Style Conscious: The Art Center College of Design at 70
by Chris Poole
Source: Collectible Automobile magazine, August 2000, courtesy of Forgotten Fiberglass
Subtitle: America’s premier design school remains the world’s most renowned, alma mater to more star auto designers than any other single institution. Here’s a look at the unique college where design is both art and science-and dreaming is always part of the curriculum.
It’s true what they say: Experience is usually the best teacher, and practice tends to make one proficient. For 70 years, there’s been no better place for would-be car designers to get healthy helpings of experience and practice than the Art Center College of Design (ACCD) in Pasadena, California.
There’s certainly no better school for an aspiring designer to have on a resume. It’s estimated that Art Center graduates account for at least 50 percent of all the designers who’ve ever worked in Detroit and there have been dozens more at companies from Audi to Volvo. Is it any wonder, then, that Art Center alumni have popped up so often in Collectible Automobile—personality profiles over the years?
In 1946, Art Center SchooI, as it was then named, moved from its or original First Street campus in downtown Los Angeles to this large, rather palatial-looking facility on Third Street to accommodate a burgeoning postwar student body. It would remain the School’s home until 1975.
Not that this is a mere vocational school where students doodle nothing but cars. The college currently offers bachelor’s and/or masters programs in 10 areas of study besides transportation design. These comprise advertising, art theory and criticism, film, fine art (painting), graphic design, environmental (interior) design, illustration, digital “new media,” photography, and product design. There’s also a special “track” in entertainment design (special effects and characters, theme parks, toys, games, etc.), no surprise for a school in the literal shadow of Hollywood.
Still, it’s the glamorous “Trans Design” program that continues to give Art Center much of its high public visibility and a formidable reputation that has automakers scrambling over each other to hire its graduates year after year. Of course, the graduates themselves have had much to do with that, and their achievements testify as much to the quality of their education as to their personal abilities and talent.
George Jergenson (left) was co-founder of the Industrial Design Department and its chairman through 1969. He was also an active instructor, as seen in this early-Fifties photo.
Delve into the styling background of most any postwar U.S. car-and quite a few foreign models too—and you’re likely to find an Art Center alumnus (or, increasingly, an alumna). Among those familiar to CA readers: the late Henry Haga of General Motors fame, class of ’53; Wayne Kady, a 1961 graduate and one-time design domo at Cadillac; Jack Telnack (CA, June 1998), the former head of Ford North American design, a 1958 alum; and former Volvo chief designer Jan Wilsgaard, class of ’66. Among the younger generation are Chris Bangle, current design chief at BMW in Munich; Wayne Cherry, now design vice president for GM; his Ford counterpart, J. Mays; Mazda executive design vice president Tom Matano, a major force behind the Miata; and Freeman Thomas, a onetime Mays colleague at VW/Audi who now heads advanced design for DaimlerChrysler. In addition, ACCD graduates are found in the wider motor industry at companies like Winnebago and American Sunroof. They also work at various general design firms, and are heavily represented in the advertising and entertainment fields.
But a long procession of illustrious alumni doesn’t fully explain Art Centers rise to become what Fortune magazine once termed “the most important autodesign school in the U.S.” There is, for one thing, the excellence of its teaching, long acknowledged by corporate employers and based on the two simple precepts mentioned at the start of this article. Perhaps more important, Art Center was, for many years, the only auto-design school in the U.S. Indeed, it was preparing students for careers in industrial and commercial design almost before the professions were born.
Design executives from major automakers remain frequest visitors to Art Center, critiquing studen projects, doing a bit of lecturing perhaps, and scouting out possible hires. GM design chief Bill Mitchell made the trip frequently over the years. Here he explains the fine points of surface development with the aid of a 1960 Buick. (No doubt he is explaining that GM prides itself on the fact that every square inch has to have an arbitrary surface change.)
It all started in the late Twenties with Edward A. ”Tink” Adams, a New York advertising art director who’d studied at Chicago’s prestigious School of the Art institute. Adams saw the growing importance of industrial and commercial design in a world increasingly dominated by technology, but he knew that a distinct gap existed between the demands of these embryonic professions and available academic programs. He also realized that most universities and secondary schools weren’t likely to provide such programs until the design disciplines were regarded as professions and demand for formal training was sufficiently strong.
