Changing of the Guard: Alfonso Albaisa Succeeds Shiro Nakamura as Nissan Senior Vice President of Design

Alfonso Albaisa succeeds Shiro Nakamura

In a much-anticipated announcement, Nissan Motor Co.’s Shiro Nakamura will retire at the end of the month, leaving Alfonso Albaisa to fill the role of Senior Vice President of Global Design. But while Albaisa was one of three contenders I predicted would succeed Nakamura at the helm, the appointment of former head of BMW Design Karim Habib as Albaisa’s replacement at Infiniti has caught me somewhat off-guard.

When I caught up with Nakamura and Albaisa on their respective show stands last week neither was willing to comment on next steps for Nissan’s design organization. But the announcement was imminent. “We all have to go sometime,” Nakamura said. “It’s the law.” Albaisa was a bit coyer, saying simply: “We’ll see what happens.”

I honestly can’t blame them for not wanting to let the cat out of the bag. This is big news for Nissan as a whole, which we’ll see manifest itself in the company’s future products. Albaisa will now be responsible for Nissan as well as Infiniti and the Datsun brand.

Alfonso Albaisa

Albaisa Moves Up

The decision to appoint Albaisa at the helm of the Japanese company’s design organization is a massive coup for the Cuban-born American. Though he’s clearly demonstrated his ability to direct teams in all four corners of the globe and pushed through some incredibly avant-garde, creative and contemporary show cars since taking over his role as executive design director at Infiniti in 2013, he’s a patent artiste – and I mean that in the best sense of the word.

Since joining Nissan in 1988, Albaisa has demonstrated his passion for design and as a brand visionary that is able to translate his progressive thinking into globally appealing designs. This is why Nakamura sought to bring him on board to head Infiniti design in the first place.

Albaisa’s also been with the company for nearly 30 years, having directed design at both NDA in California and NDE in London before he was named Design Director of Nissan passenger cars, where he devised and implemented future design strategies for the brand (including zero emission vehicles) from the carmaker’s headquarters in Atsugi, Japan.

Since taking over as head of Infiniti design, Albaisa has presided over concept cars such as the Q80 Inspiration, QX30 and Q60, all of which brought forward a new dimension of design quality that is now present in the luxury brand’s production vehicles launched during his tenure.

Having been an integral part of the Nissan design organization for nearly three decades, he also knows the company and its culture inside out, and he’s spearheaded the initiative to put Infiniti on the map as a design-led luxury carmaker. The results are directly reflected in the company’s record global sales last year.

Shiro Nakamura

Nakamura’s Legacy

Shiro Nakamura has been Nissan’s charismatic head of design since being appointed Chief Creative Officer in 2006. His title eventually morphed to Senior Vice President of Global Design, reflecting his duties overseeing Nissan as well as Infiniti and the relaunched Datsun brand, and he’s made great strides on all fronts.

Amongst his many achievements at Nissan, Nakamura had the courage to develop and build the Nissan Qashqai (the first C-segment crossover that subsequently redefined the European family car), the gorgeous Infiniti FX (arguably the first coupe/SUV crossover) and the Nissan Juke, which had every European car company scrambling to develop their own B-segment crossover.

He also had the good sense to separate the Infiniti and Nissan design studios (and designers) so they could focus on their core product lines and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, revived the Datsun brand through youthful, ‘sporty and modern’ design to cater to emerging markets.

His creative vision in implementing successful products across all of the brands under the Nissan Motor Co. umbrella can only be seen as a massive accomplishment. The only misstep since coming on board at Nissan in 1999 was the appointment of Simon Cox as head of Infiniti Europe, but I’ll forgive him that short-lived transgression.

Shiro Nakamura

Besides his duties as Chief Design Officer and Vice President of Design, Nakamura also spearheaded an innovative program to help aspiring designers achieve their dream of working in the car design industry by starting an intensive design workshop for young creatives. Led out of the company’s Creative Box studio in central Tokyo, the two- to four-week-long program taught a generation of up-and-coming designers that have since moved on to work in Nissan’s studios as well as those of rival companies.

In short, Nakamura’s been a creative inspiration to many designers and will continue to be a role model for generations to come. And I don’t doubt I’ll see him around the many classic car shows where he’s served as a judge for as long as I’ve been in this profession.

Big Surprise

The biggest surprise is the announcement of former head of BMW Design Karim Habib, who will succeed Albaisa as head of Infiniti Design starting July 1, 2017. Given his experience at BMW and Mercedes-Benz – chief rivals for Nissan’s luxury offshoot – the appointment of Habib is a no-brainer. I’m looking forward to seeing the next generation of Infiniti products emerge under his direction.


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