Jae S. Min
Chief of Design, Audi Design Center California
Internet, shminternet, says Jae S. Min of Audi Design Center California in Santa Monica. Contrary to prevailing opinion, he says, some things just can’t be learned online. One of those things is the corporate culture of Audi Motor Cars in Germany. With the Web, says the chief of design of Audi DCC, “People can get a false sense of understanding something without direct contact. A lot of things are hard to understand if you don’t experience them first hand.” For that, aspiring auto designers must go to the mother ship itself in Ingolstadt, Germany, headquarters of Audi AG. “It’s very important for us to experience the culture firsthand, especially the mindset of Europe,” he says. Min himself first made the pilgrimage in 1996, shortly after the former New Yorker graduated from Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design. After nine months of study, Min returned to California and has headed the satellite design studio ever since.
Design at Audi is collaborative—so much so, according to Min, that almost none of its models are identifiably the work of any single designer. The Santa Monica studio may take the lead on certain projects, including production models like the Q7, a streamlined SUV, the TT, a muscular coupe, and concept cars like the RoadJet Quattro and Cross Cabriolet Quattro.
Min and his colleagues at Audi DCC serve the parent corporation both as designers and observers of the American car market. In that latter role, Min and his colleagues must help Europeans understand the country. “America is not one entity,” he points out. “California is as different from Oklahoma as Scandinavia is from Italy.” The California design team must also help their German cohorts appreciate the peculiar symbiosis between Americans and their cars. Europeans may have difficulty understanding the need for items such as cup holders that American drivers take for granted. Unlike their counterparts on the Continent, Americans tend to regard their cars as second homes, which makes total sense if you live in L.A. and spend hours a day marooned on the 405 Freeway. Eating, drinking, doing one’s makeup and even catching up on reading in the car seem as natural to Angelenos as they seem bizarre to Euros. “When you’re driving on the Autobahn at 160 miles an hour,” Min points out, “you don’t drink anything.”
Many car makers boast of their commitment to craftsmanship. Min says that the boast is justified in Audi’s case because the German automaker is willing to do things the hard way if the result is better. A recent example is a metal corner beneath the roof of the second-generation TT coupe. Bending the metal—the most conventional way of achieving such a detail—in this case didn’t work. After experimentation, Audi found that the best way was to weld two plates together by hand. “It was expensive, but it was important for preserving the design purity of the car, which is an absolutely non-compromise statement.” For a production car manufacturer to commit itself to such details is “very, very rare,” says Min.
Min says he particularly admires the aspect of Audi culture that is willing to defy conventions in search of a better solution. “One thing I learned there that I value to this day is the sense that the corporate culture will allow you to keep designing a detail until you can take it to a higher standard,” he says.
To see the design work of Min and his colleagues at Audi DCC, fans of imported automobiles can check out the Internet. To understand how he learned to do that work, however, may be something else again.