Calty Design’s Kevin Hunter On Toyota & Lexus’ Living Legacy
Images courtesy of Toyota/Calty
Kevin Hunter is a little idiosyncratic in the world of Japanese car design. For one, he was born, raised, and educated…in Detroit. He joined the firm at the peak of Detroit’s “malaise” era, just as Toyota was unleashing the fuel sipping Celica on the North American market. It was this little car going against the grain that drew him away from his roots and his peers. Now, I have to imagine the sunny campus of Toyota’s Calty Design Research Center played a factor in his decision to move halfway across the country, but let’s let him tell the full story as it was told to me recently in Newport Beach California.
Ted Gushue: Coming from Detroit, when you first told people that you were going to work for a Japanese car company, what was their reaction?
Kevin Hunter: Well, at the time Toyota was just not as well known as today. They had a few cars though. The Celica had just launched in 1978, which was a really good car and a really big step for them. I think people were starting to see Toyota in a different light at that time. I think for people around Detroit at the time that I graduated, most couldn’t really understand why I would want to do that, but at the same time, when I graduated the Detroit companies were in a bit of a recession in 1982.
TG: The “Malaise Era.”
KH: Right. Car companies weren’t doing that well… so some people tried to find other manufacturers to work with. It was still a little bit of an odd choice I guess though, coming from the Detroit area.
TG: What was the culture of Toyota like at that point?
KH: Well, when I came in I really wanted to just find new design, find new ways that would be appealing to the US customer. We were very experimental back then, and we tried a lot of different techniques and processes, things that would lead us to a new design answer, a new design value. I always felt like way back when I first started there, that Toyota wanted to do things differently. They wanted to take their own approach and not do things just like the American car companies had, or even the European companies. I was really encouraged by that; I really liked that kind of creative approach, that innovation, that drive. That was really appealing to me.
TG: A car that always resonates really well with our audience, and one that we all sort of worship at the office, is the 2000GT. Do you ever trace the design development of that car, and how that kind of filtered into other production models, and then how the language sort of faded away? Perhaps it’s come back recently in designs like the FT-1, or even the MK4 Supra from the ’90s.
KH: Yeah, I really feel like the last Supra was in the image of the 2000GT. Not that the design reflected it so much in terms of the styling, but I think the spirit of that car lived on in the Supra. There are some similarities in that respect in some of the proportions. One opportunity we saw with the FT-1 was why not try to bring forward some of those design elements that the 2000GT had? We saw a tremendous amount of value in the styling direction, at least in the appearance of the 2000GT—it’s just such a cool looking car.
To answer your question, yes, I think the Supra lives in the 2000GT, and the 2000GT lives in the Supra in certain ways.
TG: Do these cars that reach iconic status in the public live in a kind of iconic shrine within Toyota and Lexus? Or are they more simply products in a long line of development?
KH: That’s a really good question. How we view cars like that internally… I think that within Toyota, the 2000GT is a really iconic car—I haven’t heard anything in opposition at least. In some terms, I would say when we proposed FT-1 to TMC, to Toyota, there were some people who were surprised that the Supra was such an revered car in the US. I think some of them just viewed it as another car in Toyota’s lineup that came and went, and didn’t see it as anything all that special. So that was a pleasant surprise to some, and we further explained the sort of symbolic following that that car has, and how people today still collect the car, and value it as a collector’s car.
TG: Now, as somebody who’s worked on a huge amount of cars over your career at Toyota and Lexus, I guess you could probably speak for some other people that have worked on a wide range of cars. How do you balance a design brief like the FT-1 with the design brief of something much more utilitarian like a Lexus RX or Toyota Sienna?
KH: You know, with each project we really have to put ourselves inside the shoes of the customer, and understand what they value in that product, what’s important about it. We actually go through quite an extensive concept phase before we even draw anything. We haven’t sketched a thing until that we’ve gone through the earlier process.
