Nissan’s new design chief on following a legend

Alfonso Albaisa
Title: Senior vice president, global design, Nissan Motor Co.

Age:52

Hometown:Miami

First language:Spanish

Education:Bachelor’s degree in industrial design from Pratt Institute, 1988

First car:1970 Chevrolet Monte Carlo

NEW YORK — Alfonso Albaisa admits his new job at Nissan Motor Co. is daunting.

Not the part about taking over global design oversight last month, which includes design for all things Nissan, such as dealerships, office buildings and public displays. After nearly 30 years with Nissan, Albaisa, 52, says he is ready for all that.

What’s daunting is the part about filling the shoes of his mentor, Shiro Nakamura, the automaker’s design chief since 1999.

Nakamura delivered nearly two decades of Nissan’s history, including the first Murano, the 370Z, GT-R, Juke, Infiniti Q50 and FX35 crossover, now called the QX70.

“I’ve got to follow Shiro,” Albaisa says with an eyes-wide look of emphasis. “How does anybody do that?”

Albaisa is the automaker’s first non-Japanese design director. The historic moment leads him to ponder the difference between his design instincts and all of those who came before him at the company.

“There is clearly Japanese thought and sensitivities in the look and shape of our cars,” he says. “But what does it mean today to be a Japanese car company? Especially for Nissan, which has so many Westerners involved in directing the company?”

After heading Infiniti design, Albaisa will now manage a design force of 700 around the world, working on vehicles that range from small Japan-only kei cars, to American-sized sedans and trucks and even large commercial vehicles.

The first vehicle that will bear Albaisa’s stamp as Nissan design chief will take the stage in January at the Detroit auto show, he says, declining to say what it will be.

There are 30 vehicle design projects in the works of varying global scale. First up are Nissan’s body-on-frame vehicles, as well as a new initiative for Renault and Nissan to deepen their alliance collaboration on light commercial vehicles.

He says his approach to the creative process will differ from what Nissan’s studios around the world are used to.

At his first design meeting as the new boss last month in Japan, Albaisa dispensed with the usual formal meeting room ambiance of chairs and desks. Instead, sofas were brought in and designers sat around in clubby comfort.

“I want to encourage more casual collaboration,” Albaisa said, talking to Automotive News during the New York auto show.

In recent years, Nakamura was steering more responsibility to Albaisa, who was named executive design director of Infiniti in 2014, and corporate vice president for design business management and global strategy last year. He started with Nissan’s California design studio in 1988, just after graduating from Pratt Institute in New York. A Florida native and son of Cuba-born parents, Albaisa has spoken in recent years of wanting to bring a Latin flavor into the designs he was overseeing at Infiniti. By that, he meant introducing more emotion and flair in the styling, he has said, adding that the influence would begin to emerge in 2016 and 2017.

Last month in New York, Albaisa presented the Infiniti QX80 Monograph concept, what he called a design study for the next-generation QX80 SUV. He pointed out that the concept’s sides and creases were intended to suggest human muscle, an effect that he said evoked the sculpture of Auguste Rodin.

Under Nakamura, Albaisa also oversaw the most recent redesigns of the Maxima and Murano. The global Micra subcompact was Albaisa’s project.

But as Albaisa moved up the ladder of global design leadership, Nakamura urged him to set down his pencils and focus only on managing the company’s creative talent.

“I was still designing,” Albaisa said. “Shiro told me, “You have to stop designing now.’ I don’t know if can. I’ve wanted to design my whole life.”

As a mentor, Nakamura allowed Albaisa to do as he pleased, Albaisa says.

“It was sort of a Peter Pan existence for me, getting to design when I wanted to,” he says. “But those Peter Pan days are now over. We have a lot of work to do.”

Designer’s career
1988: Joined Nissan’s San Diego studio

2004: Design director at Nissan Design America

2005: Product chief designer at Nissan Motor Co., Japan

2007: Vice president of Nissan Design Europe, London

2010: Vice president of Nissan Design America

2012: Director for Nissan global design strategy, passenger cars

2014: Infiniti executive design director

2016: Corporate vice president for design business management, global strategy

2017: Senior vice president in charge of global design

Alfonso Albaisa
Title: Senior vice president, global design, Nissan Motor Co.

Age:52

Hometown:Miami

First language:Spanish

Education:Bachelor’s degree in industrial design from Pratt Institute, 1988

First car:1970 Chevrolet Monte Carlo

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