Unlike some design directors, Freeman Thomas is not one that has been spent much time in the spotlight. This might seem normal to many, until you realize the immense contribution he has made to modern car design. After all, here’s the man behind the original Audi TT, the rebirth of the iconic Volkswagen Beetle and the massively successful Chrysler 300C.
Thomas graduated from the prestigious Art Center College of Design before beginning his career in automotive design, like many of his North American peers. His first job was at Porsche – a remarkable achievement by any standard. After rising through the ranks, the affable automotive aficionado decided to switch gears for a few years, dabbling in journalism, consultancy and education before returning to design full time at Volkswagen’s Design Center in Semi Valley, California.
Working with fellow Art Center graduate J Mays, Thomas was responsible for the original design of the Audi TT, one of the most definitive automotive design icons of the last century, as well as the Concept One, which would later become the new Beetle. Recognizing, perhaps, a sense of camaraderie, Thomas left VW to work with Mays’ industrial design consultancy, SHR, but eventually returned to Volkswagen of America as Head of Design.
Opportunities, as they often do, arise at when least expected. And so when Chrysler came knocking in 1999, Thomas moved over to head up the company’s Advanced Product Design Strategy and later the Pacifica Design Center, picking up his pen once more to create the 300C, which became a monumental success for the Detroit-based manufacturer.
Since June 2005, Thomas has been Director of Strategic Design for Ford North America, where he heads a small studio in California focused on Advanced Design. Amongst other concepts, the compact Lincoln Concept C and Ford Start were born out of this studio.
“I’m very hands-on, in the trenches, one of the guys. That’s the way I like it, I don’t like sitting on the sidelines. I want to be part of it. I want to be in the game.”
A lifetime gearhead, Thomas likes to bring his own cars into the studio — such as a Ferrari Dino he is slowly bringing back to factory standard and a VW Vanagon he’s owned since his time at Volkswagen and uses as his daily driver — to inspire his design team.
Intrigued, we packed our bags to meet with the acclaimed designer and find out more about him, his career, and what he’s got in store for Ford.
How do you see your role within Ford?
“My role is as a coach, a mentor and a compass. I’m working very closely with my team. I feel that my job is to sit down with them one-on-one and we talk about what we’re doing and we lay the lines together, we talk about it together because it takes a really broad creative team to create a product.”
Two of the most recent Ford concepts — the Start and the Lincoln C — were born out of this studio and under your leadership. What can you tell us about their creation?
“The theme of the Lincoln C is Jeremy Lang’s, and my role was to work with him: ‘Let’s get it packaged, let’s get proportions, let’s put the team together, what are the details going to be, what is the interior story going to be’ — it’s the overall picture. It’s almost like being a director on a motion picture and bringing your creative team together.
“It was the same thing with Start. We had many personalities on Start and it’s the part that you might recognize that’s me as the overall architect as I put the whole thing together, but I’m really blessed to have a great creative team working with me. What I do is I try to inspire my team by surrounding ourselves in the best of the past and examples of the future — and open-mindedness for the future.”
Both of those concepts bear a distinct ‘Freeman Thomas’ aesthetic. Where do you come up with the inspiration to create these minimalist but premium designs?
“At the end of the day, even when you’re doing something affordable for the minimalist it has to have a sense of premiumness. It’s like taking a bottle of water. You have a Perrier and a bottle of Arrowhead and it really costs the same to produce the two products but the Perrier or a Pellegrino has a more premium feeling to it. It’s the same thing, but it’s a sense of occasion that one brings to the table that the other one doesn’t. It’s the same with an Apple product and what it feels like to have, touch and feel — and the weight — but basically it’s a disposable device.
“When you’re creating an automobile or something that you’d stare at and you evaluate and measure it, somehow when you look at it, it’s hard to express taste. What is good taste? What is great taste? Well, most of it is entity. It’s about coming up with a series of lines that sort of pares away all the superficiality and purifies it into the essence of what it is. That is probably more than anything what I’m trying to do.”
You started working at Porsche after Art Center. How did you land that job?
“The way I got to Porsche is because I worked for Larry Shinoda one summer. Larry was one of the key individuals from GM’s skunk works that created the ‘63 Corvette, cars like that. Larry recommended me to Anatole Lapine while I was still at Art Center.
“The only way I got to Porsche was that someone at Art Center lent me $1000 to get over to Germany. I lived with a family over there up in a loft and I was hitchhiking to the studio. Even in my first apartment I didn’t have enough money for a mattress for the floor.
“Any designer that thinks you just go from A to Z is wrong. I had to pay back all the money I owed, student loans etc. Everything is a risk. But I did that because one of my heroes is Erwin Komenda, the original design engineer for Porsche. He designed the 356, the 550 [Spyder] and he also did Porsche tractors and Porsche industrial design work.”
What is your unique approach to design?
“I always start off a silhouette. The silhouette says something. It says noble, it says playful, it says gorgeous, it says efficient, it says opulent. That silhouette you start off with, and then the second thing you do is the wheels and then the graphics so you have these different readings.
“It’s no different than when you’re reading a person or an animal, you see them as a shadow and you just see their silhouette. Already they’re telling you what they’re about and then when they come closer you start to see the details and start reading them and then eventually you listen to them and that’s like the Dino. If I were to stand back and look at its silhouette I would be attracted to it. Then finally you sit in it and study the shapes and forms. Every line on that car is edited.
“I’m learning, my team is learning and I think that by bringing these cars in that we learn from great architects, great designers, great artists.”
You were instrumental in creating Cars and Coffee. Why did you choose to do this?
“John Clinard [Ford’s Western Regional Director] and myself created Cars and Coffee and the wonderful thing is that it comes from the heart. We love to share this infection with other people and we get great friends that come in with amazing cars.
“We have shows in the studio that I’ve been able to put together in a week, whether it’s ‘Let’s get a collection of Zagatos’ or ‘Let’s get the most amazing Ferraris’, ‘Let’s get whatever we want within that studio’ and each one of them is signature and iconic. I’ve had $30m worth of cars in the studio and the owners love it because we appreciate them.
“I think that you can become immune to this as well. I try to take my designers through each one of these cars and ask them ‘what is it about this car that makes you pay attention, that makes you really desire it?’ because it’s more than a name, it’s art. If we can translate that art into modern products in a modern way then I think we have that secret sauce. That’s part of the formula I use.”
How big is your studio and how many designers are you working with?
“We have an interesting mix because we have people that went through design school and they’re modeling, they’re designing, and they’re sculpting and they’re working digitally, because we’re a small team. The whole studio is about 30,000 sq. ft., but most of that is workshop and main studio.
“In our main studio we have seven plates, it’s a huge space. And we have a large outdoor viewing area. But the area that we sit in is actually about 2,000 sq. ft. and in that we have no cubicles — everybody sits on flat desks in a really beautiful rhythm and we do that so people talk to each other.
“We bring in our hobbies, we bring in our passions, and we leverage people’s talents in a way that I think nobody else does. Even though people are brought into the company as either a modeler or an engineer or a designer, that’s not how they work. We utilize his or her strengths and everyone has overlapping strengths, so you might see the engineer actually building the seating buck.
“My right hand is Greg Hutting. Greg doesn’t have a design degree but he started off in the Valencia design studio with his brother Dick Hutting and he’s as good as any other designer I’ve met, he’s as good an engineer as any I’ve met and as good as any modeler I’ve met. So you put those three together and you have a very special person. He’s also extremely organized, so I really rely on Greg as a confidante and as a collaborator to strategize what we’re going to do.
“We’ve got 15 creators and those 15 are jacks-of-all-trades.”