For the first time, an American art museum has honored a car designer. J Mays is responsible for the redesigned Volkswagen beetle and the new Ford Thunderbird, among other models. The designer's work draws inspiration from both the past and present.
The show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles is called Retrofuturism: The Car Design of J Mays. Mr. Mays tells VOA about his design philosophy. "Retrofuturism is a word that might sound confusing at first, but what it actually means is trying to design a futuristic vehicle out of the mindset of a particular culture," he says. "And so if you design a futuristic vehicle out of the mindset of the 1950s, you end up with a Thunderbird. If you do it out of the mindset of the 1960s, you might end up with a Ford GT."
Mr. Mays and his team designed the new Ford GT 40, which resembles a racecar. It will go into production next year. Other so-called concept cars may never go into production, including a sleek black model, inspired by the 1940s and called the "49." "If you do it [design] out of the mindset of the late 40s, the "49" that we have on display here is a good example," says J Mays. "Another example out of the 60s might be the Beetle that I did when I was at Volkswagen. So if you put your mind into that cultural mindset of a particular decade, you end up with a very different type of design than if you approach it from where we are today."
Today, at age 48, Mr. Mays is Ford's vice president for design. He is responsible for determining the look of the Ford, Mazda, Mercury, Lincoln, Volvo, Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin.
Mr. Mays and some of his colleagues at other car companies, like those who designed the Chrysler PT Cruiser, have moved beyond conventional notions of what is fashionable. In the process, they have created new car fashions. But J Mays says he tells his designers not to follow trends. "In fact, we're almost anti-fashion, which makes it a very classic sensibility, I suppose," he says. "And I'm constantly reminding our team that we don't want to design something that's timely, which is a very transient type of fashionable idea. We want to design something that's timeless, so that when you back on it in a decade, you don't say, 'Oh, that must have been done in the year 2002.'"
Museum curator Brooke Hodge says J. Mays is part of a new breed of designer. He graduated from a renowned California school, the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. She says he is influenced by other fields of design, such as architecture - most notably German modernism. "It's clear that he rally learned a lot in the 14 years he spent in Germany working for Audi, and he went to school before that in California at [the] Art Center and so he was exposed to modern design here," she says. "And so you can see in this work that it's very clean and streamlined. It doesn't have a lot of extra embellishment or flourishes, and it's very tight and rigorous."
The curator is also impressed with Mr. Mays' attention to detail. The redesigned Volkswagen, for example, is a circular shaped car, and the designer insisted that interior details, such as the instrument panel, follow that pattern.
Where is auto design heading? Mr. Mays says car buyers in the future will have additional choices. "People want to have everything," says J Mays. "They want to have very futuristic forward-looking vehicles. They want adventurous SUVs. They want to have tough trucks. They want an optimistic look back over their shoulder in cars like the Beetle or the Thunderbird. And they want that diversity, that palette that makes life interesting."
A futurist concept car created by Mr. Mays and his team can be seen in the exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art. It is a low-riding vehicle, open to the wind, made of aluminum, carbon fiber and bamboo strips. More practical for recreation than travel, it may never go into production, but it suggests one of the many directions car design may take in the future.