Yellow Alfa by Irina Zavatski

Automotive Artists: Exterior Designer Irina Zavatski

Irina Zavatski is an automotive designer from a small republic called Tajikistan in the former Soviet Union. She attended both the College of Creative Studies in Detroit and Cleveland Institute of Art, but perhaps what makes her more unique is her perspective — that of a woman that’s managed to achieve success in what has always historically been a male-dominated industry.

Zavatski is an exterior design manager working for FCA in Detroit, Michigan. In 2017, she was deemed a ‘rising star’ by Automotive News for her work on the Chrysler Pacifica minivan and was promoted to work on the Jeep brand shortly thereafter. She’s also a talented artist who enjoys painting vehicles as well as architecture when she’s not working on projects within FCA’s design studios.

Form Trends recently caught up with the designer, artist and mother of two for an interview on her career path, her artwork and her recently launched website.

 What’s your day job?

“I manage a team of designers at Jeep. We develop exterior designs for multiple Jeep products. My recent projects include the Cherokee refresh and Renegade refresh. Prior to Jeep, I designed the Chrysler Pacifica.”

Can you walk us through a typical day in the life of an Exterior Design Manager?

“As a design manager, I direct clay sculptors and the 3D surfacing group to achieve our designs. My responsibility is to make sure the exterior design both looks great and challenges the norms. But it must also meet all the engineering parameters and Jeep brand requirements. So there are a lot of engineering meetings. It’s not all fun and games!”

When did you know you wanted to become a designer?

“I knew I wanted to pursue a carrier in the arts, but my “aha” moment of discovery happened during a tour of the Cleveland Institute of Art with my dad. I saw the small-scale clay car models that the students sculpted. I immediately realized that automotive design was for me.”

You studied at both the Cleveland Institute of Art and the College for Creative Studies.  What was the difference between the two programs?

“I was full time at Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA). I tried a mobility rotation into College for Creative Studies (CCS) out of curiosity. The programs are very different.

“When I went to CIA we were required to study many forms of design, including product design. This helps the students become more well-rounded. Alumni who worked at the ‘Big 3’ would come down on Saturdays to teach the automotive class. CCS has better focus and instruction in automotive design due to its proximity to the industry.”

When did you start your first job?

“After graduation, I got offered a job from multiple companies, I chose FCA because it’s a smaller team, and I felt I would have more influence on the product.”

Tell me about how you approach the design process.

“The design process is different for everyone. For me, the first step is always to make sure I understand the product from the user’s point of view. We drive different vehicles, trying to gain insights from daily use. After benchmarking other vehicles, we create inspirational image boards to establish an aesthetic direction. Then we hit the drawing boards! We do quick initial theme sketches that are loose and gestural. In general, we want to capture the proportions and stance that we are looking for at first. Then we can fine-tune the lines and graphic break-up. “

“If we are redesigning an existing vehicle, it’s a little more technical and we might have more parameters from the beginning. But we are always striving to improve upon what has been established, through enhanced aesthetics, improved functions, or added technology. Functionality is Jeep’s brand hallmark, so we always have that as a priority. In the end, all of this content has to be baked into a holistic design. And my favorite part of the process is seeing our design come together in a full-size clay model, being sculpted by hand.”

When did you start to paint?

“I always painted as a child. Then I got more serious about it in high school, which lead to art school. I took a pause from it after becoming an automotive designer. But recently I rediscovered my passion for painting.”

Why do you paint cars?

“Cars are highly recognizable, yet there is a lot of opportunity to explore different painting styles. I’ve rendered designs of cars for my job, but I like exploring the subject matter as paintings. It takes a different mindset than doing a design sketch.”

What mediums do you use? Which do you enjoy working with the most?

“I love painting in oil mostly, but my lifestyle is very busy and oil painting is very time-consuming. I do mostly digital painting now. I see digital painting as another tool to be creative.”

I see you’ve painted some modern but also a lot of classic cars. What’s your fascination with classics?

“I love classic cars; I can stare at them for hours. There were fewer limitations from a safety point of view, so cars were more unique.”

What other things do you draw/paint?

“I paint architecture and cars mostly. But I also enjoy abstract painting. In my sketchbook, I rarely draw cars. I do enjoy abstract explorations.”

How did the opportunity to create artwork for Jeep come about?

“I have created artwork for multiple charity events over the years. But my big inspiration came when I went to Moab to drive Jeeps. I absolutely developed a newfound love for Jeep while I was there. I came to truly appreciate their capability. Everything in Jeep is there for a reason, and that’s the ultimate designer experience.”

What’s your favorite car?

“It’s very hard to choose a favorite car. My favorite brand is Alfa Romeo. If I had to choose it would be the Alfa Romeo Montreal. I’ve also always been a fan of the Karmann-Ghia; there’s something about that little boutique car.”

Have you’ve been commissioned to draw/paint cars for enthusiasts/owners?

“I’m kind of new to this. A few people have approached me but I don’t have much experience with that yet. I have gotten a couple of commissions recently, but they weren’t automotive.”

Tell me a little about some of your clients and the exhibitions you’ve done on your artwork.

“I’ve sold multiple pieces though FCA charity events like Caden’s Full Throttle and United Way. I have exhibited my work at Middlecott Sketchbattle and some galleries in Detroit. I’ve sold multiple pieces through my online store.”

What activities do you do in your spare time?

“I sketch a lot in my sketchbook. I love painting, drawing and photography.

“Most of my time is spent raising a family and working at FCA. I also visit CIA often, as I believe outreach and giving back is very important. And it does inspire me to be a better designer and create more art.”

What’s in your garage at the moment?

“A Chrysler Pacifica. I designed it, so that makes it super cool.  I’m also looking to buy a Porsche Boxter. I’ve been trying to find the perfect one for a couple of years now.”

What cars have you owned in the past? Are there any you still wish you had today?

“My favorite car I owned was a Mini Cooper S, but had to sell it when the kids came around.”

You can buy a selection of Irina’s artwork exclusively through the Form Trends shop. Various other prints, mugs and holiday cards are available on her own website.


Founded in 2012, Form Trends tirelessly covers the automotive design industry in all corners of the globe to bring you exclusive content about cars, design, and the people behind the products.