FEB 3, 2017
The process of developing a new Lexus vehicle color is complex and demanding. We meet the talented team who is happy to take on the challenge
It’s a bright, cloudless morning in late May, the kind of day when you have to squint to see anything in the harsh glare. In Megumi Suzuki’s mind, this is ideal for a tutorial in the complexities of color. At Lexus’s sprawling design center in Aichi Prefecture, central Japan, Suzuki has gathered more than a dozen thin aluminum panels the size of a paperback novel. Each is coated in a different hue of red paint.
Most people would have a hard time telling the red panels apart. To Suzuki, though, they couldn’t be more different. One has hints of blue. Another shines with specks of metal as small as grains of sand. There’s a red that is too bright and flat, and a crimson that is not bright enough.
Suzuki picks one up and holds it flat so it reflects the sunlight. It’s a candy-apple hue, but as she bends the panel it becomes darker, like carmine. This is the new Lexus red. “We wanted a color that could be both bright and dark, depending on the viewing angle,” says Suzuki, 43, a member of Lexus’s color design team. “That contrast helps to highlight the car’s curves and angles.”
For Suzuki, who has two decades of experience in the field, developing the red was a complex undertaking that spanned more than two years. It started with a simple request: create a color from scratch for a new high-performance sports car. Red was Suzuki’s first choice. But what shade of red? Could it appeal to both men and women? And how would she ensure that the new color reinforced the brand’s luxury lineage? Those questions nagged at Suzuki almost until the moment Lexus gave the public its first look at the new color on a freshly painted RC coupe – the company’s new signature sports coupe – at the Tokyo Motor Show in 2013.
Lexus designers never use off-the-shelf colors, preferring instead to develop their own, from scratch, a process that can take up to two years. Often the brand’s designers will create new colors that are introduced when new automobiles are launched (Megumi Suzuki and the team have been developing the new Radiant Red Contrast Layering color for the new RC coupe). The Lexus palette totals at some 30 different colors used across the vehicle range. It includes Heat Blue Contrast Layering and Lava Orange Crystal Shine, two new colors designed for the RC F, and a number of high quality colors including Sonic Silver and Sonic Titanium.
Such is life for the designers who look after the carmaker’s palette of more than 30 colors. They refuse to use off-the-shelf colors, and there are no shortcuts: a designer’s decision comes only after going through hundreds of samples. “I looked at so many shades of red paint that I couldn’t see straight,” Suzuki says. To do her job, it takes a keen eye, a grasp of chromatics and a bit of an obsessive personality. “Every time I meet someone or walk into a shop or go to someone’s house, I check out colors and materials,” she says. “There are a lot of people like me in our division.”
Even after a color has been decided on, there’s plenty to do. At various stages during development, Suzuki had to enlist a small army of experts: lab technicians who mix the paint, clay sculptors, engineers and the assembly-line paint shop crew who would give every red RC a flawless, uniform coat.
And that is only the exterior. Color designers are also in charge of what goes inside the car. From door trimmings to seat stitching, they choose every fabric, thread, leather strip and film from dozens of suppliers. Each item has to be repeatedly checked both indoors, under lights that mimic sunlight, and outdoors, in natural light. “The leather covering the seats is dyed by artisans,” Suzuki says. “We were going through samples from them every month for more than a year.”
The Color Study Area at Lexus’s main design center in Japan is hidden behind a heavy, gray metal door, and it’s off-limits to most outsiders. A low-slung building with floor-to-ceiling windows faces a narrow strip of asphalt that is bordered on one side by a tall evergreen hedge. Embedded in the asphalt are two remote-controlled turntables for viewing vehicles from any angle.
This is where designers get a feel for how a color will appear on the metal body of a car. Initially they make do without the vehicle, instead relying on aluminum panels that are painted at various facilities, including the labs of Kansai Paint, about a half-hour drive away. Every few weeks Kansai Paint (a 96-year-old paint maker based in Osaka) produces a new batch, and Lexus designers give the samples a thorough look-over, bending the panels to mimic the contours of a car. Each one is scrutinized indoors and outdoors, under floodlights, in sunlight, shade and overcast conditions, and at different times of the day and months of the year.
