Mazda Motor Corp. has a mantra for its MX-5 Miata roadster: jinba ittai, a Japanese phrase meaning "horse and rider in one body."
Few people know that feeling as well as Julien Montousse, whose passion -- both as a designer at Mazda and as an inventor of mechanical deep-sea diving suits -- is strengthening the link between human and machine.
Since joining Mazda from General Motors in 2009, the Frenchman has led a team that has integrated "driver-centric" design into cars such as the Mazda3 and the newly redesigned MX-5 Miata. The Miata's symmetrical instruments and vents, plus body-colored panels on the doors, are meant to give the illusion of being part of the car.
"We want the interior and exterior to merge into one," Montousse said.
Montousse grew up on the French Riviera, swimming in the Mediterranean Sea nearly every day. In his prime, at 19, Montousse could hold his breath for six minutes and set a personal record by free-diving 167 feet without an oxygen tank.
After high school, Montousse enrolled in engineering school but transferred to Strate, a Paris design school.
He received an offer from Renault's design studio after graduation but turned it down. For his thesis, he designed a machine less constraining than scuba gear that could help humans breathe and move underwater, and he wanted to build it.
"We can go to space, we can ride motorcycles, and yet you put a human underwater and he looks like a clown," Montousse said. "He looks like he doesn't belong there. From early on, I always thought about what you could do -- some type of machine -- that would allow you to move genuinely under the water."
Montousse put all of his savings into the project but came to realize he couldn't build a business case. In the meantime, his contact at Renault had taken a design job with General Motors; Montousse followed her to Detroit in 2001.
After a few years at GM, Montousse drew acclaim by designing the interior of the Chevrolet Camaro concept in 2005 that previewed the revival of the nameplate. He shuttled back and forth between Detroit and California to work on the production version, which went on sale in 2009.
That was when Derek Jenkins, design director at Mazda's studio in Irvine, Calif., came calling. Mazda was running a contest for its new design language, and Jenkins was impressed by Montousse's sleek, cockpit-like interiors.
They bonded over a love of the water. For a second interview, Jenkins, an avid surfer, took Montousse out on the waves in Malibu.
Montousse took the job. During his first 10 days at Mazda, he crafted a pitch for Mazda's next-generation interior design. His sketches caught the eye of Mazda chief designer Ikuo Maeda and were integrated into the new design language.
Montousse was summoned to Japan to work on the interior of the Shinari concept, unveiled in 2010 as the first glimpse of Mazda's new "Kodo" styling.
"Shinari was a revelation for everyone at Mazda," Montousse said. "You can take pictures and the interior looks cool -- it looks sophisticated, the palette is premium, it looks sporty. But when you sit in it, you have that second-degree read where you feel connected with the machine."
As a manager, Montousse has a hard-and-fast rule that designers may not submit their work unless they have worked out the hidden "B-side." This leads to quicker work once the engineers get involved, he said, and results in fewer compromises between concept and production.
When he isn't working on designs for Mazda, Montousse still works on personal submersibles. He pitches them to oil and gas companies for use on offshore drilling rigs. Because of his expertise on cockpit design and extreme environments, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., the space flight company led by Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, has solicited Montousse's advice on the cabin of its Dragon 2 spacecraft.
With the 2017 CX-9 crossover, Mazda will have finished overhauling its core lineup with Kodo design. So Montousse is now working on next-generation styling with top designers in Japan. Even after five years at Mazda, he said, each trip to Hiroshima or Tokyo thrills him like a dive into the ocean.
"Every time I visit Japan," he said, "it always feels like an invitation to something unexplored."
-- Gabe Nelson