Exterior Designer Ian Cartabiano and MT's Tom Gale Talk
Ian Cartabiano’s penciled hand is quickly building a graphite arc on the paper. They’re light, metronome marks that quickly layer into a solid, confident line. Then another appears as Cartabiano extemporaneously explains what his hand is doing. “So we have this single lower aperture on the LE; it’s simple, wide, and so low to the ground that it’s hugging the street,” he says. “But what happened is we made that base version way more sporty, so we had to amp up the XSE—so it was like, oh god, what are we going to do?”
After 18 years of designing and instructing at ArtCenter in Pasadena (where he graduated in 1997), his ability to talk while drawing is pretty much second nature. Look at his LinkedIn page, and under Experience you’ll find just two entries—those years at ArtCenter and 19 years here at Calty Design Research in Newport Beach, California, where he is the studio’s chief exterior and interior designer. His tenure spans nearly half of the existence of Toyota’s 43-year-old studio. The place is home to him. It’s ironic, then, that the most significant car of his career was designed while he was temporally relocated to Japan.
As the face of the Camry XLE grows on the sketch pad, I’m struck by something. He’s not drawing the usual sheetmetal undulations that other car designers might. What’s emerging is more like the stark creases of a harshly lit human face. It’s fierce-looking and two-dimensional. It looks more like a classical Japanese theater (Noh) mask than a car.
It’s fierce-looking and two-dimentional. It looks more like a theater mask than a car.
“We’ve talked about wanting people to identify the difference between the base LE and sporty SE grilles from 200 yards away,” Cartabiano says. That’s about the distance from you on a busy street to a nearby new-car lot. Suddenly, the sketch’s Japanese mask association is less strange; like the exaggerated makeup on the faces of Broadway actors, they’re meant to convey expressions all the way to the balcony.
More on the 2018 Toyota Camry:
- 2018 Toyota Camry Prototype First Drive Review
- Toyota’s NASCAR Quest: Previewing the 2018-Camry-Based V-8 Race Car
- 11 Cool Facts About the 2018 Toyota Camry
Two years ago, at the Detroit auto show, company boss Akio Toyoda said his future cars would have a style that stirs people’s emotions and makes them say, “I want to drive this.” Although the Prius and Mirai might have rubbed some the wrong way, Toyoda’s edict also erased the bland conservatism that’s paused the pencils of Cartabiano’s predecessors. Freeing Cartabiano, whose credits include the recent C-HR crossover and Lexus LF-LC show cars, as well as his bos, project chief deisnger Akira Kubota, to go dramatic.
The car is a tornado of ideas. It’s constantly turbulent and chaotic but entertainingly expressive.
The car is a tornado of ideas. Someone I used to work with told me of a (probably apocryphal) $1 million USD prize for anyone who could find a 1-foot section of manzanita tree that was completely straight (they have relentlessly curvy branches). Cartabiano’s Camry is a manzanita tree. It’s constantly turbulent and chaotic but entertainingly expressive. Step to the left or right, and either angle brings a whole new pattern.
The hood is a series of parting ripples; the A-pillar seems upside down, thinner at the bottom than at the top. “People hate how hard it is to see out of cars these days,” Cartabiano says, “and they also give the windshield a trapezoidal shape that draws your eyes to the ground. Everything is about stance.” Cartabiano draws a vertical line down the middle of the Noh mask, bisecting the front view. On the left is the more aggressive SE version with its inward-pointing horns and gaping side grilles. On the right, his pencil roughs out the ribbed Cheshire cat grill of the LE.
He grabs a new piece of paper and starts on a rear three-quarter perspective. Quickly, the light pencil marks harden into a chaotic pattern of lines. Some collide, and others ricochet, like the crease that originates at the center of the front wheel, ignores all the others, and shoots toward the C-pillar. The side glazing abruptly sinks between the A- and C-pillars to signal its TNGA-driven lower center of gravity. “We bring the beltline down,” Cartabiano says, his hand moving to illustrate, “and sink the cabin into the body. These lines go all the way to the front—all the way through the car to a focal point.”
If this is a rolling sculpture, it’s a block of clay that an artist has dug his fingers into and pulled along its sides, crazily wiggling his fingertips as he goes. As I’m thinking of the line in Amadeus where King Joseph II asks Mozart if there are “too many notes,” Cartabiano adds more notes. By comparison, the current Camry looks like this version’s early development embryo.
When we met up with chief engineer Masato Katsumata in Kentucky, we asked what his favorite angle is. “I like how the broad rear fenders go like this,” he says as he waves his hand. “Like a woman’s—ah, can I say this?” He leans forward and chuckles. In Japan, Kubota, Cartabiano’s boss and the Camry’s overall chief designer, initially answered “three hundred and sixty degrees!” then seriously said, “the rear three-quarters.” Cartabiano is sketching that same perspective—his favorite, too. He puts heavy marks through the C-pillar. “That shape, in side view, creates a really dramatic pull,” he says. “But in quarter view, you get this beautiful pillar graphic; it’s 3-D, not flat, so there’s this beautiful core going through the rear glass that shows speed.” That scalloped C-pillar will be controversial, but it’s clever in that it allows the profile to be formal and sporty. Toyota hopes this Camry will be perceived as two steps up in prestige.
The blacked-out roof option, available in XSE trims, starts at the scallop’s upper crease. “If I black-out the roof, what’s left is that speed character line,” Cartabiano says. The black roof is limited to blue, white, and silver body colors. “My favorite is that gorgeous new white,” he says. “Personally, the car I would get is the white XSE, black roof, and a red leather interior. Can you image that? A Camry with a red leather interior? That’s pretty wild.”
In a sense, Cartabiano has even signed his exterior design. “I was able to design the badging font,” he says. “It’s brand-new and kind of expensive because each letter is separate; the letters used to be combined into one badge. We went a little midcentury modern with it—compressed it and made it wide. That was cool.” As Cartabiano draws, I consider that he’s a guy who’s just reshaped the country’s best-selling car, drawn the face of a NASCAR stock car that in February could be seen by 11 million viewers, and formed the font that labels them. It’s a remarkable design trifecta.
Competing for Attention
Tom: The sport model has a busy front end with disparate elements competing for attention.
Ian: We wanted the windshield to have this trapezoidal flavor—everything about this car is to enhance stance. We moved the Toyota symbol mark under and into the grille. In side view, the leading edge of the hood mimics an airfoil section.
Tom: The A-line starting aft of the front wheel opening and continuing along the doors transitions into the tail lamp graphic to provide a comforting visual continuity.
The Side Glass Opening
Tom: The beltline and side glass opening are distinctive and settled on the body side.
Lightening the Visual Weight
Tom: The concave area above the sill is effective at lightening the visual weight and also swelling back to the plane of the rear wheel. The upper hard line of the concave area could be softer for my taste and would allow other great elements to star.
Now Available With 19s
Tom: Wheels are pulled out to the sides of the car with tighter opening gaps. Wheel sizes range from 16 inches all the way to 19 inches.
Giving the Design Forward Movement
Tom: The fender peak and surfaces of the upper quarter panel reduce the apparent height and heaviness above the front and rear wheels. The placement of these elements on the surface also aids gesture and gives the design forward movement.
Tom: On both models, the side view of the bumper fascias, especially in the rear, disturbs the flow of surfaces.
Even the C-Pillar Has a Character Line
Ian: The C-pillar isn’t flat. It has this strong character line that has a subtle shaping on top and has this core going all the way through that links to the rear shoulder. What’s cool is it starts at the door handle, so the door handle creates the shoulder. That pillar creates that flow, but it also allows us to do that black roof feature.