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The Art of Design: New Design West Facility Completed

General Motors Design West

How art, architecture and design converged to inspire a new generation of automotive design ...

It’s easy to mistake GM’s new Design West facility for a modern art museum. Sculptures, paintings and works made from recycled leather are visible throughout the open, brightly lit facility.

But this is no mere replica of the Guggenheim or Museum of Modern Art. Design West and its older sibling, the Saarinen Building, stand as testaments to the creative forces that have defined GM’s design ethos since GM’s first design chief, Harley Earl, established the first styling studio dedicated to elevating the automotive experience.

Opening Design West

After a delay due to the pandemic, construction on the 360,000-square-foot Design West facility was completed in February. All Chevrolet, GMC, Buick and Cadillac studios have relocated from the historic Saarinen Building to the new facility, and renovations are underway at Saarinen to host employees who work in Color, Material and Finish (CMF); Advanced Design; and Global Creative Visualization (GCV) on the Global Technical Center Campus.

“This is a bigger, more open space with lots of hoteling and accommodations which allow engineers, program teams and people to congregate around the design process,” said Michael Simcoe, GM’s senior vice president of Global Design.

The stark difference between Saarinen and Design West begins and ends with how the studios are laid out. At Saarinen, built in 1956, the studios each had their own space, allowing the respective Design teams to work in relative secrecy.

“That made it deliberately transactional,” Simcoe said. “People came in, dealt with Design and moved on.”

Design West, on the other hand, literally breaks down the walls and encourages collaboration, even allowing people from the different brand studios to wander about the open floorplan and see what’s being developed elsewhere.

“They’re able to see the wide scope of what’s being designed,” said Mike McBride, executive director of Global Design Operations and Immersive Technology. “Design West was designed to be able to get views of the models from all different angles that we couldn’t get before.”

On any given day, a visitor to Design West will see employees sculpting the exterior or working on an interior buck for a vehicle the public won’t see for several years. Large, mobile video walls allow designers, engineers and other functions to delve deeper into the virtual designs while the life-size models are rendered just a few feet away.

And they will find cues pointing to GM’s rich history, or art and architecture.

“We made sure when we built Design West that we brought features from the Saarinen architecture, whether it’s the wood treatment, some of the lighting, the art program,” McBride said. “It’s important that we maintained the look and feel because the people who work here do find it to be extremely inspirational.” 

A marriage of architecture and design

The genesis for the Global Technical Center came during a post-World War II economic boom that saw GM’s influence in design grow rapidly. GM leadership envisioned a campus where product development teams from design, engineering, research and manufacturing could collaborate in ways that no other automaker had previously done.

Alfred Sloan Jr., GM’s long-time president, chairman and CEO, tasked Harley Earl with finding an architect best suited to capture the desired aesthetic for the campus. Earl didn’t have to look too far. Eliel Saarinen, a Finnish American architect, had already established himself in Michigan and helped design the Cranbrook Educational Community.

Eliel had drawn up plans for the GM campus but passed away in 1950 before construction could start. His son, Eero, who is also famous for designing the St. Louis Gateway Arch and the TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport in New York, picked up the project.

Where Eliel envisioned a more vertical design, Eero proposed a series of lower glass and steel buildings, each featuring colorful glazed tiles created by Maija Grotell, a famed Finnish American ceramic artist. GM styling and design would be centered in a building at the south end of a lake and a design dome, which has since become synonymous with GM Design, was constructed to the west.

“We really had here an opportunity to create a total environment of all the buildings, all the landscaping,” Saarinen said in a video produced at the Technical Center in the 1950s. “Here was the technical center for a great metal producing corporation. Somehow the character of that should get into the architecture.”

The idea to expand Design had been floating around for decades, Simcoe said. However, the new Design West facility could not be a carbon copy of the Saarinen Building. It had to stand on its own from a design standpoint while allowing GM Design to evolve.

“You have to appreciate the past because this is where it all started,” he said. “We also needed to make design work and collaboration work. It was simply we had to allow people to do their jobs better.”

Additionally, the new building gives those employees an opportunity to express their creativity in ways that transcend automotive styling and design.

The artists

GM’s Global Technical Center has had a long association with art and design not related to the automobile.

Throughout the campus, midcentury-modern designs abound from Saarinen’s work on the buildings to the furniture and fixtures contained therein. For instance, the iconic teacup desk in the Saarinen Building lobby and the open spiral staircase in the research administration building remain stunning almost 70 years later.

But Design leadership has always looked inward to truly showcase the art and creations of its own team. Throughout the years, Design employees share their photos, paintings, drawings, sculptures and other artistic creations in an open gallery on the second floor of the Saarinen Building.

With Design West, Simcoe envisioned having a permanent collection of employee-made art.

“The art personalizes the place from being just an office to something that is part of the Design family,” he said.

There are 27 art installations from 17 artists, who are current or former Design employees. The installations range from a fanciful procession of treehorses leading toward the south entrance to a series of four oil paintings, a stunning composite of Design employees.

Simcoe sees the art as a way for Design employees to channel their inner creativity to create an emotional experience for GM employees who visit Design West to collaborate on future vehicles.

“We create vehicles that dynamically have to do all the things that physics demand, but people, by and large, buy these vehicles on emotion,” he said. “If we can get the rest of the organization to be part of that emotion, then there’s a bit of a win there.”

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