Determined to close these gaps, Adams persuaded a group of friends and colleagues to help fund and set up a school taught by working design professionals. Thus was founded the Art Center School in 1930, with Adams as president and director, plus a handful of instructors working in their spare time out of several small studios on Seventh Street in downtown Los Angeles.
A Jetsons-like personal helicopter backdrops a mid-Sixties chat between (from left) Chuck Jordan, Jergenson, Mitchell, and Stother MacMinn.
With the outbreak of World War II, Art Center’s ability to train proficient technical illustrators attracted the attention of Southern California’s aircraft industry. The late Strother MacMinn (CA, June 1994), an ACCD faculty member for 50 years, was then working for the prestigious Henry Dreyfuss firm. As he told Collectible Automobile, companies like Lockheed and Douglas “were hiring [relatively) unskilled people . . . to read blueprints and put things together. That is pretty impossible. But if you can give them an ‘exploded’ view in a perspective, they can see how the assembly works and it’s much quicker. So that efficiency became an essential part of the war effort.”
Afterward, as MacMinn told us, “Adams contacted two graduates, George A. Jergenson and John D. Coleman, who were working in the Detroit area, [and) persuaded them to come back out to California and reconstruct the Industrial Design Department. They essentially built the curriculum schedule that exists today based on Adams’ idea of having one class that runs all day, like a professional experience. And then tile next day it’s another class. and so on.”
Basic illustration is part of the early semesters core curriculum for all Art Center students. The Third Street campus and a ’71 De Tomaso Pantera made absorbing subjects for this group. (Gosh, didn’t anybody bring a digital camera?)
In 1946, the school moved to more spacious quarters on Third Street to accommodate a raft of returning veterans intent on becoming designers. Enrollment swelled further in the prosperous Fifties, as industry demanded more and more designers to turn out a horde of new consumer products-cars included, of course. Yet, Art Center would remain relatively small. Even today, the full-lime student body numbers only some 1,300 (versus tens of thousands at larger state universities), though it’s an elite group representing the U.S. and no fewer than 37 foreign countries. (Most entering freshmen already have some college-Ievel experience, with 15 percent having earned a more general bachelor’s degree.)
One of Art Center’s most remarkable facets is long-lived leadership in the face of vast social and technological change. Adams didn’t step down until 1963, and his successor, alumnus Don Kubly, carried on through 1985. It was under Kubly that the school changed its name to Art Center College of Design in 1973, then moved to its present campus three years later: a sleek 166,000-square-foot building with complete workshop and studio facilities nestled on 175 acres in the hills above Pasadena’s Rose Bowl. David R. Brown took over upon Kubly’s retirement, then retired himself in late 1999. His successor, Richard Koshalek, a former director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, is thus only the fourth president in Art Center’s 70-year history.
Jergenson (right) reviews a scale model with student and instructor, circa 1965. (The instructor was Joe Thompson, a wonderful, gentle scupltor who got the most from his students with encouragement and expert guidance from years of professional experience. I remember going over to his apartment once to help him with some issue regarding his ’69 Camaro. The man on the far left was the shop instructor, Joe something.)
Similar continuity benefitted the Industrial Design Department. The Jergenson regime lasted all the way through 1969. Then came Keith Teter, another Art Center alum (and a Ford designer the previous 13 years), who returned to industry in late 1985. At that point, “1D” was split into Product, Environmental, and Transportation design departments. Heading up the last was yet another Art Center grad, Ron Hill (CA, August 1993), class of 1954, fresh from a 31-year career at GM where he contributed to cars like the 1965 Corvair, ’71 Chevy Vega, and ’84 Pontiac Fiero. Hill, a Pasedena native, is set to retire in August of this year.
