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Drive Culture Driven to car design: How the auto industry’s artists made it to the top

Mitja Borkert, Lamborghini's head of design.

AutomobiliLamborghini

Mitja Borkert has one of the best jobs in the entire automotive industry, maybe one of the best jobs in the world.

He is the head of Centro Stile, Lamborghini’s design centre. He draws supercars, and then they become real.

“I can’t draw people,” he confesses. The drawings on the table are all cars. “I’m not the best sketcher in the world, there are hundreds better. But, to be a designer is a package deal: personality, talent, taste, endurance to reach a goal, ideas. …”

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The stories of how Borkert and other leading automotive designers launched their careers are a useful reality check for anyone who has ever dreamed of making their own Homer Simpson mobile. This job requires an unusual kind of creative obsession.

Karim Habib, now an executive design director with Nissan, started out with BMW.

Tom Maloney/The Globe and Mail

Karim Habib, born in Lebanon in 1970, moved to Iran, France and Greece, before settling in Montreal in 1981. He studied mechanical engineering at McGill University before studying at the ArtCenter College of Design in Switzerland, finishing at the school’s campus in Pasadena, Calif. Hired by BMW straight out of school, he relocated to Munich in 1998 and became head of BMW’s design team in 2012. In the summer of 2017, he moved to Tokyo with his wife and two children to become an executive design director at Nissan, responsible for Infiniti, the premium-brand offshoot of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance.

Habib makes a freehand sketch of the company's new QX Inspiration electric SUV concept car ahead of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on Jan. 13, 2019.

JONATHAN ERNST/Reuters

“The sheet of paper is a lot emptier than it is at BMW,” Habib said in an interview back then. “That really allows us to be very creative.”

Habib attended the Detroit auto show earlier this month, where the fruition of an important project, the Infiniti QX Inspiration vehicle, received three awards – best concept vehicle; best interior; and innovative used of colour, graphics and materials – from EyesOn Design, a group of automotive designers. The QX Inspiration theoretically precedes an all-electric, all-wheel-drive SUV production vehicle, and introduces a new “design language” which, Habib said, fuses mid-century modern design with Japanese minimalism. ...

“The attention to detail is inspired by the craftsmen and women of Japan. As we look to the side, the execution of the muscular powerful surfaces and the taut lines flowing through the car showcases their artistry and passion.”

TONY DING/The Associated Press

Habib says Inifiniti's QX Inspiration concept 'fuses mid-century modern design with Japanese minimalism.'

INFINITI/Infiniti

Borkert grew up in East Germany. “When I was young, it was like North Korea, you know, basically behind the curtain,” he says. One year, on vacation with his older brother in Hungary he saw his first Western motorcycles: a Suzuki GSX-R and Kawasaki ZX-7R. “They were going like” – he makes a sound like a 750cc inline-four spinning at 11,000 rpm – “and this was it.” In that instant, he became a gearhead. He began cutting pictures of cars and motorcycles out of all the magazines he could get his hands on.

Yasutake Tsuchida, chief designer of the new Mazda3, had a similar eureka moment. His father worked at a Mazda dealership. “When I was in junior high school, my father came home driving a third-generation (1992-2002) Mazda RX-7, and I fell in love with it,” he says. From then on, he was drawing cars in his school notebooks. It’s a typical story for professional-car designers, Tsuchida says.

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“When I listen to my colleagues,” Borkert says, “all of them by age 11, 12, 14 had the passion to draw cars. For sure, it’s the same with fashion designers, industrial designers; you need to feel it in your stomach.”

Born in East Germany, Borkert studied at the Design University of Pforzheim after the Berlin Wall fell.

Matt Bubber

If it weren’t for the fall of the Berlin Wall, he doesn’t think he would’ve had the chance to study transportation design at the Design University of Pforzheim. Borkert realized how lucky he’d been. “From that moment on, I was unstoppable doing design.”

“If you’re a kid in Canada,” he said, “your next opportunity would be maybe Detroit [College for Creative Studies] or, the best place in America is Pasadena [the ArtCentre College of Design]. But it’s also quite expensive.”

Closer to home, Humber College, Carleton University and the University of Montreal all have industrial-design programs that could lead to careers in the automotive industry.

Entrance to the top transportation-design programs is highly competitive. Automakers recruit new designers through university internships, which is how Borkert got his start at Porsche.

A transportation-design degree hasn’t always been a necessary qualification though.

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Benoît Jacob left BMW to be the VP of design at Chinese electric-car startup Byton.

Benoît Jacob is one of the industry’s great visionaries. After creating the original BMW X6 – a car that spawned an entirely new niche – and the brand’s brilliant first electric car, the i3, Jacob left BMW to become VP of design at the Chinese electric-car startup Byton. His career began with no formal degree and a bundle of sketches. As he tells it, he walked into Renault, laid his work out and said, “I want to do car design.”

The company took a chance on him, which turned out to be a wise decision. At Renault, Jacob designed sedans and wagons, the cute Fiftie coupe concept and the now-classic Renault Sport Spider.

“At that time, that was probably the last call, when car design was still kind of exotic and teams were relatively small,” he says. “I think today if I walked in and showed stuff I would probably not get a job.”

When Borkert gets asked, “How can I learn to be a designer?” he tells them that’s the wrong question. “You have to feel that already inside of you. … If you have the talent for drawing, it’s one thing, but having the imagination for something new is another. I’d rather [hire] someone who can’t draw so well, but has ideas and visions.”

To date, Borkert’s credits include the Porsche Panamera Sport Turismo wagon, Macan SUV and electric Mission E concept. Since taking the top design job at Lamborghini in 2016, he has overseen the creation of the Urus SUV and Terzo Millennio concept that will define the brand’s next-generation hybrid supercars. Not bad for a kid with so-so grades who barely got into high school in East Germany.

For the record, he now has a very nice collection of Western motorcycles.

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