It’s not easy to pick one. A color that is dazzling on a summer morning can appear sickly in the shade or under showroom lamps. Designers also have to contend with the vagaries of their own preferences. “The odd thing about color is that your perception of it can change depending on the season, your own physical and mental state and the trends you’re seeing,” says Suzuki.
Instinct plays a role, too. There is no textbook definition of a great color. “With the new red, our goal was to make you go, ‘Wow!’” says Yoichiro Kitamura, head of the Lexus color division.
NO OTHER COMPANY GOES THIS FAR OR CAN BEAT US ON QUALITY
On this day, a white NX – the angular crossover SUV designed with young urban drivers in mind – sits in the sunlight in the Color Study Area. Its color is still a work in progress, says Momoko Okamoto, 29, who came up with the Sonic Quartz color for the NX’s global debut.
White is popular among car buyers. But car body designers are less taken by the color. When Okamoto first sat down with the NX designers, they told her the car’s shape would resemble a bullet. “They were probably hoping I would choose silver or gunmetal gray, which naturally accentuates a car’s contours,” she explains.
Instead Okamoto chose white. “If you don’t have the right white, it can make a car appear unfocused or bloated,” she says. “But I felt we should try something new with a basic color. I thought it might help us attract a new demographic.”
The team struggled for months before Okamoto had her eureka moment: she thought about the wintry landscape back home in Sapporo, on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. “In sunlight snow is brilliant, but in the shade it’s muted,” she says.
To get the desired effect, her team relied on a developed technology known as sonic painting. The usual paint job for a car is made up of three layers: a base to prevent rust, the color coat and a clear coat for protection against wear. The sonic technology allowed Lexus to develop a paint job with five layers. Color would come from three components – a dense, ultrathin top layer of white with microscopic mica chips (which reflect and let light through), a pearl mica middle layer and a thick layer of white below.
The only way to know for sure whether the color would work would be to look at a full-scale mock-up, so Okamoto’s team had in-house sculptors carve an NX from clay. Lexus painters sprayed half of it in the new white and the other half in the current white. Then Okamoto put the mock-up on the Color Study Area turntable, and she and other designers stared at it for hours. “For the first time, everyone on the NX design team was nodding in approval,” recalls Okamoto. “I was thinking, ‘Yes!’”
That’s when the engineers stepped in to begin figuring out how to reproduce the paint job in the factory. A lot can go wrong. It’s tricky to spray an even coat of paint onto the angled parts of a car body. Imagine doing it perfectly with multiple layers of paint and clear coating that, combined, are no thicker than a strand of human hair – and repeating that feat every few minutes. One micron too thick or thin can cause a blemish that most people might miss but that Lexus’s color evaluators would flag.
During the initial production run, it’s not uncommon for some cars to be pulled off the assembly line and manually resprayed by one of the factory’s paint takumi (artisans). That happened with the new red, says Suzuki. Like the Sonic Quartz color, and the award-winning Sonic Titanium (which has evolved since it was first used on the GS), the red has multiple color layers that add to its striking appearance. The bottom coat of silver acts like a mirror beneath a semitranslucent red layer, which is packed with tiny aluminum flakes. Using two different colors in a paint job is rare; it can also exaggerate the smallest imperfections.
But that’s what it takes to come up with colors no one has seen before. “What we do isn’t glamorous,” says division head Kitamura. “But no other company goes this far or can beat us on quality.”
From left to right, Momoko Okamoto, Yoichiro Kitamura and Megumi Suzuki stand in front of a number of color panels awaiting inspection. Developing a new Lexus color is complex and demanding, but the team is aware of the challenge and regularly rises to it. Suzuki, who developed the new Lexus red (titled Radiant Red Contrast Layering and designed for the new RC coupe), has two decades of experience in the field. “Every time I meet someone or walk into a shop or go to someone’s house, I check out colors and materials,” she says. “There are a lot of people like me in our division.”