Interview with Takeshi Tanabe

One of the many facets of automotive design that makes it so very intriguing stems from the automotive industry's diversity. Every country, every company, every person has a stance. And they nearly always differ.

Superficially, a Ford F-150, a Mercedes-Benz S-Class and the latest Toyota hybrid are but subtly different executions of the same blueprint, and while that's true, the philosophies behind each – fueled by both the indigenous cultures of their origin and target market – are vastly more different that you might think. 

The aggressive Lexus LF-NX presented at this year's Frankfurt Motor Show was branded both attention-seeking and puerile, yet the designer in charge of the project, Takeshi Tanabe, has been involved in the design of nearly every kind of vehicle we can currently buy. Narrow-minded he is not, so what does he think of his country's own design culture and where it leads?

Green Car Design caught up with Tanabe-san as he descirbed the Japanese ethos behind car design and its future.

Green Car Design: What is your first memory of wanting to design a car?

Takeshi Tanabe: Not specifically, but when I was a child I was drawing many pictures of trains - there were many trains by my house when I was a small kid. At that time they were just square trains, so maybe that is some origin to drawing. And after that I became a boy so I would draw some cartoon-style things like a flying vehicle, I was quite fascinated with something futuristic... always future. I have never been a classic car collector, I have always thought about something futuristic.

GCD: You have always loved the future?

TT: Yes, always! I started studying in art university in Japan on the dealing course. At first I took some industrial design course at Taka University, that you may know, in Tokyo. But as young people started buying motorcycles and second hand cars, so motors become kinda fun... so I wanted to change from industrial design (ID) to a car design course. I joined the Toyota design team in 1990.

GCD: Where did you start, and how has your job changed since then?

TT: First I was involved with the Corolla team, since my focus from university was in interior - especially with my background in ID. It was easy for me to understand what I had to do on the interior and as a very first experience in car interior it was something good and something bad... I learned a lot on the Corolla project from scratch.

I worked on the RAV4 interior and after that worked on the very first generation Prius... nearly 20 years ago! Such a long time ago. It was something quite innovative and quite a project. Because it was something brand new, we don't see - just try to design something futuristic, exterior and interior, every part must be futuristic. I was just on the interior... tiny parts like the door panel or something but it was the process that was important, from doing clay modelling to technical drawings to creating production data - the entire experience from the scratch to the Prius launch was quite interesting.

Finally in 1998 we finished, that was quite good. That heritage has become our core technical value for Toyota. At the time the result was invisible but now it has such a legacy - the benchmark.

After that I joined the RCA for one year and I did some interior as well but some tutors said that it would be interesting to see my exteriors as well. So I did something, not so good, but I started thinking about the whole vehicle. I made a lot of friends, friends that have stayed friends since then. Maybe now with Facebook its easy but then you had to make the effort. After I came back to the RCA somehow always a European project is coming to me. Next up was the Aygo project which was a collaboration with PSA - I was spending almost half a year in Paris. I appreciated the French language culture, I found it quite interesting. I was joining their studio, I was surrounded by French, only one other [Japanese] colleague was their...

GCD: But you've always be there at the important moments...

TT: Yeah... everything must be enjoyed, so even if something is tough it must be a good experience, always a good experience... Always positive. Just do it!

GCD: Nowadays on the internet there are many people who think they can do car design online... it can look quite professional... what do you think of the emergence of self-made car designers and how does that affect car culture?

TT: It's a very interesting and delicate question. People will always like their dream car, but why people like to draw something nice or cool is because maybe our industry could create something fascinating. Maybe we make some great cars, cool cars, but many are still not happy with what we make. Some people might feel they can make a better car than, say, Ferrari.

It's easy to complain about a brand but it's not fair to compare really - we are professional car designers so we have to discuss with engineers, marketing, even the President... So we have to take all those factors into consideration to make one good car. This is our job, and something very different from drawing like I was drawing my train. I do think, however, that there could be some interesting ideas in the amateur drawings...

GCD: Because it's from a social directive...

TT: That's right. And I look at them to see if there is some energetic power.

GCD: What does the 'connected car' mean to you?

TT: I think the machine is a machine from the beginning of car history, and it is still a machine, of course, but how we contact it and have feedback is slightly more involved.

Originally the feedback we got was from the wheels, engine, gears, steering wheel, wood panelling - everything was quite direct... physically direct. When you touch you get feedback, but nowadays when you touch a surface there is something in between that's quite complicated - an electrical path perhaps, but all you feel is the plastic or glass. It's missing some core fun in the car, some people say.

We maybe need a more direct approach to gain driving sensation. But sometimes when you touch an iPad, for example, all you feel is the LCD so maybe we need to think about getting some feedback from that interaction about the road, the drive, or something new. That is the new era of communication.

Japanese has always had a conversation between machine and human in the form of manga characters... Atom for example... the two have always been close. Perhaps the Japanese have an advantage in being able to make the connection more relevant...

I had an interview with someone in Europe and he pointed out that maybe Europeans are scared of robots assisting because of the idea they might take over like Terminator. It's a different relationship, we have a more harmonious relationship with robotics... the West seems to have a paranoia about being dominated by others. Very interesting difference.

GCD: If you could teach one thing to your customers about car design what would it be?

TT: At least as the robot and Japanese relation, the car has to be a friend, or the car has to follow people's minds and, as I said, Europeans want to create perfect machine. Germans want to make perfect, and they expect the people to use that machine completely perfectly. Only then it works well. For Japanese when someone wants to do something we want the car to perfectly follow the person's mind, we want the car to follow the needs of the customer, that is our aim.

Lexus tries to communicate or achieve that... maybe we are not exactly there yet but that is our goal.

GCD: Innovation and luxury are sometimes conflicting values... how do you manage that?

TT: We say Lexus is progressive luxury, so we ask ourselves exactly the same question. Luxury is, let's say, a traditional value not only in vehicles but also in interior design, fashion, and progression is, of course, innovative or futuristic and we have to mix that up. The balance of the two is very important for Lexus, and how we show the brand itself. Always we try to challenge ourselves and the meaning of 'premium' - we are Lexus because we are something... the philosophy stays the same: human-centred.

GCD: And how so you show sustainable luxury?

TT: If I say something quite radical... we should not make cars anymore! But still people need the cars, still if you go to the Middle East people use cheap oil to drive their cars… but if you come to Europe and Japan as well, people try to consume less fuel and want a comfortable ride.

Electric vehicles right now are the big bang for the automotive industry, and also just taking people from point A to point B with Google navigation. But, people want to control vehicles for their own fun, so going fast, people like some engine sound. It's very difficult to be perfect - we may use electric vehicles but the energy might come from a dirty powerplant... so it's complicated. Perfectly sustainable life is almost impossible, the moment you go on the internet you are starting up a database somewhere. There is no right answer, people need to stop some things but cannot stop everything.

GCD: Yes but it's a master of making a decision. When you decided to do the Prius you made a big decision...

TT: Yes it was a big decision. The long-term was more important. I like skiing... skiing you get a reaction from the speed and the wind, the cold on your cheeks, it is an eco-sport. But then if there is no more snow and we cannot go skiing then people notice that we have to save some of our environment or else some of that fun is missing.

GCD: What is your favourite time of the day?

TT: When I finish the work for the day and I can watch the sunset, relaxing, that is great. Usually my going home time is nine, so when I actually see the sunset it's wonderful.  


You may also like...

Lexus: Making Hybrids Desirable

Lexus LF-LC NAIAS 2012

Interview with J Mays