Automotive designer J Mays has become well-known as the design director of Ford Motor Company. Born in rural Oklahoma, Mays started working at his family’s auto parts store at an early age with aspirations of becoming an architect, but eventually found his calling in car design while at the Art Center in Pasadena. An automotive design pioneer with more than 30 years under his belt, Mays has been involved in the design of a number of the car industry’s most well-recognized automobiles, including the VW “New Beetle”, Aston Martin DB9, Land Rover LR3/Discovery, Ford GT, 2011 Ford Fiesta, 2012 Focus (including the Focus EV), and the new green 2013 Ford Fusion—just to name a few! For the last 16 years he’s been leading the charge at Ford as the Vice President of Global Design and Chief Creative Officer and has played a critical role in bringing a new generation of stylish, green, high-performance electric and hybrid vehicles to a mainstream market. I recently got the chance to chat with Mays about his monumental career, and I’ve published our interview here. Click ahead to read the entire interview, where Mays touches on his global travels, his design ethos and influences, the current market for hybrid and electric vehicles, and what he sees for the future of zero-emissions vehicles, both at Ford and on a global scale.
INHABITAT: You’ve been a car designer for a long time. How did you get started with your career?
J Mays: Well, that’s a good question. I’ve been a car designer now for 32 years, so that is a long time. I started in the industry back in 1980 with Audi. Before that I started out studying journalism and I have no idea to this day why I studied journalism, but I did, and I wasn’t very good at it. I wouldn’t say I was flunking out of school, but I wasn’t doing that well, either.
By complete accident I found myself in car design because I thought I’d like to be a commercial artist. I was in the middle of Oklahoma and didn’t have a lot of information at hand. I found out that there was a school in California that would train you to become an automotive designer. Because I had a great love of cars I thought, “I can’t believe that they would actually pay a grown man money to design and draw cars every day.” So, that sounded like the job for me.
I went out to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and was there from ’76 until ’80 and in 1980 I left and went to Audi where, more or less over the next 14 years, I had my career with a short exception of a year-and-a-half at BMW. I was with Audi until late 1994 and I left in 1994 to go into brand consultancy because I thought that was a really interesting step in possibly furthering my career.
At the time Ford Motor Company hired me, they were one of my clients—I was living in Los Angeles—and they asked me to be the Vice President of Design. So, the place that I never thought I would end up—which was Detroit—here I am. I’ve been with Ford now for 16 years, which I can hardly actually believe.
Ford Fusion Energi
INHABITAT: So, you went to college to study automotive design. What would be your recommendation for young, aspiring car designers?
J Mays: It’s a great question, and I think I’ve got an answer for it. I don’t know if it’s a good answer, but it’s the answer I always use: The more you know about the world, the better designer you are; whether you’re a car designer or architect or anything else. The more you know about the world, the better your ideas will be because you just have a much broader cultural experience from which to load your gun.
The more you know about the world, the better designer you will be; whether you’re a car designer or architect or anything else.
So, if you’re trying to be a creative that really wants to understand various cultures around the world and understand how different kinds of customers have different kinds of requirements, nothing replaces—in my opinion—getting out of your own country and seeing as much of the world as possible. That’s pretty much how I’ve done it. And by the way, I wouldn’t say that was some sort of master plan I had out of college. This just happened to me.
Having spent more than 20 years in Europe has not only changed my life but it’s also changed my perspective on how to design and what good design really is. So, I always tell people this—if there’s one thing that I could recommend, it’s scare the hell out of yourself and get out of your own country and go find out what’s really going on in the world.
INHABITAT: That’s great advice. Now, do you think people can get into auto design by studying or majoring in something else first, then going back to school later? Or is it really the type of industry where you have to go straight to a design college?
J Mays: It helps if you’ve got an affinity for automobiles. But my route in was actually through journalism, and then I went to design school. I think it helps when you’re at a school that’s as intensive as Arts Center in Pasadena or Royal College of Art in London. There’s even a school here in Detroit called CCS—Center for Creative Studies. It helps if you’ve got a little bit of college under your belt; get that behind you before you go into an environment where you’re studying design because then you’re more mature, you’ve gotten those first couple of crazy college years behind you, and you’re probably better prepared to settle down and actually do something serious with your life.
Phillip Johnson’s Glass House
INHABITAT: Who would you say are your design influences and your favorite designers? In that, I include architects.
J Mays: Unfortunately most of my favorite architects are dead. So, if I kind of go through a few, some of them I love for selfish reasons and some I choose because they’ve had a huge influence on how I think. Particularly in respect to how they’ve placed their work in the world.
I had the opportunity—I should say the honor—to meet Philip Johnson before he died. He called me and wanted to meet me because he was driving an Audi TT, which I designed when I was at Audi. So, he invited me to the Seagrams Building when he was still practicing, and I went up and had about an hour with him. That’s one of the most memorable things that’s ever happened to me. To this day I get goose bumps thinking about it. It was just such an honor.
Phillip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe
I love Philip Johnson’s Glass House, but I love Philip Johnson more for the influence he had on American architecture by bringing guys like Mies van der Rohe and Marcel Breuer into the United States, and I think he was the first one to bring Le Corbusier in. This guy’s influence, just beyond the sheer building of architecture, was massive in this country. I really have a big soft spot for that whole era.
Then I suppose out on the west coast, I’m a pretty big sucker for Pierre Koenig and all of the houses he did, particularly the Stahl House. But if you look at the Glass House that Johnson did or the Stahl house that Pierre Koenig did, what I love about those is that they are pristine, pure and simple, but the reason they work is because they are placed into a position that allows the culture around them to actually be the thing that shines. That’s kind of the way that I try to approach automotive design because I think cars have to be just like architecture; they have to be appropriate for the culture that they’re being driven in. Long story short, those would be a few of my favorite architects.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water
INHABITAT: What would you say you’ve learned from architecture that you’ve applied to the design of automobiles?
J Mays: Well, just to elaborate on what I was talking about previously. I’m not a big fan of Frank Lloyd Wright, but I like his architecture. I think what Wright had in many of his designs was an uncanny ability to place the design into the appropriate cultural surroundings—Falling Water obviously being one of the best examples.
That’s one of the most important things I’ve learned from architecture—because there’s something somewhere between the influence of architects and what I started to understand as important to them—the placement of architecture within its surroundings, or its cultural environment as I call it. This is also what I see happening with film directors. Any good movie you go to see is built around a particular culture and cultural environment. This heightened consciousness gives the owner of the house, the viewer of the movie, or the owner of the car a guidepost as to what they should be expecting out of the experience from that piece of architecture, that movie or that car.