Mazda design chief Ikuo Maeda discusses unfinished Spanish churches, Japanese knives, tackling Eau Rouge in the rain and fights with his RX-7 designer dad


UST five weeks before the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show, Ikuo Maeda was staring down the deadline on what could be the defining design of his career, the Mazda RX-Vision. Although on this day Maeda, who has been Mazda’s chief of design since 2009, was literally staring down something even more invigorating.

Through the rain-pelted windscreen of a rasping, fat-tyred Mazda R100 classic racer, Maeda was rocketing downhill towards a streaming-wet Eau Rouge corner at Spa-Francorchamps. ‘Speedy’, as he’s been known to his colleagues for many years, was co-driving one of a pair of R100 coupes owned by his friend, Jin Kato.

“Spa! Eau Rouge! It’s so fantastic, but so scary,” Maeda recounts to Wheels in the Mazda Design studio in Hiroshima a few days after the Tokyo show. The notorious Spa weather had cleared for the Masters ’70s Celebration 14-lap feature on that September Sunday, but Maeda’s red-and-white number 31 car had retired at half-distance.

Maeda, 56, has been racing for more than 20 years, usually in MX-5s of different stripes. He’s owned a racespec Lotus Elise, among many track-worthy cars. “I get to race maybe three or four times each year, sometimes off-shore races under FIA, like at Spa,” he shrugs.

The R100s were reliving their European motorsport debut in 1969, when a pair of works cars finished fifth and sixth outright in the Spa 24 Hour.

For Maeda, it wasn’t just about having fun. The first Japanese-born Mazda design boss in a decade can be as inspired by motor racing as by traditional Japanese handcrafts. The design he’s pursuing can exist in the often-overlooked moments before an idea, or in the translation of a sketch to a hard form by the hands of an artisan.

“In racing, there is a mood, a tension,” Maeda says.

“On the starting grid, there is a tension and sometimes I can get some images by driving. It’s not a direct connection to the form. It’s more like a feel.”

This ‘feel’ should come naturally to him because car design is in Maeda’s blood. His father, Matasaburo, worked at Mazda for 30 years from 1962 and famously designed SA22C, the first RX-7 of 1978.

Upmarket aspirations?

IT’S hard to imagine in Australia, where the Mazda 3 has regularly propelled the brand to top-three status, but in its home country Mazda remains a minnow. Mazda ranks a lowly sixth in domestic sales – with less than half the sales of fifth-placed Daihatsu.

Mazda’s not too concerned. It has little presence in Japan’s kei car [660cc] market and exports 65 percent of everything it produces in Japan. Top brass have gone on record as saying they’re happy with the company’s size.

However, it’s possible they have big ambitions for the brand’s positioning. With Chinese brands chasing volume in western markets and Koreans launching premium sub-brands, Mazda might well be taking stock of its history and its identity.

During Wheels’ exclusive visit to Mazda Design in Hiroshima, we spotted a large storyboard in the advanced design section, pinned with pictures of European performance luxury cars – Aston- Martin, Bentley GT, Porsche 911, Audi S8 – and worded definitions of luxury as applied to each. It probably wasn’t there to set the mood for the next Mazda 3… By taking itself upmarket, Mazda could stay relatively small – and profitable.

The Mazda design boss is as inspired by motor racing as by traditional Japanese

The young Ikuo, however, was fascinated with bicycles, then motorcycles. “I was most interested in Honda’s 50cc motorcycle, the Monkey. Not the design, just the riding. A friend of mine had one; he let me ride it a couple of times at my school. Actually, I was stopped by the Police and… forget about this!”

Maeda is slightly built and quietly spoken. His hair is fashionably coiffed, flecked with grey, and he wears a moustache and small beatnik goatee. He’s corporate, but edgy. The perfect Japanese automotive design boss, 2015-style.

His appreciation for design arrived suddenly, at college age. “My father had a paper knife [the Danese Ameland, by Enzo Mari]. Stainless steel, very simple, but very beautiful. And when I tried to use it, as a tool, it was so easy to use. I understood: this is what design is doing.”

