LA JOLLA, Calif. - Jerry Hirshberg is the kind of guy who designs the parachute after he jumps off the cliff.
After complaining to Japan for years that the designs for Nissan vehicles sold in the United States were not 'American' enough, Hirshberg has been granted his wish: the lead in designing the new generation of Nissan Motor Co.'s franchise cars in America.
Beyond those vehicles - the next Sentra, Altima and Maxima sedans and the Xterra and Pathfinder sport-utilities - Hirshberg also is lobbying hard to bring back the sporty Z car as a halo vehicle and to create a 'sport-utility truck.'
Obviously, this is not just another crucial assignment for Hirshberg and his Nissan Design Internation-al. This is put-up-or-shut-up time. This quite possibly is Nissan's future in America. This is a career on the line.
So is Hirshberg worried?
'I don't feel any pressure. I enjoy walking on the edge,' Hirshberg said during a daylong interview at his home and in his Nissan Design International office and studio here.
'Any design and creative process has an element of risk, so making a paint stroke in my studio is as risky as launching a car. If we work hard, have done our homework and pay attention to our intuitions, it's no riskier than when we did the first Hardbody truck or Pathfinder.'
But, he added, 'I'm not being arrogant or cocky. This doesn't mean we couldn't blow it. We could. But there aren't any moments of lost sleep. I respect the responsibility, but I don't feel the weight. It's fun.'
Before Jerry Hirshberg, there was no Nissan Design International. There was just a dirt lot in the rolling hills of La Jolla, Calif., about 10 miles up the coast from San Diego. But when Nissan decided it wanted to create an American design presence in 1980, it looked no further than Hirshberg, then in charge of Buick and Pontiac design at General Motors.
Hirshberg, who had climbed the GM corporate ladder quickly in spite of his outspokenness, says it took him little time to decide to accept the Nissan offer.
Hirshberg looked around La Jolla and saw that it was good. He has since created a designer's paradise, with little hierarchy or structure, where trash-talk is as accepted on the center's volleyball court as it is in the leaderless product-strategy meetings.
Hirshberg knows that the kind of free-form atmosphere he encourages is not for everyone.
'A lot of people need an evident structure with a time clock and clarity. And there's no vertical ladder here, just lots of room for spherical growth. It's all about individual growth as opposed to guidelines, mantra and template,' Hirshberg said.
Since forming Nissan Design International, Hirshberg and his design teams have created several landmark vehicles, including the first Nissan Pathfinder, Altima, Pulsar NX, Quest and Infiniti J30.
But Hirshberg rejects criticism that he may have overstretched the 'lozenge' design concept with the Altima and the J30.
'We felt the three-dimensional form had applications to the extreme luxury car and to the middle-of-the-road as well,' he said.
'The (Altima and the J30) are highlights for us, close to pure sculpture. They may not be everyone's cup of tea, but self-confident cars rarely are. Maybe they weren't the best cars, but we're still proud when we see them on the road.'
When Hirshberg was given the job of creating Nissan Design Interna-tional, however, he wasn't the top man. He reported to a run of Japanese presidents until 1995, when he suddenly was given the president's post. Has being moved up the ladder distanced him further from the creative process?
'I still sketch cars, but usually now I'm the spotter, the mobilizer, playing the whole symphony,' Hirshberg said.
'But then again, I couldn't just keep doing what I was doing. That would have been a mistake. I didn't want to become a slow blinker,' he said, referring to burned-out executives who nod and blink slowly when answering questions.
But design is a field that encourages corporate bed-hopping as a means of staying fresh. As for how Hirshberg has stayed focused and fresh when he has been in one place for nearly two decades, he attributes it to 'drinking from diverse wells,' Nissan Design International's outside work for nonautomotive clients. The studio has done computer concepts for Apple and Motorola, the 'Bubble Burner' golf clubs for Taylor Made, medical instruments, ski boots, preschool furniture and a yacht for a Turkish shipping tycoon. In fact, Hirshberg sometimes puts more emphasis on outside work than on the work Nissan has hired him to do. It's a major reason he hasn't moved on.
'I built a sandbox, but it's my sandbox. The common wisdom of losing freshness in design is a personal one, not universal. Andrew Wyeth painted in one backyard for his entire life, yet all his paintings are vibrant. There hasn't been a boring day here,' Hirshberg said.
His passion for outside work is just another Hirshberg quirk that his Japanese bosses have come to accept. A much-told story in Nissan circles is about his team being far behind in developing the first Pathfinder. Thinking was in a rut, and the pressure was making the designers peckish.
Sensing trouble, Hirshberg took a three-hour lunch to take his entire staff to see Silence of the Lambs, the movie about a serial killer starring Anthony Hopkins. According to Nissan lore, the diversion broke the creative logjam, and a vehicle program costing hundreds of millions of dollars was advanced for the cost of a few movie tickets and popcorn.
