Design in the Blood
I’ve had the great fortune to come in contact with truly inspiring people that have influenced me to do what I do. One such person is Ulfert Janssen, who I visited in Barcelona several years ago before I really knew where my career path would take me. As I look back, it was an undeniably catalyzing experience. This was owed in part to Barcelona’s vibrant surrounds but mostly to Ulfert’s lifestyle and diverse and holistic approach towards design. Ulfert had once been a student of my father’s at the Art Center College of Design and as an automotive designer in Renault’s enviously cool satellite studio he fast became someone I looked up to. I therefore thought it would be interesting delve a little deeper into his past and present experiences in the design world, and to pick his brain on what’s next.
Leon: Where did this whole design thing begin for you? Was there an influence somewhere in your childhood, or from a family member?
Ulfert: I think I have taken a kind of uncommon path towards design career, because I went through steps of metamorphosis. When I was a teenager, I was into two things: bio farming and woodworking inspired by my cousin who had a farm in Switzerland, where I spent a lot of time working with them. I also loved woodworking and I started building furniture of my own designs at the age of 15.
Leon: So what were your first steps to make your design career happen?
After high school I decided to concentrate on carpentry and did an apprenticeship, where the idea of design grew. Building on the idea, I thought I could study product design to become a furniture designer and I applied to the industrial design department of ArtCenter College of Design in Vevey, Switzerland. There I came in contact with transportation design and I was blown away by their drawing abilities and techniques and I wanted a slice of that…plus I liked the idea of being as broad as possible. Therefore I began to take some transportation design classes and completed my studies on the main campus of the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, thanks to great teachers like Bryon Fitzpatrick (your dad) who never gave up on me even in the darkest moments!
So I went from being a farmer to a car designer. You could say I did the evolution in reverse from an ethical/eco point of view.
Leon: From biofarming to car design is an unusual evolution! Did you ever consider combining the two ?
Ulfert: This is a very interesting idea, I actually never thought of combining the two on a conceptual level. I have the feeling you just initiated something in my head…
Some may think that bio fuel is a solution in that direction, but I think that is rather wrong, because in order to get the fuel you have to grow huge mono-cultures of cornfields and destroy ecosystems for sugar cane plantations. Where you normally grow food it’s now used for fuel crops instead and this is very wrong considering the shortage of food supply globally. We have to continue researching and looking for better solutions.
Nowadays designing a vehicle is not enough anymore. We have to consider mobility as a whole and therefore provide solutions and designs for cities, spaces and mobility, treating them as one. Car companies have to change and start to think differently. The car industry crises from 2008 showed that they are all very much behind.
Leon: Did you have ideal places or companies you wanted to work for when you finished at Art Center?
Ulfert: During my studies at ArtCenter I had a chance to do an internship at the Design Center Europe (Volkswagen Group) near Barcelona in Spain, where I made a big improvement in interior car design. (As a side note, Barcelona is not the worst place to be!) At the time Renault did very cool concept cars which had vision, and that impressed me very much, so when I was in the 8th term I decided to develop a Pick-up/Roadster idea for Renault as my degree project.
Leon: So how did you find your first job?
Just by chance around mid term, I read an ad in a car design magazine that Renault was opening a little advanced design studio in Barcelona. I took a chance and sent my portfolio. A couple of days later my phone rang at 4 a.m. (time zones didn’t seem to bother Renault) and I was invited for an interview in Barcelona, just 4 weeks before graduation. Again, Bryon was visionary enough to encourage me to slip out, in the middle of stress from finishing models and projects for the upcoming degree show.
I returned from the interview a week later with a contract in my pocket and all of a sudden the stress of finalizing the degree project was magically brushed off from my shoulders. But this was the amazing moment of being at the right place at the right time, because it was just in fashion that car companies would hire product designers, and various product classmates from my year got jobs in the car industry.
A month after graduation I was already sitting in the studio in Barcelona. It was an amazing trip helping to build up the strong reputation of Renault’s new design studio as one of the key members, and I was involved in many advanced design, concept models and pre-production projects. The beginning of the studio was very special, because we were only 3 designers.
Leon: Not only is it many designers’ dream to get plucked right out of school, you managed to go to such a beautiful place and a brand new studio, for a rather alternative car design company! I know you did a rotation to Japan while you were at Renault – what was that like?
Ulfert: Japan and especially Tokyo was an amazing experience where I stayed over 2 years for an exchange program between the Renault and Nissan alliance.Working for Nissan in their big Technical Center was quite special and new to me, and I learned a lot, because the working culture and communication styles between the two companies are very different.
I spent a large part of my time at Nissan on the development of production cars such as the Infiniti FX, and it was a challenging and exciting experience to be involved in those projects. Working on production cars requires interacting with a large number of team members from different departments and levels, and it was the best way to really experience how they work and try to learn from it.
Talking about living in Tokyo, it is an amazingly vibrant, extreme and exuberant city and it is an inspiration pool for many creative people around the globe. New trends and designs are everywhere and street fashion constantly generate its own trends with unique twists of subcultural undertones which we will see on Paris runway a year later. As a designer you can easily get an optical overdose from all the visual inputs and your brain can’t suck it all up. People are extremely sophisticated and quality conscious. Even the smallest little details are elaborated with careful manner, which makes it a lot of fun to explore all the products, packaging and graphics. To me, Tokyo feels like a place with one foot already in the future, and to be exposed to such stimulus on a daily basis was a pure pleasure as a creative person.
Leon: You’ve had an amazing and envious experience in the automotive design world, but you’ve recently left Renault – so what now?!
Ulfert: Yes, after 10 years in the industry I was up for a chance to challenge myself with something new and started my own design consultancy, GANNET – www.gannetdesign.com It is very refreshing and interesting, because the projects are very diverse and I have the chance to cover various disciplines from product design to branding and market implementation. Right now I’m doing fashion design in partnership with www.uuba.de and we are in the process of creating a swimsuit brand. This is fun, because we do it all in-house from fashion, graphics, to brand building, photo shoots and marketing. This diverse spectrum of touching various design fields I didn’t have when I was working for a big car company.
Next to design consulting, I would like to continue looking for possible partnerships in different fields and launch my own brand. I am fascinated by the whole process of starting with an empty white sheet of paper, creating your own brand and products and following through to bring them into the market. As a next design challenge I would like to develop urban spaces and concepts for city development, where you mix design with human behavior and well-being, on a bigger scale than a product or car….This is where everything would come together, from communication, to product design, to mobility concepts and urban planning, because many cities tend to forget the most important thing – the human factor.
To see more from Leon Fitzpatrick, visit: http://evilmonito.com/author/leon/