We really try to understand the direction that we’re moving in with each product, and as you said, a sports car and a mini van are so completely different, and that you’re working on both of those vehicles I guess seems like a bit of a strange occurrence, but it happens all the time here, so we really try to set strong criteria—a sort of road map of where we’re heading—and try to understand from the customer’s point of view what they’re looking for. That can involve many different things: from the appearance, to functionality, to expected content, to competition. It could also involve our own history, our own brand identity. There are so many factors that determine where we’re going to head with each particular vehicle that we work on.
TG: What are some of the moments, as you’ve spent more and more time in your career on Lexus, that you’ve been most proud of?
KH: Far and away, the Lexus LF-LC has been my proudest moment. At Lexus, it hit a new tone and a new direction In the way that that appealed to not only Lexus buyers, but how people in general seemed to react strongly to it. I’m really happy about that. There was no plan for that vehicle when we showed it; it was just an idea, just a concept, and because of the great reaction that it had with viewers and customers and people that attended auto shows, Lexus decided to build it almost exactly as is. That’s really a proud moment for us. Extremely rare to release a concept and then essentially go straight into production with it.
Probably the other iconic vehicle, I think, is the FJ Cruiser. We had proposed that again just as an idea, and because there were strong positive reactions, we built it. That’s the great thing about working on concept cars and show cars: if there’s a strong enough reaction, Toyota Lexus really looks at that feedback and can react to it very quickly.
TG: When you’re actually designing something that is based on an icon of the past—like an FJ, or even the LF-LC which pulls a few design elements from Toyota’s history—is there this feeling of weight on you to make sure that you pay proper homage to it?
KH: Yeah, it’s pretty important. We talk about that a lot, especially in the FJ Cruiser and the FT-1. In any case, we were taking what was an iconic car from the past and trying to move it forward, but with each design I would say we were really careful in our approach to doing that. We did not necessarily want to create a retro design. We wanted to capture the spirit of those cars, of the past, and just bring them into the future as modern vehicles. There’s no doubt there are iconic elements with each of these type of projects that we want to carry forward. For the FJ, we had a lot to choose from. A lot of the front identity is really powerful on the original FJ. We wanted to make sure that everybody understood and knew what that was.
Each design is a little bit different too. Honestly, in Toyota’s history, we don’t have a lot of really distinctive cars, but there are a few lurking in our history, and we really do want to pay tribute to those. You do have to be careful with the way that you approach it though, no question.
TG: As you’re building something, do you have a feeling that this could potentially be something that in a few decades’ time, we look back on in the same way that people look at the 2000GT now?
KH: I think the LF-LC might be that car, because we didn’t really have to pay homage to anything with that car, other than maybe the student grill. That one’s an established identity. When we were working on it with the LF-LC, we kept talking about just making a beautiful design statement, a beautiful coupe. Something that wasn’t so trendy, but something that could be timeless and perceived in 20 years from now as still a beautiful design. That was really a fun project, because again, we weren’t really carrying over any elements from a previous car. Even though we had the SC400 as the kind of precursor, we looked at FL-FC as a brand new start to a luxury coupe idea. We didn’t try at all to carry over anything from those previous models.
TG: To that point, when you do decide to shift the major design language of a brand like Lexus, much like you guys did with the grill design (I think colloquially some people call it the “predator” aesthetic), how do you handle the almost anticipated negative feedback when you make these big directional changes?
KH: Well, we’ve been pretty mild with our design in the past. I think we’re just at a place where creating some kind of controversy, or polarizing design, is not a bad thing for us. At least they sustain that we’re moving in a strong direction of identity. We mainly look at it is a positive. We realize that not everyone’s going to love our cars. That’s not the point. If we can get enough people that really truly, truly love our vehicles, we can create passionate enthusiasts who will carry on into the future.
I think the problem was, we were trying too hard to appeal to everybody, and we ended up doing very neutral, mild, safe designs. I like the fact that we’re moving ahead, and creating a little bit of controversy along the way.
