Why ArtCenter’s Auto Design Program Is One of the Most Influential on the Planet

The modern Mini, the original Ford Taurus, and the Ferrari F430 are just a few of the iconic cars styled by the program’s talent

It’s a few minutes before midnight on the first Sunday in December, and Room 216 at ArtCenter College of Design is a bright workshop full of manic energy and the acrid odor of drying paint. Clipped conversations in English, French, Italian, Korean, and Mandarin float above a rising undercurrent of tension. Several eighth-term seniors wearing respirators hustle back and forth from nearby paint booths. Others, helped by conscripted friends and relatives, feverishly sand, stripe, and assemble the scale models that represent not only their visions of the automotive future but also their hopes for a toehold in the car design industry.

These aren’t flimsy plastic replicas built from kits. Sculpted out of clay or milled from foam, the models are larger than microwave ovens, and they’re sprayed with paint so lustrous that they still appear to be wet. They’re the product of three months of painstaking effort, and they represent the final step each of the school’s transportation design majors must take before graduating next week. There was a similar scramble for other seniors in April.

“It’s been a nightmare,” Giancarlo Foschetti says of the see-through lattice bodywork he’s fashioned for a Mercedes-Benz supercar. He exudes an easygoing vibe that’s at odds with his imposing six-foot-six-inch frame, black beard, and visible weariness. “I just didn’t want to be a stage monkey who does what he’s told and ends up with the same thing as everybody else. I wanted to do what I wanted to do and add something of my own. That’s what the car companies are looking for. In a way, these models are a job application.”

ArtCenter houses what’s arguably the oldest and most influential transportation design program in the world. The school’s location in Pasadena is one reason almost every automaker has a design studio in Southern California, and you’d struggle to find a single manufacturer without a few alumni on staff. The split-window Corvette, the Boss 302 Mustang, the original Ford Taurus, the Audi TT, the BMW Z8, the modern Mini, the Lamborghini Murciélago, the Ferrari F430—all of these iconic cars were styled by ArtCenter talent.

But before students can land a job designing real cars, they must first survive the hell known as the senior presentation, when their work will be critiqued by working car designers in search of new blood. So for the past 14 weeks, 17 students have been sweating over the models and portfolios that serve as their senior theses. At this stage they’re virtually living under the glare of the fluorescent lights in Room 216. (Foschetti catnaps here on a couch he’s pulled into the studio.) “I have a huge checklist on my door at home so I know what I have to do every day when I leave, and I’m just right on schedule even though I’m really pushing it,” says Chris Yu-Jen Tsai, a slightly built native of Taiwan. “I can’t afford to get sick. I have cough medicine with me all the time.”

Tomorrow the students will rehearse their presentations, then perform them for an audience of professional designers the day after that. ArtCenter students are accustomed to thrashing to meet implausible deadlines; Tsai likens his first semester to a boot camp that weeds out all but the most committed newcomers. Now, though, the stakes are higher. “We need to make an impact in the ten minutes we get with the designers,” Thomas Belhacene says. “If you do, it’s almost like they don’t even need to see the rest of your portfolio.”

Intense and driven, the French-born Belhacene has dreamed of designing cars since he was ten. For his senior thesis he’s built a series of fanatically detailed models, including a rally car with an exoskeleton sheathed in mesh fabric. “It’s like a rib cage protecting the major organs,” he explains. While he uses a carpenter’s level to hang sketches and renderings on a corkboard partition, his classmates refine fender lines, apply decals, and rethink business cards. “Even though they say the small things don’t matter,” Josh Tang says, “everything matters.”

 The senior presentations of Giancarlo Foschetti (top) and Thomas Belhacene (above) are shown in their best light during ArtCenter’s Industry Night, during which professionals assess the handiwork of students

The senior presentations of Giancarlo Foschetti (top) and Thomas Belhacene (above) are shown in their best light during ArtCenter’s Industry Night, during which professionals assess the handiwork of students

Photographs by Damon Casarez

Los Angeles has long been renowned for fresh takes on automotive styling, be it for race cars, hot rods, movie fantasies, futuristic concept cars, or customs conceived by local luminaries such as George Barris and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. As Stewart Reed, chair of the ArtCenter transportation design department, puts it, “You can’t teach a passion for cars, but the environment out here fuels it. You can’t imagine the Meyers Manx dune buggy being designed in Minnesota, can you?”

During the 1920s, movie stars and business tycoons frequented local coachbuilders, who offered custom bodywork for exotic Duesenbergs, Packards, and Pierce-Arrows. The most celebrated shop was the Walter M. Murphy Company in Pasadena, but the most successful stylist was a flamboyant Hollywood native named Harley Earl, who would later be immortalized as the father of the tail fin. In 1927, he founded an industrial design department at General Motors called the Art & Colour Section. This evolved into GM Styling and established the template for the modern automotive design studio.

