The secret to how Tesla gets its cars to look so good

The secret to how Tesla gets its cars to look so good
The auto industry is over a century old. Tesla is the first new carmaker to emerge in decades. So it's just about the rarest thing imaginable for a car designer to be able to imagine a new vehicle without feeling the explicit burden of the past. Just try to sketch a new Mustang at Ford or Corvette at Chevy. Tesla was announcing itself as a real car company with the Model S, so Holzhausen knew that his ideas would define the visual vocabulary of numerous vehicles to follow: SUVs, sports cars, coupés, probably even pickup trucks and vans. The whole tamale. A lot of designers would have let it rip and tried to be the next Giorgetto Giugiaro, the crucial Italian designer of Ferraris, Alfa Romeos, and Maseratis. In a sense, Holzhausen did become the next Guigaro, minus the more flamboyant efforts. Giugiaro designed dozen of cars, and not all of them made viewers automatically weak in the knees. Holzhausen let Musk be his guide. Musk embraces something called "first principles thinking" and has made it into a mantra at Tesla. The idea is to avoid thinking by analogy — let's make this car look like that car, just sort of different or better — and instead deal with problems by stripping them down to the core and working your way up. Holzhausen's version of this has been to embrace what he calls "efficiency." He assumes that every Tesla has to be beautiful, and besides, making a piece of industrial design beautiful doesn't really cost anything. It's more a matter of choosing beauty as a first principle because, in a competitive market, the best-looking product stands out. With efficiency, Holzhausen had a concept that could inform not just the design of the Model S sedan but also the entire, evolving Tesla brand.
The secret to how Tesla gets its cars to look so goodTimothy Artman/Tesla

The Tesla Model 3.

  • Designer Franz von Holzhausen had an impressive resume before joining Tesla.
  • But the combination of his frustration with the traditional auto industry and Elon Musk's distinctive ideas about how to solve problems has taken his work to a new level.
  • He's followed an unlikely path to becoming the most influential car designer of his generation.

Before Franz von Holzhausen signed on with what was then called Tesla Motors in 2010, he was on his way to being a member of the automotive design world's elite.

He had graduated from Art Center College of Design in the early 1990s, making him an alumnus of the world's most prestigious transportation design program, counting among its graduates the likes of J. Mays, Chris Bangle, and Henrik Fisker.

At General Motors, he designed a pair of exquisite roadsters, the Pontiac Solstice the the Saturn Sky. From there he want to Mazda North America, where he ran the entire show and garnered praise for his concepts vehicles.

If Holzhausen had remained on that track, he would have been a car-design aristocrat. Instead, he too a huge leap of faith and joined a buzzy Silicon Valley startup, far from the automotive capitals in Michigan, Japan, and Germany. And he became the most influential designer of his generation.

Yes, I know that's a big statement. Jaguar's Ian Callum or Aston Martin's Marek Reichman might object, and Luc Donckerwolke is capturing plenty of attention for his work a Hyundai, following a stint designing Lamborghinis.

But the key factor for Holzhausen is that as Tesla rolls out its Model 3 sedan, attacking the mass market, he's witnessing the return on his risky decision to join CEO Elon Musk back when Tesla was selling only one car, the original Roadster. Many designers of high reputation who are about Holzhausen's age (he's 49) continue to imaging the future within the context of the past.

Holzhausen gets to envision the future on its own terms - gorgeous electric cars that will someday be able to drive themselves. The car designer of the coming decades might admire the legends if the profession's history (and there have been many). But when it comes to crafting a career and a reputation, they will look Holzhausen.

I recently got the chance to speak with Holzhausen and he shared some details about how he came to join Tesla and what guides his design philosophy.

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