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February 4, 2011 12:00 AM

Design nouveau: More women are finding their niche as car designers


At 25 years old and right out of the Art Center College of Design, Michelle Christensen designed the exterior of the Acura ZDX. (New York Times News Service)

Could the car of the future look like a flock of metal butterflies flying in formation?

For a concept car that Anne Forschner, a young German designer, drew last year, she imagined what would happen if the car's body could be built with just one part, multiplied many times.

The body is covered with 206 copies of the same piece, a kind of high-tech shingle that covers the car like the scales of a fish. But each of the scales moves -- facing the sun to activate its solar cell, sweeping back to ease the vehicle's way through the air, or popping up to serve as an air brake.

For Forschner, who is 25 and was hired by BMW after serving as an intern there, the car is both a symbol of a philosophy and a practical application of it. She calls the philosophy "Lovos," short for "Lifestyle of Voluntary Simplicity."


Anne Forschner's concept car is covered with 206 copies of a shingle that covers the car like the scales of a fish. (New York Times News Service)

"Concept cars make a clear statement," she says. "They open people's eyes for new possibilities in design and inspire with new technologies. Some elements in the Lovos concept could be partially used in production, but for now they are just theoretical ideas."

Forschner's car may or may not be the car of the future, but she seems to be a designer of the future -- young, world-traveled and educated, tech savvy, ambitious and idealistic. Auto design has become a global profession, where Germans design Korean cars, Koreans design German cars and design studios look like U.N. lobbies.

Now, with more women taking the primary role in auto purchases, auto companies are shining the spotlight on the women on their design staffs -- still a tiny percentage of the total -- and hiring new ones.

Acura's advertising and promotion for the ZDX coupe focused on Michelle Christensen, a 25-year-old designer right out of the Art Center College of Design in Southern California. Christensen, who is now at General Motors, was the exterior designer of the ZDX.

Cadillac has held public drawing displays by Christine Parks, a young designer from its Michigan studios. BMW made sure to remind the public that the latest version of its Z4 sports car was designed inside and out by two female primary designers, Nadya Arnaout and Juliane Blasi.

"I think women today do well in car design even though I wish there would be more of us," Forschner says. "When I studied I was the only female student in my class. So I guess the car industry would hire more women if there were enough graduates."

Now she is working on production models, not futuristic concepts. It might seem that this work is less creative, she says, but that is not so.

"Working on production models is extremely complex, because many parameters are clear right from the start and you have to handle many feasibility issues," she says.

Forschner also sees ways in which elements of her Lovos concept can inform production models.

"Movable parts, like air outtakes behind the wheels that adjust at different speeds, could have a positive effect on aerodynamics," she says. "Even the 'fish-scale' surfacing when the car is closed could be used on the exterior panels for better aerodynamics.

"Also, the idea of a production process with recurring pieces could save costs and time. But all of this is just a designer's vision."