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5 Designing Women of the Modern Automobile

2012 Canadian International Auto Show acura nsx concept 3
Photo Credit: Chris Nagy

On International Women’s Day, it was prudent for Car FYI to recognize the many contributions of women to the auto industry. As a piece of complex machinery with no discrimination of gender itself, it is disheartening to note how past praise and innovation of automobiles have centred around men. Looking back into history, Karl Benz’s wife Bertha ultimate undertook the automobile’s first major publicity trip and endurance test. She was also instrumental in the financing of the automobile patent but could not be recognized in connections to due to her standing as a married woman in German law. With regards to the other half of Mercedes-Benz, the Mercedes name was derived from a customer of Gottieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach.

When it comes to vehicle design, the female influence on automobiles is a complicated story. In cases when men tried to identify with women, a laughable result was the 1955 and 1956 Dodge LaFemme that were even insultingly sexist for the 1950s. Fortunately, The hands of women with a paint brush, pencil or more recently a computer mouse has been quietly admired. Helene Rother is credited for becoming one of the first automotive designers shortly after the second world war. Involved with interior design for vehicles, Rother’s talents were applied to General Motors, Nash Rambler as well as Miller-Meteor.

As automobile design has assumed greater teamwork in the 21st century, there has been a small but noticeable increases in women participating in the shape of modern motoring. For 2016, several women have earned some prominent positions in the design studios of major auto companies.  

Tisha Johnson- Chief Designer Interiors of Volvo Cars Concept and Monitoring Centre

Photo Credit: Volvo Cars North America

Recent Accomplishment: Excellence Lounge Console Concept

Tisha Johnson started work at a Volvo Cars in the age of 28 following graduation from ArtCenter College of Design. Serving as a Senior Designer at Volvo Monitoring Centre Camarillo in California (VMCC), Johnson was involved in the preproduction planning of numerous models including the V50, C70 and S80. At the 2005 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, she was served as the interior design for the Volvo 3CC concept car featured as a sustainable mobility project. In the completion of the 3CC interior, Johnson explains “I buy heavily into the Scandinavian design heritage of Volvo, the equilibrium, harmony and balance."

Leaving Volvo Cars for a little more than two years, Tisha Johnson returned to the company in 2010. Functioning as a Chief Interior Designer, one of her most recent achievements was management of a radical luxury seating concept unveiled last year. Volvo’s Excellence Lounge Console Concept and later the Excellence Child Seat Concept demonstrates out-of-the-box creativity for premium interior style. Envisioning the automobile’s interior poised for a metamorphosis with the arrival of self-driving vehicles, Tisha Johnson stated that the Excellent Child Seat Concept was, “So we have taken the next step in redefining how the interior of a car can be used to suit our customers’ needs. We have always placed a great deal of importance on child safety, but this takes things to the next level.”

As of September of 2015, Tisha Johnson serves as a Senior Director of Design for Volvo Cars of North America.

Helen Emsley- executive director of Global GMC Design

Photo Credit: General Motors

Recent Accomplishment: Interior of 2015 Chevrolet Silverado, 2016 GMC Terrain

A graduate of the Royal College of Art, Helen Emsley came from the United Kingdom to become a major component in brands and vehicles seeking more international appeal.

One of her biggest claims to fame in recent years was the interior of the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray. When faced with creating the cabin area of the pivotal American sports car, Emsley expressed in an Automotive News article how she was nervous about the possible reception of what she was undertaking. To GM global design chief Ed Welburn, she once remarked of worst case scenario headlines saying “British woman kills Corvette.” The reality was quite the opposite as the dynamic, high-quality cockpit of the seventh-generation sports car could be remembered as the best interior the Chevrolet Corvette ever received. Also in 2014, redesigned versions of General Motors’ large sport utility vehicles (Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban as well as the GMC Yukon and Yukon XL) were influenced by Helen Emsley.

