Originally published April 7, 2003

FROM OUR ARCHIVES: It's all academic to former Mazda designer

Matano settles into college life but still stresses basics

Tom Matano is taking the lessons of three decades of automotive design and handing it down to the next generation.

After working for Holden, BMW and Mazda, Matano has found a new home on the other side of the corporate fence, as director of industrial design at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco.

The students could hardly have a better mentor. Or idol. After all, it was Matano who led Mazda's California design team in creating the seminal Miata roadster, as well as the final RX-7. But that means little to many of today's students, who have little memory of classic cars, Matano admits.

'No traditions'

"They have no traditions. Generation X remembers pony cars, Jaguars and Ferraris. But Gen Y starts in 1985, so they didn't grow up with it. But they get it, just like they get Elvis. They just don't have that preconceived notion of classic design," Matano says.

The career change presents numerous twists to Matano's previous life. Automotive design is all about who is young and hip, whereas academia is all about tenure.

In the past, Matano worked with executives who traveled the globe. Today it is mostly kids just out of high school.

Corporate design works in fits and starts, whereas academia has a set schedule.

"I can't believe I can give you a 2005 schedule for my job," Matano says.

Since taking the role last September, the 55-year-old Matano has been involved in the usual bureaucracy of being a director, but he finds time to teach intermediate-level automotive interior design on Wednesdays. He also likes to look in on classes outside the automotive arena.

He is particularly fond of toy design.

"If you take off the cuddly facade, there still is engineering and manufacturing involved," he says. "It takes very sophisticated software to run them."

Despite his wonder over the high-tech nature of design today, he resists the encroachment of computers in the classroom.

"I refused letting computers in the (Mazda) studio for 10 years. Alias (a software company) kept coming back with new software, with what I wanted the last time they visited, but it was always five years too late.

"And yet, somehow, without computers, we still designed the Miata and RX-7," he says with a hint of a smirk.

Matano wants his students to harness surface development before they start working with software.

He says he believes software allows designers to cheat on design, and it produces results that are too sanitary. That's why Matano has the academy's modelers shape the clay exactly to the drawing templates, mistakes and all.

"Computers can do things early in the process, like simulating a wind tunnel, or installing a windshield, and that can save money and time. But that's a benefit, not helping you draw better," he says, while puffing contentedly on a pipe. An inveterate smoker, Matano has returned to his favorite tobacco - Larsen's Kentucky Flower Blend.

The real world

Whereas his predecessor, Jeff Teague, liked to teach design with real-world applications, Matano takes a different approach.

"I want it to be exploratory, something new. To do real world design you need a program with more engineering, and we don't have that yet. Maybe we need a link to a grad school like Berkeley or Stanford," Matano says, sitting in his Spartan office.

His surroundings are littered with the detritus of his profession: racks of Car Styling magazine, some die-cast Hot Wheels buses, pictures of his 1967 Detomaso Vallelunga and postcards commemorating his favorite beverage: strong coffee.

Matano also inherited a curious addition to the academy: an in-house annex funded and staffed by Nissan designers.

Nissan Design America's studio in the heart of the academy's industrial design department allows the automaker to simultaneously educate students while also mining them for ideas.

While automakers have looked to students in the past, having an established full-time office on-site is something different.

"This allows Nissan's young designers to be mentors to the students," says Al Flowers, a veteran Nissan designer installed to head the studio. "The kids are in awe of our designers, and they are eager. But at the same time, they punch holes in Nissan design and ask a lot of questions.

"Our designers can also compare the student work to what they are doing, and see how they can get bogged down in production-based design, compared to the edginess of the students."

Matano likes having the Nissan adjunct on-site, if even for Nissan's benefit.

"All the automakers want advanced studios, but they never see the fruits of their labor. As soon as a designer arrives, (the automaker) asks for the real world, so even an advanced studio becomes an annex for production work," Matano says.

He notes that the Miata was the first project created by Mazda's "advanced" design studio in California, and was not really intended to be a production car - even though Mazda's designers certainly wanted it to be.

Saying yes

"The chairman had to say yes to the Miata, to justify the investment in the studio," Matano says.

"If we had tried it five years later, it might not have happened. But the corporate and political timing was right."

Matano also wants to teach his charges that external influences have as much influence on design as the stylist's pen.

"Things like huge bumpers, or airbags, or the energy crisis, all these things moved forward ideas in packaging, or changing proportions, or using a unibody structure," Matano says. "Manufacturing technology changes, and you can lift an engine into the bay, rather than dropping it, and suddenly cab-forward becomes possible. Timing the factory renewal does just as much to determine the next big change in design."

Then he turns the subject back on itself, asking: "What happens when steering becomes drive-by-wire? Is the steering wheel still considered part of the chassis design, or does it become part of the interior?"

Matano immigrated from Japan to the United States at age 18 and attended school at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., which is his new employer's key rival for attracting promising students. The biggest difference is that the academy will accept anyone with a checkbook, whereas the Art Center and the College for Creative Studies in Detroit have stricter entrance requirements. Not that everyone passes Design 101 at the Academy of Art College, but everyone can get the chance.

Says Matano: "We get a lot of raw material."

You can reach Mark Rechtin at mrechtin@crain.com

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