Another Art Center constant has been its creatively competitive and physically taxing curricula. Per Adams’ precepts, students spend an entire day in one studio course—five different classes per week—ranging from basic illustration and model making in the first and second terms to senior-student projects sponsored by major corporations. But that’s not all. Evenings (and sometimes Saturday mornings) are devoted to required academic courses in the humanities, social and behavior sciences, natural sciences, art history, and, for “Trans Design” majors, studies ranging from human factors to basic automotive engineering. One wonders when students find time to sleep.
A seating buck for a mid-Sixites project suggests rear-engine, forward controls much on the student’s minds. (Obviously this was before the government got involved with car design.)
Or where. Unlike many schools, Art Center has no on-campus dormitories, and the cost of housing, not to mention tuition and materials, tends to discourage all but the truly serious. And the truly motivated. Art Center has described itself as “perhaps more demanding than any other school of its kind. But demanding does not mean impersonal. Rather, the way of life here is adult in the best sense of the word.” For former president Brown, that means “preparation for the first job or assignment, then the next, and then the one after that. We believe preparation requires a disciplined, hard-working approach.” To former president Kubly, the mission is for “students to be able to make a smooth transition into the working world with no illusion about what’s ahead.”
With that in mind, day-to-day instruction strives for complete realism, nail-biting stress included. “We teach in a competitive fashion because that’s the way Art Center has always been,” says Ron Hill. “You put your design up on the board for your final critique and you want to outshine everybody. That intensity is what’s really important. The students learn from each other, the self-induced competition. Extremely competitive, but extremely good in terms of a disciplined learning experience.”
Strother MacMinn talks form and function in the early Sixties with future Wayne Cherry (left) and another student. (Perhaps Strother is talking about aerodynamics, since this shot is taken in a wind tunnel.) Thanks to Wayne Morrical for the caption correction.
It may be disciplined, but the teaching is balanced with concern for individual creativity, even enthusiasm. Says longtime Trans Design faculty member (and “Hot Wheels” originator) Harry Bradley: “You want [graduates] to be professional and productive, which means you give them certain standards. They’ve got to sketch well, they’ve got to understand why certain lines work together and other lines do not, they have to have a sensitivity toward form. But you absolutely do not want to turn out cookie-cutter graduates that will all produce the same solution to a given design problem. That’s one of the challenges. We try to educate them to be independent, individual, and, to a certain extent, unpredictable. But at the same time, we hang all that on the scaffolding of professionalism and reliability.”
Role models for those qualit es are as close as Art Center ‘s teaching professionals. As Strother MacMinn once observed: “When [the instructors] come in and talk about the things they were doing yesterday at their business activity, it enhances the students’ attitudes no end. They cherish those moments of sharing, because then they feel they’re sort of part of it.”
Bill Mitchell holds forth on one of his “pets,” the 1960 Mako Shark Corvette.
A continuing stream of industry-sponsored projects make that feeling palpable. On one recent visit, we saw students busily conjuring ideas for a possible Honda vehicle aimed at so-called “echo boomers.” Other recent Trans Design projects include suggestions for the next Porsche 911 and, believe it or not, a new Zamboni ice-surfacing machine requested by the Los Angeles Kings hockey team. In all cases, this student work—renderings and scale models as professional as anything from a corporate studio—are critiqued by executives of the sponsor. Art Center also boasts equipment and facilities as modern as any in industry.
With all this, it’s no surprise that so many Art Center grads end up designing the cars that end up in the worlds driveways. ” In the mid Fifties,” Hill recalls, “there was one opportunity, and that was Detroit. Now there are multiple opportunities: the burgeoning industry in Southeast Asia, Latin America, certainly Europe.” Lately, there’s also that perennial bellweather of automotive trends, Southern California, which is now home to satellite design operations established by most all of the world’s leading manufacturers. Significantly, ACCD’s MacMinn was a key advisor when the first of these outposts, Toyota’s Calty Design Research, was set up in 1976.
Model building has always been a must skill for Art Center students, especially Trans Design majors, and facilities have improved tremendously since the Fifties. (I guess so. I have stories.)
