Q&A: Niki Smart and Gael Buzyn, lead designers, Cadillac

Q&A: Cadillac lead designers Niki Smart and Gael Buzyn discuss what automotive design cues define "luxury" in the 21st century.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

Niki Smart and Gael Buzyn are the lead designers -- exterior and interior, respectively -- for the Cadillac Ciel concept car, a four-seat convertible intended to capture the heritage and grandeur of the marque.

SmartPlanet spoke to them from the General Motors Advanced Design Studio in North Hollywood, Calif.

SP: How does design relate to Cadillac's branding message?

NS: There's a fairly broadly-understood design philosophy that Cadillac has. As a designer, understanding what the brand is about is exactly what we do. When we stop working on a Chevrolet program and start working on a Cadillac, we do need to change our mindset.

It manifests itself as a sort of interaction between these "art" and "science" elements. It's the most distinct brand to design for because [of] those aesthetic qualities we project. It's a luxury brand. It's something you must have. It's about wants, needs, desires. It really strongly reflects the technology content in the car. It isn't just a surface treatment; it's the guts to the surface.

SP: How the Ciel exemplify that direction?

NS: It leaves quite a sort-of flattering, little bit more lyrical [impression]. The "science" is the more taut planar surfacing, hard lines on the car. The "art" is more of the curves. The interaction of those two elements, that's the magic of art and science. With all Cadillacs, we're looking to adjust the balance.

On the Ciel, we're really looking at the "art" side. It's not a very driver-focused vehicle like a CTS coupe. We feel like the form language is pretty flexible. The Ciel hopefully shows the other end of the bandwidth: how sculptural, how sensual, how soft we can get with the car. Much more subtle, mature, restrained in comparison to some of the products.

The small car we introduced last year, the Urban Luxury Concept, was much different. But it was the same design team on the car. Horses for courses.

SP: Most production Cadillacs have the hard lines of the "science" side. Has the brand been ignoring the art side?

NS: I wouldn't say we've been ignoring it. The focus was to obviously create a brand strategy that we're working towards; have something that we can all relate to. An identity. And that identity's always changing.

If you look at the cars, there's a distinct evolution; I wouldn't say revolution. In the nature of the customer, the climate, the driving experience that you're looking to embody in that [Ciel] car, it's quite a statement. I wouldn't say we're trying to go totally toward the "art" side, but we're definitely trying to show the bandwidth of that brand.

SP: Cadillac's "Art and Science" philosophy has been around more more than a decade. Is it still relevant?

NS: I think it's very relevant. It's easy to say that because it's such a flexible coupling of such strong, almost contrasting attributes. It's kind of fire-and-ice in some ways. You can bias one element against the other very differently. That interplay is the critical thing. What you understand as "art" and what you understand as "science" could be embodied dramatically differently from car to car.

Some brands hinge on a feature -- as a designer, that's counter-intuitive. You look to redefine and evolve. It's actually quite easy thanks to the philosophy with Cadillac.

With the Ciel, the vehicle type is slightly retrospective, presidential, with suicide doors. It's not about high-speed driving; it's about enjoying the journey. To be able to afford to take your time and enjoy your travel. We struggle to do that on our vacations up the [California] coast.

You can see consistently over the last few years luxury brands looking at what the spread of the luxury customer is. It's not the biggest car anymore. That's such a kind of antiquated approach to defining luxury. We've seen that embodied in the [luxury] market, exploding in the small car segment. It's changing quite radically. BMW, Audi -- you see a lot of luxury brands do very well with [smaller] luxury vehicles. The CTS is that kind of luxury sweet spot.

Luxury isn't one kind of archetype anymore.

SP: What design cues define "luxury" for a 21st century car?

NS: This vehicle is very much about the journey. You fall in love with a car for that exterior, but you stay in love with a car for that interior. This is a vehicle really focused on having four occupants.

GB: In this case, it was really catering to the people and giving them the best experience possible in a very particular situation. I think execution is a big part of it, but it could be defined a different way. The material is important but how you do it...in some cars, it's 350-year-old wood [paneling].

NS: Execution is absolutely inseparable from luxury. You can find a lot of features on a lot of cars, but you're not going to wow somebody on this technical element. If anything, we've walked away from that. The technology's kind of invisible.

GB: The [features] are there only when you need them.

NS: When you get the technology -- the "science," if you will -- so clever, then it's art.

GB: Simplicity. The capability to have whatever you need.

NS: You're unaware of how sophisticated the item is.

Photo, top: Niki Smart with the Cadillac Ciel on a rooftop in New York City. (GM)
Rendering, bottom: Cadillac Ciel. (GM Design)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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