Following the semi-retirement of longtime Lexus and Toyota design chief Wahei Hirai in June 2009, company insiders and journalists have speculated on who his successor might be. This week, they got a rather novel answer, with the appointment of an Englishman, Simon Humphries, to the top spot. Humphries, who worked at Sony in product design prior to joining Toyota in 1994, becomes the highest-ranking foreigner in the company’s Japanese headquarters. Promoted from his current position as general manager of design strategy for Lexus and Toyota, the 43-year-old Humphries will lead all of Toyota’s global design operations, including the studio devoted exclusively to Lexus.
Humphries is a longtime car enthusiast who rebuilt the engine of his first car, a Mini, and has worked on projects such as the 2001 Pod concept car, Scion CCX, Toyota FunCargo, and Scion bB. Automotive News describes his most significant accomplishment as the 5-year development program, begun in 2001, which created the L-finesse styling language for Lexus. Humphries’ appointment reportedly comes at the behest of company CEO Akio Toyoda, who wants to “make cars that are more visually interesting and fun to drive”. According to Humphries, Toyoda has provided design input on each new car, focusing on “charm points” regarding driver position, cornering visibility and vehicle stance. More details about Humphries’ design perspective and biography after the jump.
The new design chief offered some hints about future designs to Automotive News, including “more expressive, dynamic front ends”, “minimizing or eliminating the upper grille” as in the Prius, and more colors and material personalization options. However, it’s not clear how many of these hints apply directly to Lexus. One tidbit does directly reference the luxury marque, namely “smaller, less cluttered instrument panels for the Lexus brand, with controls closer to driver.” Humphries, who is fluent in Japanese, also reportedly wants to continue channeling the island nation’s cultural sensibilities in future models. As referenced in our recent CT 200h chief designer interview, the ‘J-factor’ is a key element of current Lexus designs. In a separate interview conducted shortly before the 2005 Tokyo Motor Show, Humphries also characterized the development of L-finesse:
Humphries: Perhaps one thing I am proud of is the steps we’re taking with Lexus, a lot of which are coming to fruition now. You can now see in the high street the Lexus dealers in Japan, when they weren’t here a year ago. They started from this August. The vehicles being sold here are the first examples of the strategy that we proposed for Lexus. I think Lexus in the States over the years had a tendency to verge towards a little bit of the staid side, and we feel like we’re going to be able to bring it back to where it was originally, which was a complete alternative to the staid luxury of BMW and Mercedes Benz, and create an alternative, something that hasn’t got history, and therefore it’s an advantage.
Regarding the switch from Lexus’ initial target-market focus to a worldwide emphasis, coinciding with the brand’s Japanese launch, Humphries explained the motivation as folows:
I think it’s just the need to create Lexus as a global brand. It’s no good these days having segmented brands around the world; it only leads to difficulties. For example, we were selling some models as Lexus [in the US] but the same body type as Toyotas over here. So again it leads to difficulties in design. It’s difficult to purify design, to create a very distinct direction for something, because you’re selling the same product under two brand names, and you get an overlap. So I think one of the primary reasons was to segment Lexus from Toyota, and do that on a global scale.
Humphries also provided an interesting analogy of Japanese uniqueness, the curry doughnut, stating that “that is a real eye-opener—the way they can seemingly combine two normal things to create something that is very, very new.” It will indeed be interesting to see how Humphries will make his stamp for the luxury division of the world’s largest automotive company.
Automotive News further included this biographical list:
Title: General manager, Lexus-Toyota
Joined Toyota: 1994
Family: Married, 3 children
University: De Montfort University in the United Kingdom (industrial design)
Hobbies: Black belt in Aikido (Japanese martial art), gardening
Noted work: Pod concept, Scion CCX
In his garage: Dark-gray Land Cruiser, blue Toyota MRS
Most coveted car: Triumph TR5
Favorite vacation spot: Thailand
Favorite food: Curry with beer
Last movie seen: Avatar
Source of inspiration: Drinking with friends
Advice to young designers: Be yourself
[Source: Automotive News (subscriber only)]