A Canadian and an American lead Nissan into a new era of design

Albaisa (left): Chance for new direction; Habib: Fresh ideas on luxury

TOKYO — Two non-Japanese designers, one a veteran insider, the other just poached from a luxury-brand rival, face a difficult balancing act leading Nissan Motor Co. into an era of new technology that promises to change the look of cars in unpredictable ways.

Alfonso Albaisa, 52, is the seasoned Infiniti design chief tapped to head global styling starting April 1. He must continue a brand identity cultivated over nearly 18 years by outgoing styling boss Shiro Nakamura.

However, opportunity for new direction abounds thanks to electrification, connectivity and autonomous driving. Those changes are "bringing oxygen to our working environments," Albaisa said.

"Adapting to this opportunity is liberating," Albaisa said in an email to Automotive News. "As head of design, I feel a major part of my job is to facilitate this liberation."

Meanwhile, Albaisa's successor at Infiniti, Karim Habib, 47, will import fresh ideas about European luxury from his time as global design chief at BMW and work at Mercedes-Benz. Habib joins Infiniti July 1.

Nissan is rolling out its new Vmotion design language across the lineup. Infiniti is embarking on its own makeover with a look that will mature in the soon-to-be released QX50 crossover.

"Infiniti is still struggling in the shadow of Germany's big three, and some might still ask: ‘What is the design language at Nissan?'" said John Manoogian, a professor of transportation design at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit and a former General Motors designer. "Hopefully, Nakamura's successors will take it to the next level."

The sleek wedge-shaped Nissan IDS Concept shown at the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show hints at Nissan's thinking. Sometimes pegged as a preview of the next-generation Leaf EV, the IDS teases an interior that transforms between piloted and manual modes. In piloted mode, the car drives itself and the steering wheel folds away while the seats rotate inward like a living room. In manual mode, the driver is in control with both hands on the wheel.

As non-Japanese, Albaisa and Habib may steer Nissan away from the Japanese cultural influence Nakamura, 66, long championed.

Habib, a Canadian of Lebanese descent, will be based at Nissan's global design center in Atsugi, Japan, and report to Albaisa.

"Karim brings unique design skills that will accelerate Infiniti's progress toward the goal of ... expanding our share in the global luxury market," Infiniti President Roland Krueger, another BMW transplant, said in a statement.

At BMW, Habib was responsible for such production and concept cars as the X1, X2 Concept and CSL Homage. Before BMW, he was head of advanced design for Daimler and helped develop the current Mercedes-Benz C class.

Habib had overseen BMW design since 2012. He studied engineering at Canada's McGill University before attending the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif.

Before leading Infiniti, Albaisa ran Nissan's U.S. design studio in San Diego and Nissan's European studios. At Infiniti, he steered the look of the brand's Emerg-E plug-in electric concept from 2012 and designed the swoopy new premium look that gives a more athletic, sculpted feel to the lineup, as seen in QX30 and upcoming QX50.

Under Albaisa, Infiniti also floated the Q80 Inspiration, a large four-door fastback concept that signals a vision for a sleek and sultry future halo car.

Albaisa, a lion-maned, soft-spoken father of three daughters, is a University of Florida industrial design graduate. He believes designers must balance artistry with advances in everything from artificial intelligence to zero emissions.

"Even though the cars are becoming much more technological," Albaisa said in an interview in September, "we want the fingerprint of the artist in everything we do."

You can reach Hans Greimel at hgreimel@crain.com -- Follow Hans on Twitter: @hansgreimel

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