TG: How many other design directions get considered before you make a major shift like that for Lexus? Do you have fully-baked designs that never see the light of day?
KH: You know, I would say at Lexus, sometimes it can be a rather organic process. With the LF-LC, nobody really was expecting this car to have the impact that it did. There wasn’t really some grand plan to take that kind of form language and pull it into a coupe, make a statement—it just kind of happened. I think what allows that to happen is that we’re really striving for innovation. Striving to move the brand in a much bolder direction. Everybody has more to do then, so we’re all working from the same point of view. I think when we showed that vehicle, it really resonated internally with a lot of people, and a lot of top management in the company that it was something that felt like a new direction.
TG: Because you’re in a leadership role at this point in your career, I’d imagine that the amount of time in your day to actually do the design, pen to paper stuff that you became known for and built your career on, is harder to come by, and that you have more and more time swallowed up by overseeing other people. Is that fair to say?
KH: Yeah, definitely true.
TG: If there was a role that you wish you could kind of revert to, with your current salary perhaps, what would that be?
KH: Well, I’ve always loved designing. I loved working on scale models, scale clay models were just so much fun. You could take a sketch and start carving it in, and start realizing the 3D, the artistic aspect. The 3D sculptural aspect of that process really appealed to me, working with my hands. It’s really fascinating. I think back to my most enjoyable days here, and I think it was when I had a design I was trying to translate into 3D. That’s just a lot of fun. I’d love it if I was still in that aspect of the process.
TG: Are there moments when you can kind of jump back in the scrum on stuff like that?
KH: Yeah, there are sometimes. I just actually over the past year and a half had an opportunity to do it for various reasons I won’t get into. It was a lot of fun, just working more closely on some of our clay model activity was a great time.
TG: Who else outside of Toyota and Lexus do you appreciate the design language of? Who do you look to for inspiration?
KH: You know, in my early days I went through a lot of architecture for inspiration. That was one area I looked to, and there wasn’t really any one architect in particular, but I just loved the idea of modern architecture. I think there’s a lot of architecture that’s really stepping out. There’s some really brave moves being made that sometimes we can’t realize in automobiles, because of the nature of cars and how many we have to sell. That was one area that always fascinated me, outside of car design.
You know, brand-wise, for me, I really love Porsche. I love their history, I love the way that they cultivate their past very carefully. I think they do a great job in that direction. I like their design too of course, and I like their design statement.
TG: What could Lexus learn from a brand like Porsche?
KH: You know, they’re such different brands. I don’t know from my point of view that there’s a lot of learning, because Lexus is a really new luxury brand. We don’t have a racing history, and all the iconic vehicles that Porsche has. It’s just a totally different ballgame I think.
TG: You are building a racing history though right?
KH: We’re starting to, yeah. It’s beginning. It will take a while, and I really see Lexus as a company that is searching for a new innovative direction, not dwelling too much on the past, but trying to forge a new path and a new way through the future. I really find that exciting, I think that aspect is very interesting, and it’s very different from what Porsche does in a lot of ways.
TG: What’s in your garage now?
KH: I have a 2008 911.
TG: It’s funny actually, many many car designers that we speak to appreciate Porsche in the same way, they appreciate the heritage much like you do. It’s very interesting to hear that from different people. It speaks to a designer on a core level I think, and it’s cool to hear that you appreciate that as well.
KH: Yeah, I mean just as a designer, as a person who enjoys driving, I really love the functional aspect of the 911. To me it’s a perfect blend of form and function, and I really respect that. I think it’s hard to do that, and being in the design business, it’s incredibly difficult to pull that off in such a fluid manner in combining something that from my point of view still looks artistic, but also is rooted in functionality. I think it’s something that’s very difficult to pull off, but I’m excited by what cars like the LF-LC mean for us in a similar arena.