Lexus' Latest Concept Car Was Inspired By a Copper Pot

The president of Calty Design Research talks car design in the digital age.

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Courtesy of Lexus International.

When you grow up in Detroit, Michigan and have multiple family members who are engineers, a career in automobiles is fairly inevitable. Still, Kevin Hunter has found a way to meld the scientific and technical aspects of cars with his passion for the arts by spending 35 years working for Calty Design Research, Toyota Motor Corporation’s North American design studio. As president of Calty since 2007, Hunter oversees research, advanced design and production design. One of his most recent projects, the Lexus LF-1 Limitless Future Concept Vehicle, a rose gold-hued flagship luxury crossover, was on display earlier this month at Design Miami, which Lexus sponsored.

Created with the idea of "molten katana"—or the melding of soft-edged liquid metal with the sharpness of a Japanese sword—in mind, the LF-1 Concept is meant to transcend the, well, limits of automobile categories. It melds the practicality of a station wagon with the sexy athleticism of a sports car; it has the potential to run on gasoline, all-electric or as a hybrid, and, of course, it has a hands-free chauffeur driving mode.

We caught up with Hunter to chat about sixties pop art, the impact of digital design and the future of automobile interiors.

Who were some of your favorite artists growing up?

I love sixties pop art—still do—and I’m a big [Roy] Lichtenstein fan. And I love Robert Rauschenberg and the collaging of imagery together to not only create a beautiful graphic, but there’s some messaging there as well. Those artists fascinate me. I’m a bit of an [Andy] Warhol fan, too.

How would you say some of that pop art sensibility interacts with your practical design for cars?

What I love the most about it is the fun aspect of it. Some of it is just poking fun at things and it’s a look at the industrial world and social issues. All of that meshes with me, it’s a bit fun, it’s a bit casual, it’s a bit analytical. It appeals to my personality and what I look to get out of design. Sometimes design can be very serious, but I think it’s better when it communicates a more fun atmosphere. And graphically it’s just stunning. The exploration part of it, too, appeals: it was a new art form and they weren’t sure how everyone would respond. I really appreciate that pioneering spirit; it inspires me to think in terms of going further into unfamiliar territory and taking a chance.

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Kevin Hunter.
Courtesy of Lexus International.

What is the starting point of your design process when you’re creating a vehicle?

The point we always start at is what are our customers’ values? Who are we trying to appeal to? And we have to fully immerse ourselves in their lifestyle and understand what they’re about. That’s always the very first thing. From there we’ll develop a concept direction around that buyer’s values with key terms, words, and imagery that will set us in a direction to appeal to either the vehicle or customer type that we’re going after. We’ll spend months before we even start sketching anything. We’re just trying to frame the problem. We’re making a roadmap, basically, of where we want to go, figuring out what it’s going to look like, what it’s going to be as we’re moving along.

When you started in the industry, it was very analog and now it’s very digital. How do you maintain a sense of a human touch?

It’s really hard, actually, to continue the craft of being an artist because everything is digital. But one area I still look to is 3D. We still develop clay models. We use thermal clay that’s heated up and then as it cools you can sculpt it with hard tools. And if you see our models, you’ll think it looks like a real car sitting there, but it’s actually clay. So I like that aspect because it’s very physical and hands on and requires big movements. Of course, today we use milling techniques from data sometimes. But we still rely on artistry and our sculptors and designers working together to create the final form that’s a beautiful shape.

I imagine that also helps keep a sense of emotion in the final design.

That is the point of it. Expressiveness can sometimes get lost in the digital process so you have to be really careful that you don’t let technology lead too much. When you’re working physically it’s you and the paintbrush and the canvas. You are the boss of what you’re doing. But technology has a way of taking control sometimes if you’re not careful. That’s where I think as artists and designers can get a little complacent. We have to stay in command of our craft. I think it’s more of a mental, psychological issue than anything: to make sure you’re ahead of the technology.

You’ve been at Calty for 35 years: what are some of the biggest changes in what the customer wants in car interiors?

People want convenience. They want to stay connected to the world. When I was learning to drive, when you got into your car, you were isolated. It was just you and a radio. There’s something very contemplative about that, that you’re disconnected from things. In my world, I don’t mind being disconnected sometimes, but a lot of people feel the need to not feel isolated when they’re in their automobiles. So how managing that connection to the rest of the world in a safe way is the most difficult problem we’re trying to solve. It’s basically distracted driving. It’s a huge, huge matter that the auto industry needs to wrap their head around more, to solve that issue. Because when we have our phones, it’s easy to say, ‘Don’t text and drive.’ But people do it. So how do we make it safer so we can avoid these issues of staying connected to the rest of your life and while you’re driving?

Do you look to other mediums when you’re thinking car design? And see what kind of solutions they’ve come up with?

The copper tone of the interior and exterior of the LF1 Limitless was inspired by high end kitchenware. The designers were looking at premium home furnishings and noticed it was a trend. And we thought it had a very rich, deep expression and we were fascinated by the idea of the automotive industry pulling some of that thinking into cars. So that was very much inspired by high end cookware and kitchenware and even a kitchen design aesthetic.

A potential future with self-driving vehicles opens up a lot of possibilities for changes in the interiors of cars. Do you find yourself considering those possibilities?

If there’s any moment when we’re driving a car we have to have a steering wheel, so it probably doesn’t shift things a whole lot. But we are looking at ideas where the steering wheel might be going away: it’s there when you need it, it’s not there when you don’t. For example, if cars don’t crash, you don’t need to sit forward. So you can have more of a lounge environment, which we’ve explored. But as long as cars can crash and they need full-on safety systems and we’re still safest when we’re facing forward in a crash with restraints systems and airbag systems. But it’s a good question, about how to slowly migrate from driving to not driving. Maybe the answer is the steering wheel just tracks when you don’t need it. Then you have a whole relaxed environment, so you can read or talk or do work.

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