Another Hirshberg idiosyncrasy is his insistence that his designers not own Nissan or Infiniti vehicles. Hirshberg, for example, drives an Audi A6 because, he says, he is inspired by its Bauhaus styling.
And he feels that designers, like riffing musicians, can steal ideas from one another without being plagiarists.
Hirshberg says he wants more European flair in Nissan design because Europeans embrace living in a way that the youthful American culture still does not grasp. To that end, he recently poached young designers from Audi and Mercedes-Benz.
'The Japanese are trying to find design again. The Europeans are spreading their wings, feeling their oats, but maintaining their heritage. The Americans are showing a maturation and exuberance, but really it's only really promising adolescent stuff,' Hirshberg said.
Hirshberg feels that Europe has done the best job of instilling its culture in design.
'Europeans know how to walk, sleep, love and eat. They know how to stroll, to browse, to meander,' he said. 'They tell good stories and listen well. You never see someone's eyes wandering in a restaurant in Italy. And Americans still don't get that.'
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, to Ed and Lill Hirshberg, a postal worker and housewife, Hirshberg knew how to draw almost as early as he knew how to talk. Like most boys, he drew lots of guns, rockets, ships, planes and cars, but he didn't have his epiphany until he was 12.
Listening to the family radio, Hirshberg asked his uncle what made the radio what it is, what gave it its feeling. His uncle, a pioneer in medical engineering, told Jerry about the magic of industrial design. Jerry was hooked.
'I was captivated by the way things looked, worked, and what they produced. Even as a kid, I was drawn to the marriage of art and science, and of clarity and functionality married to expressive beauty,' Hirshberg said.
But he is more than just a sharp pencil. Hirshberg has been fortunate to have been blessed (or cursed) with several passions and talents. They also include music.
In addition to being an accomplished singer and clarinet player, Hirshberg also may be the only automotive executive to have recorded a Top 40 pop hit.
During his undergraduate days at Ohio State, he recorded a song called 'Sparkling Blue' under the name Jerry Paul (his first and middle names), which was a brief sensation on the radio. Hirshberg toured with such '50s pop luminaries as Bobbie Rydell, Fabian and Frankie Avalon.
The song also was a portent of his future. 'Sparkling Blue' is about a guy spending a glorious lifetime with his favorite girl. A couple of years later, as he was ready to graduate from Cleveland Institute of Art, Hirshberg was asked to entertain a friend's friend from out of town.
When Hirshberg casually asked her out, Linda Liss at first refused. A humbled Hirshberg called back, more politely, and won a date for an evening of listening to jazz musician Ramsey Lewis.
Coincidentally, Jerry and Linda both had planned trips to Europe that summer. Hirshberg wooed her across the Continent, and they were married shortly after their return to America.
What does Linda, a clinical and organizational psychologist, bring out in Jerry?
'She'd tell you I'm not so different at home. For the boisterous side of me, there's a side that needs and loves solitude. People often see the vocal and verbal side of me and misread that. We're very much alike in that way. We don't entertain that much,' Hirshberg said.
In choosing houses through their years together, the couple often has traded pure enjoyable living for the practical: locations near good schools.
But with sons Glen and Eric established in their careers - the former a writer and teacher, the latter an advertising executive with Deutsch working the Mitsubishi Motors account - Jerry and Linda finally built a house for themselves.
Hirshberg hired Ken Ronchetti, who designed Nissan Design Inter-national's quarters, to create their living space. Six months of sketches later, the design was set. 'It's all about us,' Hirshberg said.
Formed of soft white stucco curves, high ceilings and sheets of glass, the Hirshberg home is contemporary yet surprisingly warm compared with most modern-style manses of Southern California.
A stark lap pool is tucked under the chin of the two-story house, the reflected water constantly shimmering off the ceiling of the sun-drenched home. The Hirshbergs don't do interior design all at once; they pick up odds and ends as they travel and shop, and they let the look of the house grow naturally.
Jerry's abstract paintings and portraits fill the walls, and the sounds from his collection of 10,000 records resonate through top-line Dunlavey speakers. His video collection is sorted alphabetically by director.
Hirshberg is known in industry circles worldwide for the richness and complexity of his speech and multilayered conversations that leave participants straining to keep up. Yet some of his keenest insights just sort of happen.
When asked what car he would most like to own, he replied that the BMW 7 series 'arouses' him.
He compared the new Audi TT to hefty San Diego Padre hitting sensation Tony Gwynn - 'muscular and taut but bordering on the ungainly.'
It's the same blunt thought process he asks of his designers. Blurt it out. It can't hurt. And it might create magic.