Ken Okuyama is a talented designer with a prestigious portfolio. He spent 12 years at the famed Italian design house Pininfarina after a stint with GM’s Advanced Design Studio, where he worked on the C5 Corvette. He also styled the Boxster and 996-generation 911 atPorsche. His first Ferrari design was the Rossa concept car, though his most famous creation is the Enzo.
Now Okuyama runs a design studio that not only is responsible for the new Kode57 supercar that debuted in Monterey this past weekend, but also eye glasses, civic planning, and even Japanese bullet trains. We caught up with Okuyama at the Concorso Italiano car show, plopped down on a couple of plush leather chairs right in front of his brand new Kode57, and chatted about what the future holds for car design.
Alex Kierstein: Lately there’s been a lot of talk about autonomy and future mobility. What sort of challenges and opportunities do you think this autonomous future is going to provide for you as a car designer?
Ken Okuyama: It is a really fantastic time for designers because of two reasons. One is that the public and private transport have been two separate, completely different industries up until now. Now, when you think about the future of autonomy, that really brings the automobiles into something more of a public transportation. You really have to think about the total experience of the customers from buying the ticket to the paying mechanism. That’s just hardware, actually. It is a huge challenge for engineers and designers, and I really love that. That’s one reason.
Another reason is that just like horses were a means of transport 100 or so years ago, up until Henry Fordmass-produced the Model T. Now, maybe sports cars are becoming like horses. Now, horses are a great object for hobby, sports, and part of the Olympics and everything. Cars are going to be like that also. Dr. Porsche [was asked what type of] automobile is going to last for the longest time. He said, “the sports car.” I really believe in that, because with sports cars, you never lose a sense of ownership.
Autonomous vehicles are things you don’t have to own. You have to design a total experience and the whole operation. A car, you want to own it. It’s part of you. Your mechanical watches, do you borrow them from somebody? You want to own it. Your suits, your favorite shirts, you want to borrow them from somebody for your experience? No, you want to own it. Ownership is a core part of human beings. I’m really excited.
AK: I feel like cars are now designed to appeal to someone that only wants to own them for three years, on some level. Do you think the rise of the lease is influencing how they’re designed and built?
KO: Actually no. I lease my Maserati Quattroporte in Tokyo. I have two of them. The reason is because I run the company and the only expense I can actually write off is a lease. After five years I can buy that from my company. That’s what actually a lot of people do to own something that they really love, cherish. Maserati Quattroporte, as you know, I designed that thing. I always wanted to buy that. At the same time, I never wanted to own it, because once you own something you designed in the past you hang onto it.
Our job, the designer’s job, is to always create newness. Newness, you have to destroy something old, something you’ve done in the past. For that reason, for the longest time, I never owned something I designed in the past. Now, I’m not just the designer. I run the company. I produce these products. I need to know about the product better than my customers. I’m growing into the next phase in my career that I don’t mind owning something. For the passionate reasons, but at the same time I need to know the car better to actually do better than the car.
AK: I’d love it if you could tell me a little bit about your company. I think some of our readers are familiar with your cars, like the Quattroporte you mentioned but also the Ferrari Enzo, but I’d love you to give me a quick overview of your own company, what you’ve done, and where it’s going.
KO: I was with Pininfarina for 12 years. I still have a house in Turin, actually. I go back once in awhile, just for the fun of it. Then about 10 years ago I started my company in Tokyo. We do a lot of consulting of trains, airplanes …
AK: You designed some bullets trains, correct?
KO: We do. We have designed, actually, three bullet trains in the past five years, which is actually quite amazing. They normally don’t give one job to the same designer, but we have done that. We designmotorcycles and do some architecture. We do master plans for city planning. That’s very stable and a good business for us. At the same time, I say to myself, “If I die in a plane crash tomorrow, my company’s going to go out of business. I’d like to establish my own brand, Okuyama brand.”
About five years ago we started working on a pyramid of products, starting from the bottom to the top. The eyewear that I’m wearing, they’re Ken Okuyama EYES brand. We have three stores in Japan now, Okuyama stores, and about 50 stores total thanks to franchising. To build that Okuyama brand, to be more like Porsche Design, I needed something to be on the top of this pyramid. I said, “It’s gotta be automobiles.” It’s my passion. The same customers actually go to eyewear to automobiles.
