One of the most accomplished living automobile designers is headed to Omaha, and he’s bringing some stories to tell.
J Mays, former chief creative officer of Ford Motor Co. and the man behind the popular mid-1990s reboot of the Volkswagen Beetle, will appear at Kaneko on Friday as part of the “Design in Motion” exhibition opening today.
Mays will talk about his 33-year career designing cars and the common denominator among his various design projects.
“The best designs, be they automobiles or designs of products or the design of a movie, really have a great story to them,” he said.
Mays has told plenty of stories through the years.
The Oklahoma native began his automotive career in Europe, designing and creating increasingly high-profile concepts for Audi, BMW and Volkswagen.
In the early 1990s, Volkswagen tasked Mays with re-establishing the company in North America, where sales had lagged. The design team started by asking potential customers what Volkswagen meant to them. Again and again, people spoke with reverence about the Beetle of the 1960s and 1970s — an iconic if not always reliable car.
“You dig a little further, and you find out it’s simplicity they liked about that car,” Mays said. “It was just a simple form of transportation that they could get their hands around and, in time, their hearts around.”
Mays took that simplicity and ran with it. In 1994, Volkswagen unveiled the Concept One, which later became the new, now ubiquitous, Beetle. Mays said that at the time his bosses in Germany weren’t overly thrilled with the design, but they couldn’t deny its popularity.
“People that didn’t even like cars were talking about it,” he said.
He’d found the right story to tell.
“It’s very, very easy to identify,” Mays said of the Beetle. “If you ask a child to draw a vehicle, you won’t get something too different than two wheels and an arc that connects them.”
Mays spent the last 16 years of his career with Ford before retiring in 2013. He oversaw dramatic redesigns of the company’s Focus, Fiesta and Taurus models and the 50th anniversary edition of the Ford Mustang, along with the introduction and development of the increasingly popular Ford Fusion.
During those years, Mays’ fame reached beyond the automotive industry. In 1999, he was the subject of a New Yorker profile (“Detroit Tiger”) that described him as the world’s most influential car designer. In 2002, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles staged an exhibition of his work: “Retrofuturism: The Car Design of J Mays.”
When Pixar’s John Lasseter was conducting research for “Cars” around the same time, he sought out Mays’ help. (They remain friends and collaborators.)
“I always kind of draw the parallel between automobile design and moviemaking,” Mays said, noting that splashy embellishments, like big special effects, might impress on first glance but lose their power with time.
The classics, whether car or film, are those that function as a whole.
It’ll be a theme he returns to this Friday.
“We’re going to be talking in many ways about the theater of transportation,” Mays said. “That is very much in line with ‘Design in Motion.’ ”