Nissan’s European design hub, Nissan Design Europe (NDE), has been in London, UK, since 2003. Over the course of the last 15 years, the studio has been responsible for an array of hugely successful models for the Japanese brand and, most recently, a number of Infiniti brand products. A specific Infiniti studio opened adjacent to the Nissan facility in 2014.
A Brief History
When Nissan first opened its European studio in 1990, NDE was based within Nissan’s Technical Centre Europe (NTCE) in Cranfield, UK. The design work done by NDE was to support manufacturing at the plant (NMUK), in Sunderland, UK, and allowed designers to work hand-in-hand with the engineering teams to develop products designed to cater to European tastes.
In 1992 NDE relocated to Wolfratshausen, a town in Germany to the south of Munich. It was a move that allowed the satellite studio to expand its remit and work on creating new models, drawing in talented designers from Germany and Italy. Eight years later Nissan’s top brass re-evaluated the location. They decided NDE required a studio space that would inspire the huge creative transformation they knew Nissan needed to be successful in Europe.
A decision was made to move NDE to London – one of the world’s major creative hubs, and home to an established and diverse international population. A studio in the capital would also allow NDE to build stronger relations with NTCE and NMUK. It was deemed the perfect environment for Nissan’s multicultural design team.
Finding Creative Space
Nissan management, and then senior vice president and head of design Shiro Nakamura, began scouting locations. The brief was to find a ‘landmark building’, which would bolster creativity and draw design talent. A local property company was brought in and the search stretched from the fast-redeveloping Docklands area in the city’s east to around Heathrow airport in the west.
The list of buildings put on the shortlist included one called The Rotunda, an unusual oval-shaped concrete building in Paddington, an area to the north of London’s famous Hyde Park.
The Rotunda, a listed building formerly used as a bus depot, was a vast space but needed a lot of work. Designed in the mid-1960s by architect Paul Hamilton as a road vehicle maintenance depot for British Rail, it had been abandoned during the 1980s and fallen into disrepair. Converting the derelict building into a usable design space that would attract the caliber of designers Nissan sought was not for the fainthearted.
“It was a real mess and full of water, but such a cool building,” recalls Nissan design project manager Dave Godsell, who was part of the team that made the first visit to The Rotunda. “We sent photos back to Japan, and eventually Carlos Ghosn [at the time president and CEO of Nissan Motor Company] came to have a look. We were amazed when he agreed to it because it needed vision to see the potential. A really brave decision, but I think it paid off.”
Vision was exactly what was needed. Officially located at 181 Harrow Rd, London, W2 6NB, The Rotunda was also covered in graffiti and its official status as a ‘listed building’ meant that couldn’t be cleaned off.
It was also not easy to get to; located almost underneath an elevated section of the A40, a key road into the city from the west, The Rotunda was situated just meters from the Grand Union Canal. For anyone working there or visiting, it would only be accessible by walking on the towpath immediately next to the water.
What it had was potential. The open-plan site meant a spacious interior that could be transformed into a tailor-made urban design studio.
Work began in 2002 with a plan for three floors of workshops, offices and creative facilities. The interior was based on the Japanese concept of ‘wa’ – meaning harmony – and reflected a fusion of Japanese and European cultural and design influences. As for the graffiti, it was simply covered up with wall cladding, which remains there to this day.
The new NDE officially opened for business on January 25, 2003, as the newest of four worldwide design studios. The others are the Global Design Center in Atsugi, Japan, San Diego, USA (NDA) and Beijing, China (NDC). Shiro Nakamura and Carlos Ghosn attended the opening ceremony in London.
“Design is fundamental at Nissan,” Ghosn commented at the time. “ [Opening Nissan Design Europe] is a demonstration of the value we place on design as we continue to create and launch exciting and attractive cars specially designed with European customers in mind.”
In 2003, The Rotunda became home to approximately 50 automotive designers, modelers and support staff. In collaboration with colleagues around the world, their role – then as now – was to conceive and design the next generation of models for European customers. That included working collaboratively with the engineering teams at NTCE, and manufacturing operations at NMUK and in Barcelona, Spain (NMISA).
Current NDE design director at Mat Weaver – the designer responsible for penning the Qazana (which became the Juke) as well as the Qashqai concepts – was a senior designer at the studio at the time. He described it as “one of the most extraordinary periods of my career”.
Designing the Future
“There was a newly found pioneering spirit about the whole company and NDE was very much central to that within Europe,” Weaver recalls. “We were at the height of the ‘turnaround’ phase and the mentality of ‘bold and thoughtful’ was our mantra. We knew Nissan had to make vast gains quickly, so for a designer it was a thrilling time.”
In 2003 the NDE team had completed work on the next-generation Almera, Nissan’s C-segment hatchback. But Carlos Ghosn had challenged designers as to whether it was the right product for the business.
That question marked the start of an adventure that changed the automotive landscape in Europe. In conjunction with colleagues at NTCE and product planning, NDE designers began a journey that would ultimately lead to the creation of the Nissan Juke and the Qashqai… and the beginning of the crossover segment in Europe.
“The history of The Rotunda and the way we found it before we moved in was part of the inspiration for the Qashqai concept,” Weaver remembers. “The graffiti in the building was used to inspire the interior fabric and helped communicate the ‘urban crossover’ theme of the vehicle.”
Building on a Legacy
Nissan’s European design studio was joined in 2014 by a new studio space in an adjacent building. Christened ‘Infiniti Design London’, the new studio was created specifically to cater to the premium brand, feeding London culture and inspiring team members.
The Infiniti studio became part of the network of global design studios that focuses on the creation of new models for the brand, each with their own team of designers. The Infiniti studio shares a workshop with Nissan’s designers in The Rotunda and is accessed through a back door interconnected by a parking lot underneath the A40. The workshop is equipped to build full-size clay models.
As part of the overall NDE footprint, both the Nissan and Infiniti design studios remain one of the few full-capability automotive design studios located in a city center worldwide. It’s an expensive endeavor, but one that has successfully paid off over the years.
Below is a gallery of the projects undertaken at NDE over the last 15 years.
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