design has been inspired by nature – the exterior sculpture takes from the free flowing form of waves so evocative of Japanese prints. The visual movement continues inside with strong references to what Nakamura calls ‘old Japan’. The sweeping light stroke of the Japanese paintbrush has inspired the treatment of metal inside the driver and front passenger doors, the leather padding underneath references the elegant folds of the Kimono, and materials used on the Samurai sword have helped some of the colour and trim options.

There is a strong appreciation of the qualities of light, proportion and material in the cabin, and there is the luxury of stuff: soft leather seats, hand-buffed Japanese ash wood trim with powdered silver finish and a clever Forest Air climate control system that sends out a range of scents to alter the mood, wake up the senses and make for a more pleasant drive.

Crucially, the petrol and diesel models available now will be joined in 2011 by modern engine, a petrol-electric hybrid to satisfy an increasingly eco-conscious Europe. Product manager Gert Van Advondt also hints at a smaller electric car for 2013 that will use the next-generation Nissan-built ultra thin and powerful lithium-ion battery.

Jaguar, very much a challenger brand, has raised its profile immensely through wonderfully individualist cars like the XF, which like the M subtly challenges the rather conservative executive business car segment. To success, Infiniti, like Jaguar, needs to maintain the current spirit of individuality, and a confident narrative – in this case working with the concept of ‘old Japan’ – to set it apart from the more powerful and established marques.

M joins a Euro line-up that already includes the FX and EX sports utility vehicles, and the G saloon, coupé and convertible. Read our article on the initial launch of Infiniti in the UK published in Wallpaper* and on the new Infiniti M.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | | Bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

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Learning from manga

The former BMW design director Chris Bangle once told me he believes at times form needs to follow fantasy. ‘For the future of car design, function is the last refuge of the unimaginative,’ he concluded. The Japanese are masters of fantasy – reflected through their imaginative, virtual worlds of animation and comics, anime and manga. Bangle may have said this to ruffle the stiff collars of the automotive world, but can car design learn from this, and is it right to assume that with clean car design, it makes good sense to reference such a futuristic, fantasy world?

Felipe Roo Clefas seems to thinks it does. The Belgium designer, who works in London at Nissan Design Europe, has an almost visceral connection to the clean graphics, the intricately designed machinery and robots, and the narrative that makes anime almost believable.

When asked to lead the project team for the Terranaut concept, Roo Clefas almost gave the car a science fiction narrative. ‘The story is most important in anime and with this I created believable fantasy,’ he says. The 3D user interface in the car references the anime Ghost in the Shell. ‘I see more of this 3D interaction happening in the next five to six years,’ he adds.

François Bancon believes the young have a different sense of reality. ‘They interface with the world through the computer,’ says the general manager at Nissan and Infiniti’s Advanced Design studio in Japan. ‘They are no longer interested in products but in experiences.’

Bancon works with an international team in the Yokohama studio penning the next-generation of Nissan and Infiniti cars. He believes anime and manga’s stylised graphics and fascination with the virtual world is having a major impact on how the emerging generation of car designers are approaching the profession.

One of his team members Eunsun Yoo admits that depending on the given project, anime and manga have philosophically influenced her work. She recalls the Nissan Mixim scheme where its interior was conceptually rooted in computer games, and visually connected to anime and manga. ‘It was more of a philosophical than a physical influence. It was about having no boundaries between the real and the virtual world,’ says the Korean designer, adding that her generation – she is 29 – who were raised on computer games and Second Life see no margins between the virtual and the real worlds.

The Mixim cabin is blatantly futuristic and also influenced by Ghost in the Shell. ‘The Mixim like Ghost isn’t a utopian future, but a little bit dark,’ she explains. ‘This was a car aimed at a young future generation and therefore I worked on the idea of how to blur the boundaries. The centre-positioned driver seat is F1 and computer game inspired, as is the steering wheel, and the control panels.’

redefining beauty

Many of the new generation of car designers, especially those coming from Asia, have a different concept of beauty that isn’t necessarily rooted in classical proportions. ‘To them beauty isn’t just about looking like a Jaguar E-Type, but a sense of proportion multiplied by features,’ observes Victor Nacif who heads the multi-national Nissan design team in Europe. He admits that the fashion is predominantly led by Asian themes and Japanese designers who tend to have a different notion of beauty.

Kimberly Wu says she has always been inspired by traditional and contemporary illustration of anime and manga. A transport design graduate of the Art Centre College of Design in Pasadena, she now works at Honda’s California advanced design studio where they conceive future, mainly green cars.

‘To me, anime is an idealised fantasy version of reality,’ she explains. ‘With body parts pulled, stretched and exaggerated, these characters hardly resemble real men and women. Yet, one cannot deny a certain appeal in the doll-like figures. In some respect, car design follows in the same formula: we pull lines, stretch form and exaggerate wheels – all for the sake of a sexier proportion.’

Her former tutor Bumsuk Lim says that many younger car designers are exploring ways in which to translate the extreme emotional expression found in anime and manga to a real-world product like the car. Electric cars open the possibility to add expression to the front-end. With only minimum openings required to cool the engine, affectively you are left with a large blank canvas to project a new face for the car. This, and sophisticated lighting technology, creates endless possibilities for designers to create new expressions.

Lim agrees the connection between the two makes particular sense as we enter the second phase of the automobile. ‘This virtual reality world ties in with what car designers are doing with the green movement, creating their own fantasy world,’ he explains. With the mechanical part – as in the engine – no longer the sole fascination, the next generation of the automobile can affectively be any shape it chooses to be.

One of his students James Chung recently created a city car with a cute face visibly inspired by anime. ‘It proves that an electric car can be any shape. The concept of the automobile as a machine will change to the concept of automobile as a device. And a device can have any look,’ he says. ‘I tell my students this is the best time to be a designer.”

But is this all limited to Asian carmakers? On the whole yes but there are designers like Luc Donckerwolke who have always loved manga. ‘I came to car design from the cartoon world,’ says the Seat design director who previously headed Lamborghini design where he was responsible for such cars as the 2002 Murciélago, the 2004 Gallardo and helped pen the Miura show car.

Donckerwolke notes that the car to him is like a manga caricature in that you have to capture the essence of the person’s face with just three simple lines. ‘With my cars too when I close my eyes I want to have a clear architecture of how the eyebrows are, how the muscles are.’ Donckerwolke even leads a double life as a cartoonist. ‘I am a virtual chief designer in the comic and the real world,’ he muses.

According to Bancon this language has no national barriers anymore. ‘It may have originated from Japan but it’s now a global vocabulary.’

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

I originally wrote an article on a similar theme ‘Manga Cars’ for Esquire which appeared in the November 2010 edition.

Design Talks | 5 – 25 Scrutton Street | Old Street | Shoreditch | London | EC2A 4HJ?W | UK | | Bookshop | Published by Banksthomas

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