I started establishing our own in-house shop. I have about 50 people building these cars now. The car we’re presenting today at the Concorso Italiano [The Kode57 Enji. – Ed.] is something completely built, engineered, designed in-house. We’re going to build only five of these. That’s it. I’m not going to mention the price of it. The one that we’re looking at right now is already owned by a Japanese owner. The second and third, we already have a discussion with those people. These are going to be the flagship of the pyramid of Ken Okuyama brand.
We just started building this brand based on the philosophy that I like to produce something that is both, because it’s not needed, because it’s wanted. Something based on your desire. It’s basically a lot to do with ownership. You’re asking the right questions.
AK: Someone told me recently, as they were describing Lexus’ new very wild design language, that with the gridlock in Japan you might only be able to catch a little slice of the car in between other cars. The company wanted you to be able to know what it was you were looking at. I don’t know if that was a philosophy that guided you, but I’m looking at this car and every angle and shape looks totally unique to me.
KO: Good design always has a very simple impression. I call this the first reading. The first reading of a design has to be strong and elegant. It has to be very simple. Then, as you start looking into the details, you discover a lot of interesting secondary readings. Good paintings, good architecture, any aesthetically good objects always have that. You don’t mix details with the total theme. The total theme of the Kode57 came from the 1957 Testa Rossa. If you remember that, that car has a pontoon fender line coming from the front fender that runs to the rear that eventually disappears.
This one blends into the secondary mass of this rear fender. This is a theme that actually I developed when I was at Pininfarina as a part of a show car called Rossa in 2000. I designed that and I introduced that. I still like it. At the same time, I wasn’t fully satisfied. I wanted to continue working with the theme. That car was also based on the 1957 Testa Rossa theme. That’s why this car’s called Kode57 and the nickname is Enji. Enji means Bordeaux, dark red in Japanese.
Without the carbon-fiber technology, this car couldn’t be done. When you look at the front fender, and those fins, there’s actually one piece of carbon fiber that’s hollow inside. You couldn’t do this with aluminum. The headlights and part of the taillights were done with a 3D printer. That’s why we’re able to not invest in too much for the tooling and still do this limited production of five cars, that’s all, and make it profitable.
AK: I think that’s amazing. Modern construction techniques that allow you to …
KO: To do something you couldn’t do before.
AK: … and realize a dream. Is it hard to put down the pen? You’ve done all the concept drawings, is it hard to stop refining the drawing and turn it into something physical? What’s that part of the process like?
KO: That’s a great question. All painters, actually the hardest question to himself or herself is when to put down the pen or the brush. I have the same problem. You have to decide at one point. You’re never satisfied with when to put down the pen. You finished something, and the day after the press conference you said, “Oh darn. I have to finish them. I have to change that, because that guy said this thing, and I have to change without my permission.” You’re never 100-percent satisfied with your creation.
At the same time, maybe it’s in production, maybe you have a great Italian dinner, and after a glass of wine you step out of the restaurant and a car passes by in front you. It’s like, “Wow. That’s something. Did I do that?” You’re 100-percent satisfied. The next morning, again, you’re sober and you go into your garage and see your car. “No, I should have done that. I should have done this.” Again, that guy comes up. It is like that, the whole life cycle. You just go through that whole thing. That’s the nature of human beings.
AK: I think it’s part of the creative struggle, right? You’re never satisfied with something you’ve created.
KO: A book, or any article that you write, it’s the same thing. It’s not just a painting, or it’s not just a car, or design. It’s something that human beings create. You go through the same cycle.
AK: Is the low-production-volume model your way forward?
KO: Actually our plan, and we’re already doing, is to come back every year pretty much to this Concorso Italiano, The Quail, or here in Monterrey with a new car. We already have a new project started with a new client who has paid. We are working on that project. We’ll hopefully finish before next year, this event, and bring it over here. That’s the plan.
AK: That must be very exciting that you get to do something new at that cadence, as opposed to having to wait years between one project and the next.
KO: The Italian carrozzerias used to do that every year. Pininfarina used to introduce a new concept car. Concept cars, in the 1960s, were running cars and they would sell them to customers. We’re doing the same thing with the new technology. Every year [we can do a] new product, because of the digital technology and a lot of things we learned from my experience in Italy, we’re able to do that. The plan is we work together with the client to come to this achievement with this Kode57 Enji, but the next one is already on the way. I look forward to it.