Few consumers buy a car or light truck because they’re enamored of the vehicle’s double-wishbone suspension or the engine’s torque. Purchases are generally driven by looks–alluring shapes and inviting interiors. Car manufacturers prosper by making people feel warm and fuzzy about several thousand pounds of steel, glass, and rubber sitting on a showroom floor; and styling plays an integral role in creating that appeal.
Determining what automobiles will look like is the job of an elite group of designers. In a business where it can cost billions of dollars to transform a car from an artistic concept into a product ready for the marketplace, innovative designers are an automaker’s ace in the hole. A well-executed design (Chrysler PT Cruiser) can propel vehicle sales to record heights, but one that’s widely panned by the public and the automotive press (Pontiac Aztec) can be the kiss of death. So it’s easy to understand why one high-ranking car executive refers to designers as the “lifeblood” of the auto industry. Roughly 550 of these ultracompetitive folks practice their trade worldwide, says Clyde Foles, a professor of industrial design with the world-renowned College for Creative Studies in Detroit. Of those 550 designers, however, only a handful–maybe 25 to 30–are black.
Foles, who’s taught industrial design at the College for Creative Studies for 21 years, notes: “Even though we get a small number of black students…there is a higher level of consciousness of style.”
But he admits that in order to attract more blacks to the world of industrial design, “there just has to be more communication to students in high school.” Adds Foles, “I think they would find it to be a glamorous option.”
BLACK ENTERPRISE tracked down six members of this elite group. They hail from the United States, Canada, and England, and range in age from 31 to 50. They work with Detroit’s Big Three, as well as with top German and Japanese automakers.
IVAN LAMPKIN, 34
Title: Senior exterior designer
Latest Project: Designing full-size exterior proposals for future BMW models.
BMW designer Ivan Lampkin’s career has followed a traditional trajectory. The son of a Swiss mother and a Guyanese father, Lampkin was a self-described “car freak” growing up in London.
Following high school, he studied car design at the Royal College of Art, located in the heart of London. After that, Lampkin set out for Turin, Italy, and the Pininfarina design house, best known for the sensuous car bodies it creates for Ferrari.
That led to a four-month Pininfarina internship that was “fascinating,” Lampkin says. “I couldn’t speak a word of Italian when I arrived. I learned rapidly, though.”
After Pininfarina, Lampkin signed a contract to do design work with Audi for a year and a half, relocating from Italy to Munich, Germany, in 1991. When his contract with Audi expired, Lampkin went next door to the offices of BMW. He was assigned to the interior design team and crafted the seats now used in the BMW 3-series. He’s now a senior exterior designer in BMW’s California studio.
Like all auto designers,