California is the largest car market in the US. It’s no surprise then that the State also has the largest concentration of automotive design studios than any other place in the world. In the vicinity of Los Angeles — from San Diego up to Thousand Oaks — there are no less than 15 design outposts for carmakers ranging from Audi to Volvo.
The video above highlights one such studio: the Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design Center in Carlsbad, CA — a suburb of San Diego. It is the second design facility the company has occupied in the Golden State and one of the southernmost design studios on the west coast — only Nissan’s NDA is further south.
For automakers, there’s a lot to gain from having a satellite studio on California. The size of the market, the required daily use of cars and the weather are just three of the reasons automakers have decided to populate the area.
The weather is perhaps the biggest attraction for carmakers and their potential employees — 292 days of sunshine were recorded in downtown Los Angeles last year. That means you can drive whatever car you want without having to worry about the bodywork getting exposed to moisture, dirt or salt. “You can’t do that in Detroit,” says Kevin Hunter, Design Director at Toyota’s CALTY Design Research, the oldest design studio on the west coast.
Los Angeles revolves around automotive culture, partly because you need a car to travel anywhere. Sure there’s public transportation, but in nearly seven years I lived in southern California the only people I knew that used it were those who couldn’t afford a car or those who’d had their licenses revoked.
In LA, the running joke is that it takes half an hour to get anywhere within the sprawling metropolis. It’s the equivalent of saying “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity,” to a New Yorker in the summer. It’s the oldest cliche. Of course that’s dependent on the time of day, the route you choose to go and whether or not you have a companion, which would allow use of the coveted carpool lane. Despite the fact that the saying doesn’t take into account the growing number of cars taking to the roads annually, nearly everyone I met in LA swore by the “half hour” line.
The fact that lot of time is spent in vehicles means people are more inclined to customize them. From new cars to classics, bikes to trucks, nearly every vehicle on the road has some form of aftermarket enhancement that make it instantly recognizable to its owner. It’s a reflection of them, their persona and values. It largely identifies them as an individual.
“‘You are what you drive,’ is a common saying around these parts,” says one local design director. “Nobody wants to be seen in the clapped out Nova, but if it’s properly customized it can speak volumes about the person’s individuality.”
Image is everything in Los Angeles. And because of this it’s not uncommon to find out that the guy driving a new Bentley Continental actually lives in a one-bedroom apartment. He might even share it with his mother. And if you stacked up his debts they’d be taller than Mount Everest. But he’s got that Bentley.
California is a very influential market, and LA is home to the US movie industry and has a bustling art scene. From Hollywood to the Arts District, you’re never far from an inspiring piece, be it art, fashion or architecture.
Mercedes Head of Design Gorden Wagener knows this well. He calls Mercedes’ advanced design studio a “seismograph for influences emerging from art, culture and architecture” and cut his teeth in California working on such programs as the 1994 MCC — the precursor to the original Smart — and the All Activity Vehicle concept, which previewed the 1996 M-Class. In 2008, Wagener initiated the Mercedes take over of Chrysler’s 34,000 sq. ft. Carlsbad facility because the company needed more space for its expanding programs.
Now headed up by Maggie Wies, Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design California houses five full-size plates, employs roughly 25 creatives, and is one of five advanced design centers the German automaker runs to keep tabs on — and to gain influence from — what’s happening in local markets. The others are in Tokyo, Japan; Como, Italy (which is mainly tasked with interior design); Sindelfingen, Germany; and a recently opened space in Beijing, China.
The most recent projects to emerge from Mercedes’ California studio are the Ener-G Force concept revealed at last year’s LA auto show and the Biome concept from 2010, but it was also where creative director Huey Lee penned the initial sketch for the second generation CLS — a project that required him to travel to Sindelfingen to see through and miss the birth of his first child…
In the coming weeks we’ll be featuring interviews with the designers that live in and around LA and finding out a bit more about why they’re there. Stay tuned!