We’ve all had the experience of submitting something to our boss and finding s/he doesn’t like it. In a conventional job they send you back to your desk to get it right. But in the case of these designers we’re chatting with here, you might be sent to go wandering through a jungle on a different continent for two weeks, in search of a color no one’s ever seen before.
Welcome to the CMF (Color Material Finish) group at the Acura Design Studio, where designers Gypsy Modina and Violet Park are tasked with devising surfaces, textures and colors, both interior and exterior, that form a subtle but large proportion of the vehicle’s identity. Out of all of the automotive design specialities we’ve covered yet, this one might be the most far-reaching–and, as Modina explains, the most unexpectedly familiar.
Core77: Can you describe your positions?
Gypsy Modina: I’m a Principal Color Material Designer. As a project leader, some of the programs that I’ve launched were the 2007 TL Type S, 2011 MDX and the Precision Concept, just to name a few. My primary role is to be a group leader for global color material strategy for Acura. All really fun stuff.
Violet Park: I’m a Color Trim Designer here at Acura. I’ve been with Acura for six years and I was color and trim styling Project Lead of the ’19 model RDX. And currently I’m working on some upcoming Acura projects.
What does the CMF department do?
Gypsy: We incorporate the brand and product identity through the use of color, material and finish. People’s relationship with that makes a really strong connection emotionally. The second thing that we do is help performance by material choices. We refine that aesthetic of interior and exterior design, bringing up the level. We also delve into material innovation and cutting edge technology.
What led you guys down this career path?
Violet: I was born and raised in South Korea and always wanted to be a designer. I went to art school and I was lucky to have had a great opportunity to come to the U.S. I interned for Volkswagen’s design studio here in California, and that experience led me to join the Acura design team.
Gypsy: I’ve always been interested in art. I was one of those kids that drew all over my notebook; even before school started everything was already sketched up on top of. I was determined to go into automotive–
Hang on–that’s a huge leap to go from doodling student to auto design! You knew from childhood that you wanted to do CMF?
Gypsy: No, I wasn’t even aware of CMF as a field. In high school I was interested in fashion and thought I might [go that route], but I was also interested in engineering. Then I met a friend, she was at CCS (College for Creative Studies) and she was studying automotive color and trim. She showed me some projects she was working on, which were a lot of textile projects and fibers, and I thought that married my interest in engineering and textiles. Then CCS sent a recruiter to my high school and that’s how I ended up there.
My parents are really practical–my father did chemical engineering, my mother’s a nurse. They knew I was interested in the artistic field, but they were really worried about “Can this make money? School is so expensive.” But when I found out about CMF, I was like “That’s perfect for me.”
Violet, you mentioned going from Volkswagen to Acura. Gypsy, did you start off at another automaker too?
Gypsy: No, I had an internship at Lear in Michigan, and they hired me full time. While I was working there, my now-husband/then-boyfriend and I wanted to go to California. I looked at some car design studios in California but never dreamt–I had been in love with Acura since I was really young. I grew up in Detroit, and every car you see there is from the Big Three. But I had two friends that had Integras and an ex-boyfriend that had a Legend, and they were such exotic cars to us.
I had Acura as the highest studio I could be at, and I didn’t think it would even be possible. But I applied. I remember going through several rounds of interviews, and towards the end of the day had just one more to go. It was with our Lead Principle Designer and Dave Marek was in the room. Dave asked me one question I’ll always remember:
[Joking sing-song-y voice] “What’s your favorite color?”
I answered, “Clear.”
He said “What?”
I said “Clear. Clear changes everything, just like a lens. I love all colors, but clear is my favorite color.”
He said “Okay, hire this girl!” I couldn’t believe it. It was like I won the lottery.
As CMF designers, what kinds of things do you draw inspiration from?
Violet: I love mid-century furniture and miniatures. I like seeing them, collecting them, using them. I love these historical and amazing designs, it really inspires me to design timeless products that people can appreciate for a long time.
I’m also a huge sneakerhead. I see a lot of similarity between cars and sneakers when it comes to CMF design approaches. Sneakers are the most functional product in fashion, so looking into the sneaker industry really helps me in implementing the most up-to-date design into the product I’m working on.
We also take trips to many international design fairs and auto shows, and we come back and create reports from our own design perspective. That’s one of the biggest inspirations for the color group. These trips allow us to experience really good hand feel and really good products in person; seeing and touching these things first-hand is really helpful in designing a premium quality vehicle.
Of all the design disciplines we’ve covered so far, CMF seems the most nebulous to me. I realize it’s not just going to design fairs and coming back with mood boards, so what is the nitty-gritty of it?
Gypsy: At least here, what makes us really different from other studios is we’re really directed about what we want to make. With all of our products we’re trying to create an extraordinary experience, so we have to think outside the box a lot. You can’t just get inspiration from sitting at your desk and looking at Pinterest or Instagram.
Can you give us a concrete example?
Gypsy: So when we were working on the Precision Concept, I had gone to Milan Design Week with an exterior designer and an interior designer. We got these really cool insights about future technologies and design aesthetics, were hit with a flash of inspiration, and came up with what we thought was this really amazing concept.
When we came back and showed the Precision Concept to Frank [Paluch, Honda R&D Americas President], he looked at the car and said, “Tell me about the color and materials.”
We told him “Well, we did this, we did that, here’s our process, there’s 3D printing, there’s this technology, that technology.”
