Designers craft GM's future

Tomorrow's cars are born at campus of 37 buildings in suburban Detroit

February 10, 2007|By McClatchy-Tribune

WARREN, Mich. -- On the floor inside a model of a future General Motors rear-wheel-drive car - perhaps the next Chevy Impala - a sculptor shaves away clay with a hand tool to create the shape of a dashboard.

As curling strips of mud-brown clay fall around her, it's obvious this is methodical, precise, old-fashioned work.

Nearby, inside GM's Virtual Reality studio, designers donned 3-D glasses and evaluated 300 to 400 sketches of the next-generation Chevy Aveo being projected onto three screens.

The images changed colors, rotated and were made smaller and larger as the designers talked, although some of them were in South Korea, where GM makes the Aveo.

As images seemingly float in the middle of the room, it's obvious this is futuristic, precise, high-tech work.

GM's Technical Center, conceived in the 1930s and opened in 1956, sits on a sprawling 680-acre campus 17 miles north of downtown Detroit. It holds 37 buildings full of scientists, engineers and designers.

This is where Alfred P. Sloan, GM's late chairman, and Harley Earl, the company's first design chief, decided to put thousands of employees when GM was at its mightiest.

The Design Center, once called the Styling Center, sits at the south end of a 22-acre, man-made lake. The silver design dome rises 65 feet. It's the signature building on the campus.

Edward T. Welburn, GM's vice president of global design, acknowledges past, present and future in an interview. "Every day when I go through the gate and I see the design dome, that's a special thing," he said.

Welburn, who joined GM in 1972, is unabashed in his praise of where he works. "I love the building and the work that's done there." He talks about "the responsibility that we have, not just to the company but to our profession, to continue that work and to create great design."

Critics' view

Critics are enthusiastic about the designs coming out of GM, from its current Corvette and future Camaro, to its Solstice and Sky roadsters, to concepts like the Holden Efijy and Chevy Volt.

"GM's cars definitely have been looking better lately," said Del Coates, a professor emeritus of industrial design and ergonomics at San Jose State University and former car designer who trained at the GM center.

A half-day spent inside the Design Center includes a walk on a slippery floor where foam blocks are milled by huge machines and turned into the bodies of car and truck models. Wood and metal shops craft parts so designers can see how they look and engineers can see how they fit. Seamstresses sew seats, while painters add color to clay or foam or wood.

Halls are wide and ventilated, so cars can move from studio to an outdoor display area to the design dome. You turn a corner and see star cars - Cadillac's stunning Sixteen concept from 2003, the jet-inspired 1951 LeSabre designed by Earl, the Corvette Sting Ray Racer designed by Bill Mitchell.

Terry Elliott, GM's creative interior designer, operates from a round, airy room. Today it's a bit disorganized, not surprising as this was where celebrities such as actor Christian Slater were fitted for designer clothes before the Hollywood-meets-Motown GM Style event that preceded the Detroit auto show.

A newspaper photograph showed a dozen pairs of shoes lined up beneath styling "frogs," plastic shapes designed to show off future car colors.

That's a perfect example of the intersection of Elliott's career. She was a textile designer in New York City for a dozen years, working with Liz Claiborne and others, before coming to Detroit.

A row of design boards shows some new interior colors for GM vehicles for 2010 - blues, warm grays and browns. Each shows varying textures and surfaces, with swatches of color.

Elliott looks to fashion for inspiration but must find "trends that are going to have more longevity," since it takes several years to get something into a new car, and then it stays there for several more years.

Just one day after the media previews of the North American International Auto Show, Tom Peters still feels the buzz. His Chevrolet Camaro convertible concept was one of the hits of the show.

Inside his rear-wheel-drive car studio, Peters and his team have produced the current Corvette and the Camaro that arrives in 2008, and they're working on future sedan models from Chevy, Buick and other brands.

His studio is large, and full of works in progress. Sketches and photographs fill every wall. The floor is populated with one-third scale models, simulated car interiors and full-size clay models.

Designers, sculptors, engineers and program managers all work for Peters. Perhaps a half-dozen projects are under way at a time.

"It's a very creative environment," said Peters, whose title is design director for premium rear-wheel-drive cars. And one that mixes technology, including hand-scanners that trace the surface of a car and render it on a computer, and the Old World skill of shaping clay models.

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