The Lab

The Outpost

How Lexus’s hardworking European design division is shaking up the brand’s future

“This is probably the best view from any design studio,” says Lance Scott as we stroll to the end of the large terrace at ED2, Lexus’s design center in Sophia Antipolis, where he is the general manager of the design department. It’s winter, but the sky is bright blue and brilliant sunshine sparkles on the azure Mediterranean Sea that stretches out in front of us. Also in our line of vision is a picturesque hilltop village, a forest of palm trees and the snow-topped mountains of the Alps. Nice is a short drive east, and Cannes sits to the west. If you ever needed a spot to inspire innovative design, then this is probably it.

A half-painted full scale clay model of the Lexus LF-SA stands ready for inspection on an exterior turning circle

ED2 – European Design Development – is the 6,000-square-meter purpose-built home of Lexus’s European design team. Over the building’s three levels, a team of 40 employees, including 22 designers and 10 modelers, is dedicated to developing proposals for car exterior and interior design for Lexus’s design headquarters in Japan. It’s here, too, that designers participate in competitions with other Lexus design studios, presenting models that could become concept or future production vehicles.

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Scott has risen up the ranks at ED2 since 2000, while working on Lexus projects including the SC, the GS and the IS, as well as the LF-SA, a small city-car concept the team here prepared for the 2015 Geneva Motor Show in March. An “urban adventurer” that “pushes the boundaries of luxury in a small package,” the LF-SA was not designed to go into production, but instead to provide a talking point for possible design directions Lexus could take in the future.

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Details of the LF-SA clay model
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Tools used by Lexus modelers
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The LF-SA sits in the clay modeling suite; one half is wrapped in silver plastic for presentation purposes

This sort of experimental work – the kind that explores potential new genres of vehicles – is key to what the team at ED2 does. Scott’s team has developed advanced models of the Lexus’s NX, SC, CT, IS and GS cars. The team has also presented competition proposals for the NX and the CT, and the exteriors of the SC and the previous generation GS, which were both selected for production. Its proposal for the IS strongly influenced final production.

Scott oversees a multinational team of designers, including exterior, interior and color and trim designers who work in a large, open-plan space on the first floor of the facility. Inspiration cues are peppered throughout: a giant plastic cactus sculpture, red felt slippers, inviting beanbags, a maze of mood boards alongside a lone car seat covered in a scarlet fabric. On a cluster of sofas on one side of the office, designers compare notes as they use chopsticks to pick sushi from bento boxes. At the other end, a pair of color and trim experts concentrate on the textures of different blocks of plastic as they sit on Perspex designer chairs pulled up at a glass table.

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An ED2 modeler works on the model in the studio
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The exterior of the purpose-built ED2 facility

The ED2 team is sent an average of seven briefs every year, each of which sets off a chain of design processes. But if the cars are conceived upstairs, in the design studios, downstairs is where they become a reality. A long spiral staircase leads down to a wide, brightly lit corridor with huge garage doors concealing woodworking, welding and painting workshops. A regular door opens to a huge luminescent studio with a clay model of the new LF-SA standing in the center of it, one half naked terra-cotta, the other half wrapped in silver plastic.

Behind glass doors on one side of the studio is the milling machine, a sophisticated tool with arms that sculpts the car out of clay from 3-D design data that is fed into it. Often it’s just the exterior that is created in clay; in the interior, it can be easier to experiment with different details on a digital model. Once a model has been milled, the 10-strong modeling team crafts the clay model until its lines properly reflect the vision of the designer.

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An ED2 designer at work on the LF-SA
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Designers discuss elements of the LF-SA wheel
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A tablet shows the design of a Lexus touch pad

“My job is to take the sketch and interpret it into a 3-D form – the designer has the inspiration, the modeler has the hands,” explains senior modeler Paul Wastell, showing a set of clay-crafting knives and tools. “Sometimes the designer will hold up a piece of plastic and twist it and say ‘This is what I want,’ and then I recreate it in the clay.”

Everyone here seems to have a sunny disposition, and not just as a result of the climate. Their enthusiasm is sparked by the excitement and pleasure they take in what they do, working together to design the next generation of Lexus cars. The team is small, and their approach is all hands on deck, but that’s the way they like it. “I like that it’s a small studio,” explains Vanvinckenroye. “Everybody has to know a bit of everything.”

An ED2 team member spray-paints a door panel