And he said “That’s not far enough, I need something more unique.” So he sent us to go hiking in Africa.
Gypsy: Yeah. The Africa trip was around 15 days. We went to five different locations, starting at the Cape. The landscapes there are amazing and they change as you travel through the countryside. We talked to a lot of really cool people and had some amazing insights, just having these exclusive experiences that you don’t have daily.
At one point we were hiking through Kruger National Park. Through this one area where they’d burned thousands of hectares in ecological wildfires. When it’s burnt like that, these chemicals start coming out of the ground. Everything that had been alive was now burned and dead, but after a while things start growing and regenerating. It was an alluring contrast and made us think of contrasting surfacing with exterior, [as designers] we always have that in mind.
So when we were hitting the peak of this mountain, at the crest there was this cloud that was moving through and it was picking up soot from the environment. The cloud was this super dynamic color and we got that “Aha” moment: “Let’s make this color. This is truly extraordinary. This is an alluring contrast. Let’s make it.” And that’s how we got this.
[Editor’s Note: Here Gypsy holds up a piece of material that is a dark, rich grey with a subtle hint of green, depending on how you hold it in the light.]
You can see here the color’s quite dynamic. Even though it’s a sophisticated shade, there’s other things going on. It’s like a fresh new growth contrasting with these smoky elements.
So that’s what we want to bring to the table. We developed a lot of colors and materials based on that trip, and at least three colors specifically from that moment, that experience of encountering that cloud. Then they go into proposals.
The other facet of Acura that we convey in the color development is that we use advanced, cutting-edge technology. A lot of this pigmentation didn’t exist before.
And one principle that we work towards, is a Japanese word called omotenashi. One possible translation of this word is, it means to have your back scratched before you knew it was itching.
And how does omotenashi come into play?
Violet: So talking about that, I can show you my contribution on the RDX. Our color group conducted extensive studies in China and North America, with the objective of understanding what the customer wants. We develop a palette based on the customer’s preferences, but then improve, intensify the hues and characters of these colors. Getting into those details is the approach of omotenashi.
We increased the lineup of our genuine materials, and a key design point was to pick the patterns, finishes and colors that represent the authentic property of materials the most. So we [upgraded] the construction of the leather by applying full grain Milano leather, which has enhanced hand feel and grain, and created a sturdier construction compared to our previous leather application. The metal [in the interior] has a brushed finish–it’s minimal, clean and shows the luster of the aluminum the most, enhancing its authenticity. And little details like increasing the thickness of the stitches on the seating for more solidity of finish, and applying a contrast perforation on the seating surfaces for a more crafted feel.
How much of the process are you guys involved with? Is it just the ideation phase, or are you guys following along with the execution as well?
Gypsy: A CMF job is really varied. While the actual thing we’re working on daily can change day-to-day, with a project we’re right there in the beginning, conceptualizing the product and [determining the needs of] our next buyer. All the way through to the end, when we’re right there at the plant, planning out parts. It’s a really, really a broad span of work that we cover.
Aside from talking to customers and disappearing into jungles, what kinds of say, lab-based material research do you guys do?
Gypsy: We do a ton of research–we have an advanced products group here in the building that we can’t talk about too much. But I can tell you that we experiment with 3D printing, bio-plastics and aspects of color and material development that aren’t just for decoration, but have some additional functional facets. That’s addressing the future and [what will exist in the] next wave of automotive production: Sustainability, electrification, connectivity, automation. We think about “What experience is the customer going to have in [a vehicle with those things?]”. And we develop proposals for materials that will support those different modes that we don’t currently have now.
Is there anything you can tell us about how, say, 3D printing is currently integrated into your processes?
Gypsy: So 3D printing is something we used when we were developing proposals for grilles. That actually started out with napkin sketches when we were in Italy. Then we came back and grabbed James [Robbins, Senior Digital Modeler] and said “Hey, want to make something cool for us?” We work pretty seamlessly with each other as a team.
I feel like CMF is probably the least understood out of all of the auto design specialties. What would you describe as the most challenging aspect of it?
Gypsy: I would disagree, I think CMF is actually the most familiar. When people are growing up, one of the first things a lot of them will associate themselves with is their fashion. That’s going to be their image, so they push the outer part of their personality. What they’re going to wear has a lot to do with their character. I have a five year old daughter, and she’s already choosing the colors that she likes to wear.
That’s kind of what we do with CMF, and because people [form those associations] from really early on, our challenge is that a lot of people are familiar with it and know what’s good, but can’t really articulate it. They have a really close connection with the CMF and it has to be perfect for them–if one thing is off, “I like the color but I don’t like the material,” they won’t buy it.
But if they see something they like they’ll say “Yeah, that’s my character” and demand will be high. So we really need to be on point with that. And I think we accomplished that with the RDX, which is the beginning of this generation of our CMF.
Was there one thing you were happiest with on the RDX, in terms of the CMF?
Gypsy: I feel so proud of that car, and really connected to it, because I was there in the beginning as a project leader with Violet. I think what I’m really proud of is that it was successful from the beginning, of what we wanted to do, all the way through to the end. Everything Violet did on it, from the harmony to the quality to the finish.
Sometimes I’ll take one on a long drive to check on suppliers, and afterwards I’ll tell Violet “I just got out of the RDX, and wow.” We set a really high goal for the CMF, and I think that Violet achieved it. When you look at what our plans were, you’ll see that she didn’t miss a beat. She hit every point that we wanted to do.