Automotive ‘Damsels of Design’ Moving to Driver’s Seat
Impressive Leaps for Automotive Women and Female Car Designers
By Stuart Schwartzapfel
Harley Earl was the first automotive designer to hire women. But it wasn’t necessarily equality Earl sought back in 1950. If that were the case, General Motors probably wouldn’t have called them the “Damsels of Design.”
No, the legendary designer hired women because he felt they possessed unique insight and excellent attention to detail, talents he found immensely useful for designing interiors, suggesting colors and selecting fabrics.
All these years later, automotive design remains dominated by men, and the top ranks are still held by the likes of Walter de’Silva and J. Mays. But women are playing an increasingly important role even as the industry struggles to attract more young designers like Kimberly Wu at Honda, Kerrin Liang of Hyundai, Michelle Christensen at Acura and Christine Park of Cadillac.
GM recently honored the women of automotive design at the Museum of the City of New York, where Park and others discussed the role of women in auto design and why we don’t see more of them in studios. It’s a question design schools and automakers are asking with mounting urgency.
“This issue about why there are so few women is an omnipresent matter,” said Imre Molnar, dean of the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit. “The industry is changing slowly but significantly.”
It is an uphill fight for one simple reason, Molnar and others say. Far fewer women than men are into cars, so designing them holds less appeal. There is some validity to that. Of the 15 to 18 people who graduate from the center’s transportation-design program each year, only two or three are women. It’s the same at Art Center for Design in Pasadena, California, where one in 10 graduates is a woman.
Part of the problem is women too often believe they must be gearheads who live and breathe performance if they want to design cars.
The Acura ZDX was designed by Michelle Christensen. Photo: Honda
“Not many women know what’s involved,” said Park, whose work for GM includes the Chevrolet Orlando and the interior of the Cadillac XTS Platinum concept car. “It’s not all about mechanical things.
The misconception that you have to know the gear head stuff to design a car is the reason why many women tend not to go into car design.”
Those who do enter the field find work readily, as automakers tend to employ women at a higher rate than they graduate from the major design schools. Women make up about 30 percent of the global design staff for BMW, for instance, and 20 percent at GM. As vehicle design becomes more sophisticated, automakers are eager to bring more women into studios, because they often bring different influences and perspectives to the table. Park, for example, cites fashion designer Coco Chanel as a great influence.
“Her philosophy that luxury is not about vulgarity is something I take to heart when I design luxury vehicles,” Park said. “I think simplicity speaks to elegance.”
Simple economics is also driving the change, said Stewart Reed, transportation design chair at Art Center for Design. Women are an increasingly important market demographic, he said, and automakers must reflect, and cater to, their wants and needs.
“When you think about sensibilities for car design, most of the car-buying decisions have women serving a very important role,” he said. “This should be represented in the design studio.”
Until recently, women largely were relegated to the same jobs as GM’s damsels — selecting colors, choosing fabrics and designing interiors. Important tasks to be sure, but a tough way to make your name in a field where the pinnacle is designing exterior bodywork.
“It’s still a boys’ club,” Molnar said of the top tiers of auto design. “But I don’t want to overstate that, because it is changing.”
- Volvo took a page from Earl’s playbook when it commissioned a team of women to design the YCC (Your Concept Car), a concept created specifically for women.
- The interior of the BMW Z4 was designed by Nadya Arnaout and the exterior by Juliane Blasi (top photo).
- Park’s design for the Cadillac Converj concept was runner-up to the design ultimately seen at the Detroit auto show in 2009.
- Acura hired Michelle Christensen, its first female exterior designer, in 2005. She designed the sleek 2010 Acura ZDX crossover.
In the end, giving women high-profile jobs like that — and the leeway to do them well — is what will draw more of them into the business.
“Arguably the best way to do it is to create a culture internally where women can do very well and thrive and prosper,” Molnar said. “That way it would feed on itself, and more women would be attracted to it.”