Ian Cartabiano’s California studio shapes a new generation of Toyotas

on Sep17

TOYOTA CITY, Japan — Notice anything different about the look of Toyotas these days?

Toyota sure hopes so.

From the drool-worthy FT-1 Concept to the funky C-HR compact crossover, and even the new “sexy” Camry sedan, the brand is looking much less ho-hum and way more oh-yum.

Part of that new vibe is coming from a star American designer who is pushing the brand’s styling to new limits under Akio Toyoda’s decree for “no more boring cars.”

Ian Cartabiano

    • Title: Studio chief designer at Toyota’s Calty Design Research Inc.

    • Age: 43

    • Nationality: American

    • Hometown: Torrance, Calif.

    • Education: ArtCenter College of Design, Pasadena, Calif.

    • Joined Toyota: September 1997

    • Family: Married, 1 daughter

    • Noted designs: 2018 C-HR, 2018 Camry, 2012 LF-LC Concept, 2017 Concept-I, 2013 Avalon

    • In his garage: Lexus RX; Toyota 86, C-HR, Camry; 2012 Ford Mustang Boss 302

    • Design hero: Raymond Loewy, creator of the Coke bottle

    • Dream car: Orange Lamborghini Countach LP400

    • Favorite vacation spot: Italy

    • Favorite food: Mexican

    • Hobbies: Hiking, painting, classic cars, playing guitar

    • Quote: “You will see a lot more strong and bold designs from Toyota and Lexus. The president of the company believes in design and in making bold statements.”

    • Quote: “I respect something that’s new but not perfect, rather than something that’s beautiful but nondescript. I’d rather be challenged than made comfortable. Polarizing is OK.”

Ian Cartabiano enjoys a good bowl of ramen and cruising backstreet boutiques in Tokyo. But it’s clearly his California flair that’s giving his U.S. studio outsized influence at Japan’s No. 1 carmaker at the moment.

He and his colleagues at the Calty design center in Newport Beach, Calif., are shaking things up.

The in-your-face C-HR and the curvaceous new Camry are two recent hits. So is the FT-4X Concept, a Tonka-truck trail hawk shown in New York last April. Watch for more handiwork soon when Toyota unveils, as early as this fall, an all-new Supra sports car as previewed by the sublime FT-1.

Cartabiano, 43, a laid-back, blue-eyed, bearded stylist who joined Toyota in 1997, had a hefty hand in all of them — as well as in the super svelte Lexus LC sports coupe. But the veteran designer credits the surge in emotional design to two factors: CEO Toyoda and new modularized platforms.

Car-crazy Toyoda unchained designers to break boundaries by demanding hotter-looking rides. And thanks to the Toyota New Global Architecture, a series of revamped vehicle underpinnings that allows Toyota’s cars to be lower, wider, leaner and ​ meaner, designers are free to deliver.

“The era of boring cars, of bland cars and anonymous design is over,” Cartabiano said at the Japanese carmaker’s global headquarters here. “It’s what Akio expects. When the president says something like that, it really allows designers to feel creative freedom.”

Impossible to miss

The clearest sign of changing times: Toyota’s sizzling show cars aren’t getting watered down. The production versions of the Toyota C-HR and Lexus LC are spitting images of their edgy concept cars.

The metamorphosis is getting noticed.

“It’s almost impossible to miss or ignore Toyota’s products anymore,” said John Manoogian, a professor of transportation design at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and a former General Motors designer. “It’s so difficult to get a large corporation to understand the importance of design as a strategic tool and a product differentiator. Apple understands this. Mr. Toyoda understands it as well and has unleashed Toyota’s designers to be as creative as possible.”

Toyota is also spending more time and money to make it happen.

Switching to the modularized architecture allows engineers to drive down costs by using a common parts bin for a wider array of nameplates. Executives had promised the savings would be channeled back into better vehicles with sexier designs and more cutting-edge technology. And corporate cost-control managers are making good on that pledge.

For the C-HR alone, the design budget was increased 25 percent, Cartabiano said.

