Southern California's hotbed of future auto designers

In a large studio room at the Art Center College of Design here, a transportation design student is standing next to his rendering of a futuristic-looking car. Gunnar Larsson, director of engineering at Saab-Scania, is critiquing the design.

''It's too aerodynamic,'' Mr. Larsson pronounces, pointing out that the design, as it stands, would make any engineer raise his eyebrows.

Robert Sinclair, president of Saab-Scania of America, concurs. ''He couldn't build it, and we couldn't sell it!'' he adds, producing smiles from everyone.

The visitors from Saab are viewing the results of an assignment given by the company to students here: design a Saab 5-seat car for the late 1980s. The project calls for four visits by Saab executives. By September, the students will have produced final designs through a process of individual work, followed by a pooling of efforts on the best preliminary plans.

Scenes like the one between Saab officials and students are played out in a variety of forms at the Art Center. They attest to one of the major commitments of the school: To give students contact with the ''real world'' of industry and large corporations as they plan designs - and then defend or adjust them in front of marketing officials and engineers.

Founded in 1930, the center has six departments: communications design, film, fine arts, illustration, industrial design, and photography. Graduates, 19 percent of whom come from overseas, will work everywhere - from small firms to large advertising or automobile companies.

The transportation design program is among the school's smallest, but it is also the one with which the school is most closely identified. In fact, school officials say it not only coexists amicably with southern California's car culture, but is in part responsible for creating it.

The claim is not far-fetched. More than half of all designers in Detroit graduated from Art Center. Alumni can be found among the designers of most major European car manufacturers, as well as in Japan and South America. Graduates, for example, include Ford's chief design executive, Jack Telnack; the head of design and design managers at Toyota, Honda, Volvo; and the chief designer in Porsche's advanced concept studio. Five chief designers at Nissan (Datsun) in Tokyo studied at Art Center.

Car design can be a risky venture, much like aiming at a moving target, according to Saab's Mr. Sinclair. But Art Center, nestled in the hills of Pasadena, is strategically situated in the middle of one of the world's most carefully watched automobile markets. Its design students have, therefore, not only the technique to anticipate and carry out future design requirements, but a familiarity with the vagaries of the consuming public.

Don Kubly, president of the school, points out that the designer's role has taken on increasing importance.

''He must be an integral part of auto design, not just a stylist, due to aerodynamics, lightweight materials, microcomputers, and ergonomics,'' he states.

California is clearly recognized as the weather vane for consumer auto tastes. Nissan and Toyota have long had design centers on the West Coast. And now American automakers are acknowledging the state's unceasing devotion to the car by hopping on the bandwagon. Chrysler, for instance, has just opened its center in Carlsbad, about 30 miles up the coast from San Diego. General Motors and Ford will follow shortly. Some European companies have increased market surveys in the state.

The new head of GM's design facility in California, Henry Haga, has said that Art Center and the California Institute of Technology were two main factors in choosing a location. And because of European interest in Art Center training, the school is exploring the development of a European campus for about 250 students.

One attraction of the college's training is that students receive hands-on, professional assignments, such as the one from Saab, before graduation. GM, for example, sponsored studies for a line of vehicles for the year 2000. Ford assigned a project for an earth-mover.

While projects are generally hypothetical, the students - who this year hail from such countries as Taiwan, Indonesia, and South Korea, among others - have a chance to learn the latest technical information from professionals. They also hear firsthand critiques of proposed solutions.

''I want to give the students enough design equipment to sustain careers,'' sums up Keith Teter, a former student at the college and now chairman of the industrial design department. Mr. Teter describes a transportation student's progression through foundation studies, model work, art, and engineering. Outside assignments are important, he notes, adding that the candor of the Saab officials' criticism and praise today pleased him.

''I think the students here are ready to enter as beginning professionals - with design training and the ability to step right in and do the job.''

Freeman Thomas, a senior student who will be taking a job with Porsche in the fall, says that overall the program is ''excellent.'' And Emeline King praises the ''similarity of the way we go through a product here to the outside process.''

Laura Blossfeld assesses the design training: ''Design is something you pick up on your own. ''But taking what's in your head and putting it on paper - they teach you that really well. You have to be careful that beautiful pictures don't overlook good design aspects.''

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