Interview with Mazda’s Franz von Holzhausen

Franz von Holzhausen, director of design of Mazda North America, is responsible for all the products that come from Japan to our U.S. dealers. He started at Mazda on February 21, 2005, and the members of WAPA had the opportunity to interact with him on his two-year anniversary with Mazda.

He has since designed the Kabura, Nagare, and Ryuga concept cars to name a few in his short time with Mazda. Starting at Volkswagen in 1992 until 2000, he worked on the new Beetle Concept 1, the Audi TT, and the transporter concept) and also contributed to the Jetta and the Golf. When von Holzhausen was at VW, it was during the design-driven era when people were getting interested in quality design again. After VW, von Holzhausen went to GM, where he took part in the design of the Pontiac Solstice, Chevy SS and the Saturn Sky.

One of the most discussed parts of his talk at the WAPA luncheon was Mazda’s new design concept of nagare (pronounced “na-ga-reh”), Japanese for ‘flow’, and the embodiment of motion and gesture, or as Mazda would say, the emotion of motion. Mazda has turned to nature to express these ideas and flow, i.e. Nagare, has become the design philosophy. The philosophy started with concept cars two years ago, in Tokyo, Frankfurt, and Detroit with the Kabura concept. Mazda is trying to offer great solutions for drivers that are not about destination A to B, but about adding experience, style and character in driving and the daily life of driving. Therefore, “Zoom-Zoom” is not only in the way the cars function but also in the way the cars look.

The Ryuga, Japanese for “gracious flow” reflects a higher level of sophistication through the use of rich fabrics, engineered fits and hidden details. The Ryuga is the second concept out of a four concept series. Ryuga is elegant and refined, but radiates spirit and edge while portraying unique Japanese beauty. The interior of the car, once you are past the Lava Red exterior, is an advanced and very sporty cockpit that allows for an exciting personal driving experience while also providing a relaxed lounge environment to chat and hang out with friends. The Ryuga also comes equipped with advanced LED and Fluorescent Tube technology, Blind Spot Monitoring, rear-view cameras and other active and passive safely technologies.

Recently, at the Geneva show, the Mazda Hakaze (the third concept car in the series) debuted, which was more of a realistic interpretation, i.e. closer to the production-feel package than the others. It is basically a mini-SUV with all the attributes of a roadster and a compact coupe. The Hakaze is about the size of a Mazda3 but with higher seating position and ability to really open up the roof. If you missed its debut in Geneva, you can look for it in April at the New York International Auto Show. The fourth concept car will be debuted in Tokyo later this year.

Five Minutes With Mazda’s Top Designer, Franz von Holzhausen

LB: What was your inspiration for the Ryuga?
FvH: The Ryuga is the second of a quartet of concept vehicles that we are debuting this year, the first one being the Mazda Nagare, which was shown in Los Angeles. They [the quartet of concept cars] are the continuation of the story of design philosophy that we’re communicating to the public. It is basically a reinvention of Mazda design. The inspiration comes from the overall theme of the Japanese Nagare, which means “flow”, which for Mazda means a kind of visual communication of Zoom-Zoom or the emotion of motion. We set out to try to capture, in a visual way, the feeling of movement and passion. Ryuga is the second vehicle that communicates this idea in a unique way. The specific inspiration for Ryuga, similar to Nagare, (the first car, Nagare is very much nature inspired) Ryuga is a little more of a man-made interpretation of Nature’s impression. So when you see the Ryuga, you see a little more architectural approach to it, not unlike the Japanese Zen-gardens, where you actually rake the sand, a man-made interpretation of the way wind blowing across water or as the wind blows across the desert sand. The Ryuga is really an attempt at being to look at ways of describing surface movement and surface flow.

LB: How do you see Mazda’s designs progressing in the future?
FvH: We’re just now launching this philosophy [of flow] and the beautiful part is that it is wide open, there is no constraints to it, I think the three vehicles that we have shown to date really show a broad range of ability to describe this kind of visual surface language. It is unique to Mazda now. We now own this phrase, since we somewhat coined the surface tension in the industry, that’s apart from everybody else. We’ve managed to make movement on the surface a kind of beautiful thing whereas in the past, “clean” was probably the word of choice. We’re going to continue with this philosophy because we are just now scratching the surface of possibilities where we can go with this.

LB: Do you feel the restraints of making a car that has mass appeal while also trying to make the next big leap in innovation?
FvH: Every designer is always trying to innovate and refresh and be new. With Mazda, we try to be provocative, new, fresh, sporty, youthful, all adjectives to describe our designs, but we are constantly looking for the freshest, newest way to develop a vehicle that are perfect for the market and for our target customers. Mazda is not like Toyota; we don’t have the volume of companies like Toyota or Honda in any of our vehicles, which is a good thing because we don’t have to bland down our designs for a mass-market appeal. We can be much more specific with our intentions and vehicles which is a unique feature of Mazda vehicles. They are not for everybody. They are for the type of person that is interested in the sporty feel and the representation of their more sporty and/or sophisticated character. That keeps us highly motivated, because a lot of us are automotive enthusiasts.

LB: What demographic did you have in mind for the Ryuga?
FvH: If you look at our demographics, we are the second-youngest OEM age group out there, only surpassed by Scion by half a year so median age of our buyers are lower than every other brand except Scion. We attend to keep them with the brand as they grow up. We’re offering products that the appeal to younger generations and we are also creating products that Gen y and even younger can aspire to.

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