“It’s brought down cost in some areas, which allows more cost to be spent on more expressive design,” he said of the modular architecture. “It’s something that wouldn’t happen in the old way of doing things.”

‘Crazy-ass shape’

Cartabiano glides his hand along the undulating curves of the C-HR’s rear quarter-panel, which boasts some of the deepest, most intricate stamping in the Toyota lineup. The wild fender flares slither from around the tailgate and under the taillamp before blending into a heavy door crease.

The deep draw of the stamping required delicate tooling and flawless production processes to make sure the sheen of reflected light seamlessly follows the creases from one panel to the next.

“That’s a crazy-ass shape,” Cartabiano said. “I think the side panel of the C-HR would look really cool hung on the wall as a piece of art.

“In the old days, people would have said, ‘That’s a lot of extra cost or that’s a lot of extra time. Let’s take the easy way out.’ “

But the C-HR gambit paved the way for more risks on the 2018 Camry.

Cartabiano on the C-HR: More money for “more expressive design.”

On the Camry, a key sticking point was the aerodynamics of the C-pillar. The pillar gets a twist in the middle to allow the rear window to curl around the sides of the car. That kink also is a demarcation for a color option with a blacked-out roof that gives the Camry sportier proportions akin to a rear-wheel-drive sedan. Designers at first assumed the flourish was a pipe dream.

“In the beginning, it was like, ‘Oh that would be cool, but they’ll never make anything like this,’ ” Cartabiano recalls. “But then, engineering’s getting excited and we’re figuring out ways to do it.”

Toyota splurged on design extras for the Camry. Aside from the blacked-out roof option, the XLE and XSE grades get different front bumpers, rear bumpers and rocker panels, as well as four wheel choices.

“We can make this kind of sculpture, but still make lots of product and keep our costs down,” Cartabiano said.

“The design budget was increased, and a lot of that was because of TNGA.”

Toyota boosted design spending on everything from the Camry’s boomerang taillamps to the door handles. The door handle took four months to design, said Cartabiano, who penned the initial 2-inch sketch of the new Camry in the margins of his calendar journal.

While other kids were collecting baseball cards and discussing stats, 10-year-old Ian Cartabiano was drawing pictures of cars annotated with key specs.

Polarizing is OK

Cartabiano comes from a long line of artsy DNA. His mother is a painter, his father an accomplished toy designer whose claim to fame is devising My Little Pony figurines for Hasbro.

But Cartabiano’s childhood was preoccupied with cars, not pink plastic horses.

While other kids collected baseball cards, Cartabiano made his own collectors’ cards — with hand-drawn pictures of his favorite automobiles on one side and their key specs on the other.

“My earliest memory is losing my prized Hot Wheels model,” he said. “It was a European police car.”

Now in his 21st year at Toyota, Cartabiano says this is the best time to be a designer at the company.

His personal philosophy exemplifies the new love-it-or-leave mantra of CEO Toyoda and his global design guru and chief branding officer, Tokuo Fukuichi.

“I respect something that’s new but not perfect, rather than something that’s beautiful but nondescript,” Cartabiano says. “I’d rather be challenged than made comfortable. Polarizing is OK.”

But for a mass-market brand such as Toyota, being too avant-garde can alienate a core customer base looking for reliable transportation, experts warn. The futuristic look of the latest generation Prius, with its angular front face, is sometimes cited as a reason for the hybrid’s lackluster volume.

“Many viewers find the new visual identity bordering on ‘too much, in your face,’ ” Manoogian said.

“While I believe in standing out and eschewing the bland and boring, they have to be careful in executing this new direction. The sales numbers will tell the true story.”

Cartabiano counters that Toyota’s design renaissance is starting to click with customers.

“In the olden days, when we had brand identity, we would just toss it with the next car. It frustrated a lot of us,” he said. “Now we’re not throwing out what’s good. We’re now evolving it.”

That commitment shines through, he says, in the latest generation of creations.

“Often, when you design something, you can see the compromise when you see it on the road,” he said. “But when I see these cars just driving around here, I don’t see compromise. I see purity.”

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