In 1930, advertising executive Edward “Tink” Adams was inspired to open what was then known as the ArtCenter School, located in downtown Los Angeles, which employed working professionals to teach advertising, illustration, photography, and industrial design. In 1948, he hired Strother MacMinn to lead the first classes in transportation design. MacMinn was the perfect choice to invent a new academic discipline. Besides being an inspirational educator with encyclopedic knowledge of automotive styling, MacMinn was a product of Southern California who had apprenticed at Walter M. Murphy before working for Earl at GM Styling.

The transportation design department prospered under MacMinn’s Yoda-like tutelage, and its influence in the industry flourished after ArtCenter moved in the 1970s to a cubist glass-and-steel building sited dramatically on a hillside overlooking the Rose Bowl. In 1973, Toyota became the first automaker to set up a design studio in the region. (The founder was an ArtCenter grad, and MacMinn was a major player.) Nissan and Chrysler followed, and the race was on. These days it’s easier to name the manufacturers without satellite studios than to list all the ones that have them.

Most of these studios focus on advanced design, creating concept cars displayed at auto shows and formulating the styling cues that a company will use for a decade or so to come. But the design outposts are also responsible for some cars that go directly into production. The original Mazda Miata was designed in Southern California—by an ArtCenter grad. So was the New Beetle. And studios continue to open here, with Tesla and possibly Genesis—the new high-line Hyundai brand—being the latest arrivals.

Inevitably ArtCenter has changed with the times. When aspiring car designer Peter Brock visited the school in the mid-1950s to ask about applying, he was told that he had to submit samples of his work. So he hurried back to his car, furiously sketched hot rods in a three-ring binder for several hours, and returned with an instant portfolio. “Will this do?” he asked. It did, and he later designed the Cobra Daytona Coupe, one of the most memorable shapes in motorsports history.

Although the ability to draw remains a sine qua non of car design, the curriculum at ArtCenter has become broader and more technical, embracing everything from power train technology and vehicle architecture to human factors analysis and creating a brand image. So while Tsai shows off an exquisite model of a Mazda luxury sedan circa 2025—“This is an exploration of what Japanese premium could be,” he says—his presentation is supported by countless “ideation” sketches, “package” drawings showing how passengers would fit inside, and dramatic renderings that look like movie storyboards.

It’s now Tuesday afternoon. In an hour a contingent of industry pros will arrive at ArtCenter to critique the students’ work. (A second group is expected in two days, on Industry Night, when students throughout the school present their products to professionals.) Foschetti comes back from a desperate last-minute session in a paint booth. “I was freaking out. Paint was literally dripping off my model,” he says. There’s a long pause. “Sorry if I’m not making any sense. I haven’t slept more than two or three hours a night in a week.” He gazes at one of his models with a quizzical look. “My steering wheel is missing,” he says, too exhausted to betray any shock. “That’s nice.”

Room 216 undergoes a magical transformation as tools, supplies, worktables, garbage cans, and extraneous cartons are dragged into a hallway. When Reed, the department chair, walks in, the aisles are clear; the exhibits, pristine. With him are eight working designers, including a pair of industry legends—2005 Ford GT supercar designer Camilo Pardo and Luc Donckerwolke, the former chief of the Lamborghini and Bentley design offices.

Tisha Johnson feels something like déjà vu as she steps inside. “The smell of the paint and the Bondo gave me a sense memory of exhaustion and stress and not eating right,” she says. Sixteen years ago she was an eighth-term student laboring right up until the deadline for her senior project. Today she oversees all design work at Volvo’s studio in Camarillo. “We’re doubling our numbers [of designers],” she says, “so I’m here scouting.”

Students and visitors move en masse from display to display. At each stop a student briefly summarizes his or her projects, then listens as the pros offer on-the-spot critiques of remarkable breadth and savvy. Much of the feedback is packed with designspeak, but most of the comments are generous, and even when they’re critical, the designers are upbeat. The formal review lasts all afternoon. Then designers browse through the room, peering more closely at models and portfolios and chatting one-on-one with students. Pardo examines the foam supercar studies made by Italian Marcello Raeli while Johnson searches for interior designs. “It’s always good to see what kind of talent is out there,” says Doncker-wolke.

Foschetti is pleased with the appraisals he received. But despite downing a Rockstar, a Red Bull, and two espressos, he’s in no condition to celebrate. “At this point all I want to do is sleep,” he says. Thursday is Industry Night, and he may be pulling another all-nighter tomorrow.