Campus & Community

Driven by design

6 min read

J Mays brings the romance of the road back to auto design

J Mays points to his watch, designed by his sometimes partner, Marc Newson, an industrial designer who worked with Mays on the 1999 Ford 021C concept car. (Staff photo by Rose Lincoln)

Asked to choose three words to describe his work, J Mays listed the following: “lust, longing, desire.”

Is Mays a writer of romance novels? No, a car designer.

Mays is vice president of design for Ford Motor Co., which means he has a hand in almost every design decision affecting all brands under the Ford umbrella – Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, Mazda, Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover, and Aston Martin.

He is also the winner of the Excellence in Design Award, given annually by the Graduate School of Design (GSD). Mays was at Harvard Feb. 20 to accept the award and to speak about his work. An exhibition of his designs, “AUTOeMOTIVE,” which features two full-scale concept cars, is on display in the Gund Hall Gallery through April 7.

As Vance Packard showed in his 1957 book “The Hidden Persuaders,” car designers arouse our desire for their products by playing on our secret passions and fantasies. But Mays isn’t hidden. He’s out there.

“I wanted to learn where people’s emotional hot buttons could be pushed,” he said.

Mays was speaking of his evolution as a designer, which began in Germany with Audi and BMW. It was there that he learned his trade after graduating from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. But he felt stymied by German car manufacturers’ obsession with functionality and engineering at the expense of emotional appeal.

The softer side of German carmakers began to find expression in 1989, Mays said, the year the Berlin Wall fell and the two Germanys were reunited. That was the year he returned to California to work as chief designer for Volkswagen of America’s Design Center in Simi Valley. In that position, he was responsible for the design and branding of the new Beetle.

“When I came to California, I realized that what people were missing was the Beetle,” he said.

He based the car’s design on the circle because of that shape’s emotional connotations.

“Nothing is more simple to understand than a circle. It embodies a soft, childlike quality, which I think explains people’s almost motherly reaction to the car. It’s also something that did not escape Walt Disney when he created Mickey Mouse. In fact, if you turn the Beetle on end it almost looks like Mickey Mouse.”

Mays’ 2002 redesign of the Ford Thunderbird was based on a similar approach except that the Thunderbird “has a slightly more romantic quality than the Beetle.”

What Mays means by romantic is the ability of the design to conjure up nostalgic memories of bygone automotive bliss. The new Thunderbird alludes to the old two-seater of the 1950s with details like the egg-crate grill and porthole windows, but there are deliberate “gaps” between the old and new designs that the owner can imaginatively fill in himself.

Mays described the design as “very reductive, with clean, unadorned surfaces, no clutter or smog of details that would get in the way of the story.”

Romantic nostalgia even dictates the choice of colors. Mays calls them “Easter egg colors” and compares them to the hues of a “washed-out Super-8 home movie.” Their function is to add to the car’s softness and lightheartedness, “the antithesis of a German design where everything would be black and chrome.”

What is surprising about Mays’ philosophy, at least to someone who has never paid much attention to the world of auto design, is how early on in the process this effort to capture the customer’s lusts and longings begins. Those who imagine that cars are designed by white-coated engineering types taking notes in wind tunnels and that the emotional appeal is concocted later by advertising firms would find Mays’ approach a revelation.

“I don’t separate design and marketing,” he said. “I think they’re exactly the same thing. I’m marketing when I’m designing.”

Mays, a movie buff who admires Steven Spielberg “for the unabashed way he goes after people’s emotions,” recognizes that many of the products whose design he oversees are utilitarian vehicles used for basic transportation, but it is clearly the “dream cars,” the cars that evoke a period or tell a story, that excite his imagination.

“We’re trying to create products that people desire rather than rationalize,” he said in an earlier interview. “I’m truly of the opinion that you buy a product because you’re prepared to spend part of your life with it and that’s just like your relationship with your spouse or your boy- or girlfriend. You buy for emotional reasons and then you rationalize your purchase to your friends.”

The exhibition, which was designed by assistant professor of architecture Joseph MacDonald and director of exhibitions and lectures Kim Shkapich, presents six of Mays’ dream cars. In addition to the Beetle and Thunderbird, they include the 1991 Audi Avus Quattro, finished in polished aluminum and capable of going from 0 to 60 in three seconds; the Ford 021C, a compact urban vehicle designed in collaboration with Marc Newson, better known for creating wristwatches, furniture, tableware, and other domestic items; the Forty-Nine, Mays’ redesign of the famous 1949 Ford coupe; and the Ford GT40, Mays’ redesign of the car that won the Le Mans competition in 1964.

Full-scale models of the 021C and the GT40 are on display. The GT40 sits on a stand designed by GSD students under the direction of MacDonald and assembled from 160 pieces of aluminum provided by the ALCAN Aluminum Corporation, which also helped to support the exhibition.

Also of note are computer terminals providing an interactive “bibliography” of Mays’ work, two plasma screens showing continuous mini films of the Mays oeuvre, and a series of color slides of the creation of the GT40 prototype displayed on the Lucite “Bullitt Light Vitrine,” also designed by GSD students and named for the 1968 Steve McQueen film that featured car chases through the streets of San Francisco.

Established in 1997, the Excellence in Design Award is a component of the GSD’s Design Arts Initiative, a program spearheaded by Chair Jorge Silvetti and the Department of Architecture to raise awareness of the creative processes that span all fields of design, including industrial, product, interior, fashion, graphic design, and the decorative arts. The initiative seeks to broaden the GSD’s involvement with disciplines that are not formally represented in the School’s three major departments: Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Urban Planning and Design.Staff photo by Rose Lincoln