He was already studying in a course that led to industrial design at the Technical and Textile University in Kyoto, 350km from his family home in Hiroshima. The course involved transportation design: “Boring stuff, like traffic systems, buses and trams in Kyoto…” Maeda’s first car was an RX-7, bought second-hand.

According to family folklore, he’d been unaware that his father had designed it.

“It was a very low price! But that car was so much fun, the feeling of the motor, so smooth, the car was so light – the sound is quite different from other cars … I made practice every night in the mountains, on the twisty roads. I almost forgot that I was supposed to study. Actually, I crashed it – destroyed it completely – when I was young.”

The Speedy nickname came a little later, when colleagues learned that Maeda had twice had his licence suspended.

By the time he graduated, Maeda knew he wanted to design cars. Joining his father’s company, which he did in 1982, turned out to be anything but a fast-track. “The company was very strict. I was not allowed into the design studio – I had to apply to other divisions. When my father retired [in 1992], I could come into design.”

He worked in Product Planning for the first five years, then went to Mazda’s California design studio from 1987-91. Tom Matano – designer of the original MX-5 – was a mentor, and Maeda was “every day, every night, always sketching the dream cars”. In between, he designed “a lot of wheels.”

A spell at Ford Design in 1999 provided a good grounding in the commercial realities of the business.

Then came the product that put the second-generation Maeda on the map: the RX-Evolv concept of 1999, which duly became the production RX-8 in 2002.

If it was a big deal to everyone else that the son had followed the father, it wasn’t so much to Ikuo. One can detect a hint of the competitiveness that sometimes exists between successful generations.

“To tell you the truth, we do not have many chances to talk about the car with my dad,” Maeda says. “Once we start to talk about cars, we fight – all the time! His taste in cars and my taste are totally opposite … He likes the car like German cars – static, very cool, silent,

“Once we start to talk about cars, my dad and I fight –

THE uniquely small rotary engine has given Ikuo Maeda plenty of practice in packaging alternative powerplants.

But witness the RX-Vision, with the long-bonneted proportions of a frontengined supercar.

Maeda predicted that whatever the future brings in terms of powertrains and aerodynamics, he wants to design cars that will look like cars.

“Aerodynamics, for instance, is so important for us. This is a huge challenge to create the body form … It is kind of easy to get a great number in aerodynamics. But aero changed the car’s shape to a different way. That is not our logic, not our ideal.

“Small powertrains give a lot of freedom in terms of form and proportion for the designer, which is good.

But it’s not necessary to use every freedom and to make it different.”

Future design

very functional – like Bauhaus. He’s that type of guy.

And I like more emotional, dynamic, bold.”

Does he have any heroes in automotive design? “I’ve never tried to pick a specific name, but if you asked me to do it I’d pick [Lamborghini Miura and Countach designer, Marcello] Gandini. I really respect him, because he has his own originality in terms of the style, but also he has so many ideas.”

Maeda could be a Japanese version of an Italian designer. He is inspired by art and, in particular, architecture. “I prefer to see three-dimensional things instead of two-dimensional. I’m not so many times in a museum to see drawings. I prefer to see a new building.”

Thinking of the surfacing that’s a signature of Kodo, the Maeda-spawned design language that now covers Mazda’s passenger model range, I suggest American architect Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, might be a Maeda favourite.

Maeda has visited Bilbao, certainly, but the building he names without hesitation is across the country in Barcelona: Antoni Gaudi’s rambling, fantastical Sagrada Familia basilica. How could any modern designer countenance anything that has been under construction for 133 years – and counting?

“I think that’s my dream!” Maeda laughs. “I dream to build a car taking more than 100 years. And I hand my soul, my identity, whatever, over to my successor, and then he starts to rebuild my ideas – the idea evolving, that’s fantastic. Each time I visit that building, it’s actually growing up. Very slowly, but like living things.”

Putting life and soul into things is key to Kodo; conveying the creative thought of the designer and the thumb-marks of the sculptor through the car’s form and surface. To do that, Maeda encourages his team to do a lot more with their creativity than sketch cars and follow orders.

