ATSUGI, Japan — New global design chief Alfonso Albaisa says it's go time for big styling changes at Nissan and Infiniti. And a glance around his Zen-like office hints at what's in store.
His expansive, black wraparound desk is as austere as a Buddhist temple, save two telling details: a pair of intricately folded origami beetles and a set of futuristic virtual reality goggles.
Both items perfectly encapsulate Albaisa's obsession with Nissan Motor Co.'s Japanese roots and his plunge into the technology-driven design world of tomorrow.
The automaker's first non-Japanese styling chief is promising a radical remake following the retirement last March of Shiro Nakamura, the guru who ran design for almost two decades.
"Our responsibility is to take all the things that we learned and now go," Albaisa, 53, said during a tour of Nissan's global design center here south of Tokyo.
"We're moving into a new generation," he said.
Top priorities for the Cuban-American executive are:
- Rooting the brands in their Japanese heritage.
- Updating design to reflect new technologies.
- Modernizing the way designers work, slashing development times by means of virtual reality and artificial intelligence.
But before Nissan can tackle the future, it must understand the past, Albaisa said.
In November, he opened the Archive Gallery at the Atsugi design center. The inviting lounge space with track lighting, black paneling and woody warmth venerates a history from 1914, when Nissan's precursor company produced its first car, the DAT.
On display are memorabilia, photos and scale models of some of the company's most iconic nameplates, from the Silvia and Z sports coupes to the Murano and Infiniti FX crossovers.
The 600 designers and stylists working here consider it a sanctuary of sorts, where they can take a break from dreaming about the future to soak up inspiration from the past.
"I find that with my Japanese teammates, there is not a sense of history for the very early days," Albaisa said. "I want everyone to understand all of our history."
Albaisa, a Nissan lifer who joined the company in the U.S. in 1988, says he has a special duty as a rare non-Japanese design chief to safeguard that Japanese DNA.
"It's partly a bit reflected in the fact that I am not Japanese," he said. "I want people to understand that I'm a fanatic about Nissan and Japan. And I want that expressed in our work."
The lion-maned, black-clad Pratt Institute graduate peppers his speech with Japanese metaphysical tidbits. Words such as utsuroi — the Buddhist concept of impermanence; iki — simple and refined sophistication; and wabi sabi — a less-is-more beauty seen in imperfection.
And if there were still any lingering doubts about his source of inspiration, an immaculately manicured real-life Japanese rock garden greets visitors from the corner of his personal office.