Larry Printz: Lexus looks to be at the forefront of cutting-edge car design

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Dec. 10, 2018

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — To walk the aisles of DesignMiami/, a global design forum for creators, curators, collectors and critics, is to be amazed.

Want to buy a new chair? How about one made of chain link or flat slabs of wood? If that’s not your choice, perhaps you’d prefer one made of foam and decorated in what could only be described as Technicolor bird droppings — not surprising given the artist is based in New York. Of course, you can’t sit on the chair you want to sit on, the one made of fluffy stuffed animals; its exhibitor won’t allow you. It’s just as well. The thought of crushing cute little fluffy critters is creepy.

Still, you have to wonder who buys this stuff. Then you look around.

There’s a smug disdain among the design-loving aficionados who attend the show, which opened to the public on Wednesday. The event occurs alongside another worldwide collector event, Art Basel in Miami Beach. Together, the shows attract many with a hipper-than-thou contempt for common consumer products. That’s ironic, considering that DesignMiami/ is supported by such luxury titans as Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Panerei and — surprise! — Lexus. Nevertheless, that corporate support ensures the event continuation as a symposium for confrontational design.

So it’s little surprise that Lexus is the event’s official automotive partner for the first time.

The marque is fielding cutting edge design that eschews the ersatz European aesthetic it followed for nearly 30 years. Lexus newfound design voice, as seen in the new LS sedan, LC coupe and LF-1 Limitless Concept crossover, features flowing knife-edged lines and large spindle grilles. It’s uniquely Japanese, not to mention very provocative to Western eyes. It can also be seen inside the vehicles as well, where door panels are trimmed with handmade pleats that resemble origami placed alongside Kiriko cut glass. Other interiors are accented with illuminated fiber-optic pinholes and other exotic thoughts that banish the notion that Japanese automakers can copy but cannot innovate.

And in this context, it proves that Lexus’s newest product designs fit comfortably alongside the show’s avant-garde pieces. But Lexus executives admit that getting here took time.

“First Lexus had to get confident with building premium cars. How do you deliver that,” said Kevin Hunter, president of Toyota Motor Corporation’s North American design studio, Calty Design Research. “Once you master that, then you can go off on your own and challenge your old direction.”

To reach that point, internal structural changes had to happen first, according to Yoshihiro Sawa, president of Lexus International. “Previously, the system was different, and we listened to too many people’s opinion. But now we decide in a small group; we don’t hear so much from the market. If we research too much like before, we lose our identity.”

To Sawa, who spent 20 years as a designer, limiting input is essential.

“We’re trying to create a new language, a new grammar. It’s not so easy to get to that goal. A car should have some sort of strong character or beauty. Too much discussion can spoil that kind of pure direction. Of course, we have discussions, but it’s what is the best solution. But the proportion or shape of the grille? Maybe we shouldn’t listen too much.”

The result can be seen on the streets, where Lexus’s newest models don’t mimic the careful conservatism of its European competitors.

“The Japanese sense of beauty is key to differentiate us from other OEM’s design,” Sawa said. “I think this is our original way of expressing our beauty. Comparing other OEM’s cars, their design is always the same. But ours, LS, LC, is a little bit different. People can tell it’s a Lexus, and every car has an individual character. That’s key.”

And Hunter understands that the inspiration can come from anywhere. “There’s no boundary we don’t look at when we’re trying to create,” he said. “A lot of it is what’s the mission of the product, but it’s also what’s the experience of the designers and what motivates them to create.”

For the LF-1 Limitless Concept, its sublime copper color sprung from a designer admiring the latest kitchenware trends.

“It’s all premium stuff,” Hunter noted, “and this may be kitchenware that consumers are using and it’s something that they can relate to as a premium product.”

Inside, such attention to detail is equally important.

“Using authentic materials is important. I think people still understand that as a craft,” Hunter said. “There’s something that took skill and craftsmanship to get that the way that it is versus something that’s composite or feels automated.”

Sawa agrees, saying that detail is the key to Lexus’ unique vision.

“We focus on the elaborate small details,” Sawa said. “Next to the very complicated detail is something very simple. That kind of contrast is our key viewpoint. I think this is our original way of expressing our beauty.”

It’s not unlike the contrast of one of the world’s largest automaker’s ability to produce vehicles that can now comfortably take their place at America’s premier design show without raising an eyebrow.

That’s something that couldn’t have been said just a few years ago.

Nevertheless, be thankful that Lexus seats aren’t made of chain link or Beanie Babies; some cutting-edge ideas are better left to collectors.