It’s a slightly weird feeling talking to someone like Ian Cartabiano. He is after all the man responsible for designing Toyota’s C-HR. Not just bits of it, but pretty much the whole thing, which is quite a big deal since we think the C-HR is a mighty cool looking car. Even weirder is the fact that we’re having a conversation inside ED2, which is shorthand for Toyota Europe Design and Development. It’s an advanced R&D studio that nestles high up in the hills above the Côte d'Azur that Cartabiano has been president of since the beginning of last year.
Media visits to this secretive hideaway a stone’s throw from the French Riviera are few and far between. Prior to getting a guided tour of the facility we have our phones confiscated and have to stick to our guide like glue. ED2 is an imposing place though, more like the lair of a Bond villain than somewhere you’d design a car. But it soon becomes apparent that the cavernous workspace inside is an automotive designer’s dream come true.
ED2 is just one part of a wider Toyota global design network that features offices from the west coast of America right across to Shanghai and, naturally, Toyota City in Nagoya, Japan. Plus several points in between.
It’s a long way from LA, which Cartabiano calls his home city back in the US, having been in Southern California after moving there from New York in 1988. The 44-year-old designer might not miss the insane traffic of Los Angeles, but he talks fondly of home. He sounds a little bit disappointed that the C-HR hasn’t been quite the same hit there as it has been here in Europe. However, he seems to be enjoying his time in the south of France.
“This area has wonderful light,” he explains, “And that’s very important when you’re designing cars.” It’s the same reason the likes of Matisse, Van Gogh, Picasso and Chagal all came here too, though to be fair they weren’t designing cars. But they were being creative. And that’s exactly what the environment inside ED2 is designed to promote. This is no car factory that’s for sure. You’d have to look long and hard to see even a drip of oil on the pristine floor surfaces, which are so immaculate you could eat a portion of Coq au Vin off them.
ED2 is spacious too as the 40,000 square metres of land the building occupies and the 6,000 square metre footprint of the building itself houses just 39 team members. There are 94 computers, hundreds of pencils, 124 model cars and 1 petanque court, presumably for when the car creators get designers block or some such.
And, according to Cartabiano, there are few rules on how to create a new model. As such the team is encouraged to use whatever they think works, so he says, “digital is okay, analogue is okay and 3D is also okay.” In fact, a growing amount of development work is now being done using virtual reality and that’s set to increase as the technology becomes better.
Innovations in cars are also changing the face of car design, with autonomous driving, electrification, new materials and revolutionary new manufacturing process all contributing to the ever-changing lot of the creative types who spend their days inside ED2. We got a tour around four of the main areas that work in tandem to produce prototypes and, subsequently, potential production cars. We saw the clay modelling area, CMF (Colour, Material and Finish), and rounded it out with a Virtual Reality Experience. Hell, we even got taught how to sketch a car like a pro.
After a fascinating insight into ED2 – yeah, a PowerPoint that was actually interesting! – we were ushered into a very large lift. This was vaguely car-sized unsurprisingly, and dropped down a level to the clay modelling area. Considering how big the workspace is it seemed decidedly understaffed, with a handful of people hiding out down there.
There was a great little scale model of the Toyota GT2000 from yesteryear, which was used to illustrate how staff produce 3D forms using scale models as well as full-size mock-ups. Initial car shapes are produced from polystyrene, carved from blocks of the stuff using a CNC machine. From this, the freshly produced slightly undersized mock-up can then be covered with a thin layer of clay. And then the designers really get to work, using a selection of hand tools and lots and lots of man hours to produce their vision. We had a go ourselves and it’s a lot harder than it looks.
Then it was back into the lift and up a couple of floors to put our heads around the door of the Colour, Material and Finish room. This is the place where designers basically compile the component materials that will be used in their car. Using mood boards and data based on their target customers the designers spend hours mixing and matching all manner of combinations. The room is packed to the ceiling with rolls of vinyl, leather, carpet, miscellaneous plastics and even new materials that have never been used before. That includes a giant mushroom…
As we moved on around this level we got an insight into just how much the world of 3D software is being used in the creation of new cars. Toyota and luxury brand Lexus are now creating a unique virtual reality world when they’re developing new products based on the 2D sketches developed earlier in the process. We got to take a look at a VR edition of the Lexus UX concept and the designers even let us mess around with their carefully honed colour palette to change the way it looked.
Of course, the design of the Lexus UX concept, and indeed all of the other cars produced at ED2 started out as a sketch on a piece of paper. We got to dip into that world too, with some expert guidance from Koichi Suga, Head of Design at Lexus International.
It’s actually pretty amazing what you can produce, even if you live in a creative vacuum, after you’ve been given a piece of paper with a basic numbered grid on it. Following the lead given by Koicha we spent some time joining up the dots and, at the end of it, we had all produced our own incarnation of the Lexus UX concept.
Granted, they didn’t look quite as good as the original, but it gave hope to us wannabe car designers that you can do anything if you try hard enough. And cheat a bit too.