Mazda’s worldwide design department comprises about 280 people: 230 in Hiroshima and about 20 each in the company’s California and Leverkusen (Germany) studios. In addition to the 80 or 90 designers are the expected CAD operators, colour and trim specialists and fabricators – the artisans who create prototype components in clay, metal, timber, resin, metal and leather.

“Normally, a designer started by drawing cars at the beginning, but we stopped that,” Maeda grins. “We focused on artworks, freeing the imaginations, creating some forms, and then translating that into car design.

This is unique, compared to the others.

“We have to complete the design as quickly as possible, this is normal. But before starting some specific program, we have the freedom to spend more time to play with art works, things like this … Not to eventually copy and paste onto a vehicle’s design, but it’s like … getting into a zone, yes.”

Maeda knows well that what he strives for will just as often be revealed or contributed by artisans during the fabricating process. Deep within the form, shining through the curves, lies our innate familiarity with materials that have been shaped by human hands.

The Hard Model studio at Mazda’s Hiroshima headquarters is spotlessly clean, but surprisingly antiquated. Green-painted lathes, drill presses, sanding machines and band-saws dot the large workshop areas.

I had hoped for telepathic 3D-printing, but instead here is an oversized, OCD equivalent of my high school metalwork shop.

There are 3D printing facilities onsite. Maeda says this is convenient for designers to quickly check threedimensional forms, but adds that making accurate 3D models can consume as much time in data preparation as having someone fabricate it.

And this is lovely to watch. They bend sheet steel with their bare hands and careworn timber mallets.

They shape blocks of resin with files and fine sandpaper. They heat and bend timber, and sew leather with quaint Seiko sewing machines.

Hard Model studio manager Tomonori Asano explains: “We artisans were given more of a designer mentality. We don’t just create something we are told to create, we inject our own ideas into whatever we are doing.”

I see a small, twisted strip of bamboo, highly polished and in the approximate shape of a propeller. It makes me think of a taketombo, a traditional Chinese and Japanese dragonfly toy. But just as quickly I picture an interior door handle. The material, and the culture, giving shape to the car.

“We want nobody to think this is made by computer,” Maeda says. “This was made by hand.”

The Kodo philosophy is evolving into its next phase, as embodied in the RX-Vision. “I want to try to put Japanese tradition or aesthetics as much as possible onto the body,” Maeda says. “This is still Kodo, but this is the difference between this generation and the next one.”

How does he define the Japanese aesthetic? “It’s very hard to explain, but one thing I can tell you is, make it as simple as possible, but still having flavour; a dynamic feel without any added weight or elements.

Make it pure, make it silent, but still having a soul, or an energy.”

As a hardcore car guy, Maeda laments the cultural change in attitude towards cars.

“The Japanese trend is that younger people aren’t buying cars so much now. That is because of city living, but also, most of the car design is very cheap, very cartoonish. Nobody is having that emotional feeling when they see these cars.

“That has been all the car designers’ fault. We have to regret the past, and we have to recap. It has been our fault.

“Do younger people know the deep meaning of the form of the car itself? Most want to go with fashionable and trendy stuff, from Apple or Google or whatever.

That’s okay. But the other 20 percent we have to educate, to show the true meaning of the car.”

Walking on eggshells

WHEELS accompanied Maeda-san to the studio of his friend, traditional lacquerware (Urushi) artist Kinjo Ikkokusai. Mazda had commissioned a work from Ikkokusai to examine how the artist imbued his lacquered boxes with life and soul.

Ikkokusai’s work took 10 months.

The blue oval-shaped box, which houses two drawers within, was inspired by a famous, semi-circular waterfall outside Tokyo. It comprises 7680 pieces of crushed eggshell laid out in 64 lines. The top is gently domed, perfectly suggesting the surface tension of water spilling over the sides. Five different shades of blue lacquer, each in three coats, is exhaustively polished by hand to create the illusion of sheeting water.

Maeda and his design staff were blown away. “I never asked him to create this kind of thing. After 10 months he brought this to us, and when I unveiled the box my body was shaking … The instant I saw this, I was able to hear the waterfall. Our categories are so different – we work in cars – but I could feel that what we were both doing was aligned.”