Since September of 2013, Helen Emsley’s position in General Motors is Executive Director of Global GMC Design and User Experience with the role of championing the truck brand. One of the most recent vehicles premiering from the brand was the 2016 GMC Terrain.

Soo Kang- Chief Designer of Lincoln

Photo Credit: Ford Motor Company

Recent Accomplishment: Interior of Lincoln Continental

Soo Kang immediate went to work for the Ford Motor Company after graduating from the Cleveland Institute of Art. Credit to her high-profile employment shortly after schooling is credited to a design competition where Kang wowed with a four-door sedan creation.

Climbing the corporate design ladder to Chief Interior Designer of Lincoln, she’s been a major part of revamping the luxury brand’s image to attract a younger audience. Her first major influence to the Lincoln brand was inside the cabin of the 2013 MKZ. Soo Kang pressed the incorporation of push-button shift control along the top portion of the dash centre console rather than a traditional handle. With some contention, she was able to drive the unusual shifter design.

Following the revitalization of the Lincoln MKZ’s interior, Kang’s inner focus has turned to the much-lauded MKC premium compact crossover. In describing the cabin of the MKC, Soo Kang said, “The structure of the interior allows for openness, and that space contributes to the overall ambience. We want this vehicle to not only meet but often exceed the expectations of the new Lincoln customer.”

Her most recent work has sculpted the interior of Lincoln’s new prized flagship’s return. The 2016 Lincoln Continental is another exhibition of Soo Kang’s direction in creating open interior environments with free-flowing interior surfaces.

Christine Cheng (Park)- Design Manager of GMC Exterior Design Studio

Recent Accomplishment: Exterior design of 2017 Cadillac XT5

A graduate of ArtCenter College of Design, Christine Park has been a rising star in General Motors in a matter of 10 years. Starting her career with the automaker as a Creative Design Intern in the California advanced concept design studio, her employment with General Motors was upgraded in 2007 and would become influential in the direction of Cadillac. Joining the design studio of the luxury car division in 2008, Christine Park’s talents were turned to the interior of the XTS sedan. She was also involved in the interior design of the Cadillac XTS Platinum Concept and Ciel Concept vehicle. Park remained posted to Cadillac until 2014. After a one-year stint as a lead exterior designer for Chevrolet, Park joined the GMC brand as Design Manager of exterior designer in August of last year.

Unveiled last year and now making rounds at auto shows, the 2017 model year Cadillac XT5 crossover vehicle’s edgy front and rear end details are courtesy of Park’s input.

Michelle Christensen- Lead Principal Designer at Honda R&D

Photo Credit: Honda North America

Recent Accomplishment: Exterior Design of Acura NSX

Helping her father work on muscle cars at an early age, Michelle Christensen has now become a designer focused on infusing performance into the lines of Honda’s premium brand Acura.

Following her graduation from the ArtCenter College of Design, Christensen would quickly gain notoriety in 2009 as shaping what could be known as Acura’s most polarizing vehicle. The Acura ZDX sport crossover was a radical product came to life in the ever-evolving vehicle sector balancing utility and performance. "From the very first sketch of the ZDX, I wanted to create an emotional vehicle that challenged conventional thinking of what a sports coupe should be," said Christensen who served as an exterior designer of the Acura in only her late twenties. Advertised with the “Luxury Four-Door Sports Coupe” moniker, the ZDX was praised for its bold execution by some but disliked by others based on its very niche design. The vehicle was produced from 2010 until 2013 but was plagued with slow sales. For a brief time, Christensen was employed at General Motors as a Senior Designer but returned to Honda in mid-2011.

While the Acura ZDX wasn’t a runaway success, Acura was impressed enough to appointed Michelle Christensen to the revamped NSX supercar. A striking, mid-engined hybrid performance car project that was directed by Acura’s global creative director Dave Marek, Christensen served as the principal exterior designer. "The new NSX is a product of what we term 'Interwoven Dynamic' design," said Michelle Christensen.


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