Art Center has always benefitted from the dynamic, richly diverse culture of its Southern California location, yet another reason its graduates remain so highly sought after. But in the internet age, when globalization and “voice of the customer” are radically reshaping entire industries, the next generation of designers faces new challenges. Says Hill: “There’s a much more aware and critical audience out there. They’re not going to put up with bad design. They won’t accept things that are hazardous, and they certainly won’t accept things that are not attractive. All you have to do is be in a competitive situation against an attractive product and you’ll see that. [Yet] it’s no more difficult to design something that’s appealing and creatively new than it is to do something that’s humdrum.”
But can such creativity be taught, even at Art Center? “I believe you can darn near train anybody to paint, and render, and draw well,” says Hill. “We have a very good program for doing that. But what if they don’t have anything to say? What we’re trying to do is to get students to put their creativity out in front, to make that known. I think it can be nurtured. I think it can be encouraged. I’m not sure that it can be taught. I’m not sure it can’t. My suspicion is, if it can, it’s very difficult.”
Gordon Buerhig (center) and his Cord 812 Sportsman convertible pose with Jorgenson and Carroll Shelby’s iconic Cobra Daytona coupe, circa 1970. (There was a student parking lot, but students also parked on the street. I remember seeing some students new silver Rolls Royce Corniche convertible with a red interior, top down, parked all day on the street. Not everybody was struggling to pay the bills.)
Another key quality of the successful design professional virtually rules out the average “car nut” as an Art Center candidate. “You look for [students] who are dissatisfied with the current state of affairs,” says Hill. “Any designer we turn out of here we would hope would be so dissatisfied with the present state of products, whether they be automobiles or sewing machines, that they would want to change that. That’s what we’re looking for—people who believe there are better ways and more attractive ways to do things.”
By nurturing such talent for seven decades, Art Center has arguably done more than any other institution to legitimize the design disciplines, which it does by insuring that graduates have what Bradley calls “the level of superiority and expertise the industry is looking for.” In this respect, imitation has been the sincerest form of tribute. The Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, the Royal College of Art in London, and many universities have long offered programs modeled closely on Art Center’s.
Recent student work is always on view in the lobby of today’s Pasedena campus. This future-Camaro proposal dates from the mid-Eighties.
(Left) Late semester students get little rest trying to get their sponsored projects done. (Right) Veteran Chrysler designer Neil Walling leads a “crit” at the Pasadena campus in the early Nineties. Critiques expose students to the competitive world of a working designer. (That may be Neil Walling, but standing to his right is Geza Loczi.)
Stother MacMinn (left) looks on as Bill Mitchell comments on a student project in the Sixties.
Yet for ACCD’s faculty and staff, there’s a personal satisfaction no less meaningful than their continuing a tradition of educational excellence, achievement, and innovation. When asked what he liked best about his job, Hill quickly replied, “Students. They’re absolutely inspiring. They can also give you fits. But the rewards are enormous because you see them grow and grow so well. You try to be careful on who you select. You try to nurture them through and you see them coming along, and you know these people are going to be influential in the design game. That’s very rewarding.”
Harry Bradley agrees, but then adds, “It’s a thrill to work for the best. What else can I say?”
Sliding doors—one students answer.
Instructor Harry Bradley helping a student with his model.
Manufacturers often sponsor Art Center projects to get a fresh perspective on their current products and how younger minds see them evolving. Here, Chrysler’s Tom Gale brainstorms future minivans with students assigned to come up with the next generation ideas.
Another frequently visiting executive was Gene Bordinat, longtime Ford Design Chief.
You might not think so from this crowded scene, by Art Center has always been a small institution, with many more applicants than it can handle, which makes for an elite, highly motivated student body (take note, clients and potential employers!). This Pasedana workroom is a far cry from the facilities in the College’s early days.
Art Center College of Design is a private, not for-profit institution accredited by the Wester” Association of Schools and Colleges and the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. Three 14-week terms are scheduled year-round; admissions are ill tire fall, spring, and summer. The undergraduate degree is normally completed in eight terms, a minimum of 32 months on a full time basis. Admission is by portfolio and academic record. For further information, contact:
Director of Admissions
Art Center College of Design
1700 Lida Street
Pasadena, CA 91103