Design Renaissance: African-Americans are setting the standard

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Front and rear overhangs, sleek straight edges, radical curvatures, exaggerated suspensions and gleaming chrome grills and tailpipes are on display in showrooms across America.  These heart-throbbing exhibits of masterfully sculpted steel are steering what industry experts call “the auto design renaissance.”

Amid spiking production costs, plummeting sales and disappearing market share, auto manufacturers have made renewed investments in bold, stimulating designs to spur consumer interest and boost slacking bottom lines. Style sells and design delivers dollars, says Darrel Edwards, CEO and founder of Strategic Vision, a market research firm that studies consumer buying in the automotive industry.

Edwards maintains that consumers should be able to envision themselves in their cars. The look and feel must resonate with who they are and how they want to be seen, he writes in the firm’s annual “New Vehicle Experience Study.” 

Struggling automakers hope that this resurgence in vehicle artistry will further differentiate their brands, cater to consumer tastes, as well as meet government standards in safety, fuel efficiency and emissions control. Never has so much been riding on design and the skillful team of creators who provide it.  Here are five African Americans who are driving the renaissance, setting the standard in auto style and conceptualizing some of the hottest selling cars both on the road and in our garages.

Edward Welburn is vice president of global design for General Motors Corp., leading an organization of more than 1400 employees working in 11 locations around the world.  After more than 35 years with the auto titan, Welburn has become the first African American to lead a major automotive design house. His creative teams are responsible for the development of new and innovative vehicles for all GM brands.  He recently marshaled the development of the Chevy SSR, Chevy Bel Air and a fleet of new-generation, hydrogen fuel cell concepts, which include the GM AUTOnomy and Hy-wire.

Ralph Gilles etched his success in steel with his award-winning design of the Chrysler 300C. As design director for Chrysler L.L.C., Gilles took the North American International Auto Show, winning the Urban Wheels Award, the Road and Travel Car of the Year Award and the North American International Auto Show award for his work on the company’s flagship vehicle.  The Dodge Magnum and 2006 Charger also bear his distinctive imprint.  

Michael Burton made his mark as lead designer for the exteriors of the Cadillac SRX and STS.  His visual innovations won him the opportunity to work on both the exterior and interior of that prestigious product line.  In his current role as director of interior design, Burton oversees front-wheel drive platforms. He led the design team recognized for creating the highly popular Buick Enclave. The 30-year design veteran is the only African-American designer to have worked at all three domestic automakers—starting out at Ford Motor Co. and subsequently becoming the first African American designer at Chrysler before joining GM in 1999.

Earl Lucas can trace his design beginnings back to aircraft interiors. He designed door panels and passenger seats for aircraft before landing a position in automotives at Ford.  As a design manager, Lucas sketched the interiors of the redesigned 2001 Ford Explorer and Z3 Escort.  The creative whiz, who hails from Texas, also was at the helm of design for the interiors of the critically acclaimed 2003 Lincoln Navigator and the contemporary Ford Edge.

Crystal Windham first joined GM in 1994 on a rotational assignment that allowed her to assist with designing the Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Chevrolet and Saturn brands.  After volunteering for a yearlong stint in Russelsheim, Germany, Windham returned to the U.S. as lead designer for the 2004 Malibu and Malibu Maxx interior.  As lead designer, she guided the trendy vehicles from model conception through production.  Windham currently is a design manager for mid-size car interiors assigned to the 2006 G-6 coupe and convertible, the 2007 Saturn Aura and the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu.