Nissan design boss ushers in high-tech era, honors past

Nissan design boss ushers in high-tech era, honors past

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ATSUGI, Japan — New global design chief Alfonso Albaisa says it’s go time for big styling changes at Nissan and Infiniti. And a glance around his Zen-like office hints at what’s in store.

His expansive, black wraparound desk is as austere as a Buddhist temple, save two telling details: a pair of intricately folded origami beetles and a set of futuristic virtual reality goggles.

Both items perfectly encapsulate Albaisa’s obsession with Nissan Motor Co.’s Japanese roots and his plunge into the technology-driven design world of tomorrow.

The automaker’s first non-Japanese styling chief is promising a radical remake following the retirement last March of Shiro Nakamura, the guru who ran design for almost two decades.

“Our responsibility is to take all the things that we learned and now go,” Albaisa, 53, said during a tour of Nissan’s global design center here south of Tokyo.

“We’re moving into a new generation,” he said.

Top priorities for the Cuban-American executive are:

  • Rooting the brands in their Japanese heritage.
  • Updating design to reflect new technologies.
  • Modernizing the way designers work, slashing development times by means of virtual reality and artificial intelligence.

But before Nissan can tackle the future, it must understand the past, Albaisa said.

In November, he opened the Archive Gallery at the Atsugi design center. The inviting lounge space with track lighting, black paneling and woody warmth venerates a history from 1914, when Nissan’s precursor company produced its first car, the DAT.

On display are memorabilia, photos and scale models of some of the company’s most iconic nameplates, from the Silvia and Z sports coupes to the Murano and Infiniti FX crossovers.

The 600 designers and stylists working here consider it a sanctuary of sorts, where they can take a break from dreaming about the future to soak up inspiration from the past.

“I find that with my Japanese teammates, there is not a sense of history for the very early days,” Albaisa said. “I want everyone to understand all of our history.”

Albaisa, a Nissan lifer who joined the company in the U.S. in 1988, says he has a special duty as a rare non-Japanese design chief to safeguard that Japanese DNA.

“It’s partly a bit reflected in the fact that I am not Japanese,” he said. “I want people to understand that I’m a fanatic about Nissan and Japan. And I want that expressed in our work.”

The lion-maned, black-clad Pratt Institute graduate peppers his speech with Japanese metaphysical tidbits. Words such as utsuroi — the Buddhist concept of impermanence; iki — simple and refined sophistication; and wabi sabi — a less-is-more beauty seen in imperfection.

And if there were still any lingering doubts about his source of inspiration, an immaculately manicured real-life Japanese rock garden greets visitors from the corner of his personal office.

Virtual reality goggles allow him to digitally edit designs and share his tweaks with the team. credit: HANS GREIMEL

Going digital

But it is the goggles on his desk that get Albaisa really animated.

Whipping them to his forehead, he grabs an electronic pointer and dives into a digital dreamland to peruse a concept model being developed by Nissan’s California design studio.

On a giant screen next to his desk, he conducts a walkaround in a virtual facsimile of the studio’s back patio. It allows him to see the vehicle from any angle, zoom in close, poke his head inside to view the interior and then digitally edit the look and share his tweaks with the team.

It’s one of a handful of virtual reality sets being used at the studio. But Albaisa wants more.

“I want to have this in my office all the time. It’s the best,” Albaisa said of the hardware.

Tapping virtual reality to share designs earlier can slash a monthslong development process to a matter of weeks, freeing more time to get styling just right, he said.

Albaisa also sees great potential in using artificial intelligence to invigorate creativity.

He explains how it works: Take a computer and program it with the entire history of wheel design. Next, input the data of every wheel Nissan has produced. Then, enter the engineering criteria for the new wheel you want to make and sprinkle in some background on trends. For kicks, maybe throw in a wild card, such as the terms “Eiffel Tower” or “flower,” he says.

“The computer will think about it and then will make something,” he said. Nissan’s studio doesn’t have this technology yet, but it is working with Japanese universities to develop it.

“How we work is going to change,” Albaisa said. “Now, we’re really getting into VR and AI.”

On display at the Archive Gallery are memorabilia, photos and scale models of some of Nissan’s most iconic vehicles.

New shapes

Nissan also is updating its design process to focus more on what it calls user experience and user interface, or how drivers and passengers interact with the vehicles. This will open a new world of digital arts. Nissan used to hire predominantly from industrial design or fashion schools, but it now increasingly seeks graduates versed in filmmaking and software design. Those are the skills needed to keep humans emotionally invested in the digital cars of tomorrow, Albaisa said.

The rush of new technology soon will start translating into new looks for the company’s cars.

Electrification and autonomous driving will do away with cumbersome engines, driveshafts and steering columns, clearing the way for human-centered vehicle proportions.

Designs will begin showing bigger, more comfortable cabins with an emphasis on flexible layout and connectivity, Albaisa said. Albaisa hints that the new look will be visible in production cars as early as 2020.

Nissan’s IMx concept vehicle, shown at October’s Tokyo Motor Show, points the way. The all-electric crossover sports a flat floor and a steering wheel that folds away when the driver kicks back in autonomous driving mode. Minimalistic seats lend a mobile lounge feel to an interior opened up by the pushed-forward cabin and fastback rear.

“Our engineering brothers and sisters have cooked up some interesting stuff that is inviting new shape, a new way to express our designs, because our technology inside is going to be different,” the design chief said. “All of these are screaming, ‘Please make a new shape for me.’ ”

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