TORONTO — Karim Habib has lived on three continents and worked for BMW and Mercedes-Benz in Germany. Now he’s based in Japan as Infiniti’s global design chief.
But his formative years were spent in Canada. Habib, who came to Infiniti in 2017 from the head of design for BMW, was born in Lebanon in 1970. Civil war broke out in 1975 and his family left, settling in Montreal in the early 1980s.
He lived in Canada for 13 years, earning a degree in mechanical engineering at McGill University in Montreal before leaving to study at the Art Center College of Design’s campuses in California and Switzerland. Though his love of design stems from his years at the college, it’s Canada where he learned lessons that shaped his outlook on life, lessons that spill over into his approach to design.
“Canadian culture is tolerant and it’s open and it’s welcoming to so many people and to people like my family,” Habib told Automotive News Canada.
“We came from Lebanon, a civil-war-torn country. It made me learn to look at things maybe past what you first see. There’s a lot more complexity to the facade. Look deeper and see what’s behind it.”
Habib is now tasked with helping buyers take a deeper look at Infiniti, which has for years struggled globally to stand out from established players in the luxury space. Infiniti hired Habib in July 2017 to succeed Alfonso Albaisa, now Nissan’s senior vice-president of global design, as its design chief.
A BMW RESUME
He came from BMW, where he spent most of his career, beginning in 1998, save for a stint at Mercedes-Benz from 2008 to 2010. He became BMW’s head of design in 2012. At BMW, he designed the exterior for the 7 series and created the 2-series convertible, in addition to working on concept cars such as the CS Concept that the automaker unveiled in 2007.
His new role at Infiniti might sound similar to his old gig at BMW on paper. The goal is, after all, to design vehicles that stand out and that people want to drive.
But Habib will be quick to tell you that the dynamics at play at Infiniti are largely different than those at an established brand such as BMW.
“Designers are quite similar everywhere you go. Our interests are quite similar,” he said. “The processes are different. But it’s more that BMW or Mercedes have strong and consistent heritages over many decades. A younger brand like Infiniti is in the process of building something.”
It’s a daunting task: Germany’s brands have long dominated the luxury space. And like other luxury brands under the umbrella of a larger automaker — Lincoln under Ford and Acura under Honda, for example — Infiniti’s design has sometimes been too similar to that of parent Nissan’s products.
‘A BRAND SHAPER’
That could be changing. Habib said Infiniti views him and his design team as crucial to establishing the brand’s global identity.
“The culture in Infiniti encourages the idea of a designer being a brand shaper. It gives me the opportunity to design with an eye toward the future. We participate in showbooth design, dealerships and so on. How do we create that space? Even what type of pictures we take for the cars — it’s great to be a part of that.”
Look no further than the Q Inspiration concept that debuted at the 2018 Detroit auto show for a preview of what Infiniti design might look like moving forward. The car has a striking front end with thin LED headlights, a short engine compartment and a double-arch grille.
Habib said the concept shows what a smaller engine — be it the new variable-compression engine for the QX50 utility vehicle or different electric engines — can mean for vehicle design.
“The proportions are designed with [the variable-compression engine] in mind, but it’s also appropriate if you think about going to EV or e-power or a type of electrified vehicle. The importance of the size of the powertrain changes.”
Habib said his goal is to make Infiniti’s design look cleaner, almost minimalist.
Using the Q Inspiration as an example, he said: “From a distance, the first impression should be reduced, almost restrained. And when you get close, you feel the intricacies, the beauty, the work that’s been invested in it.
“In terms of form language, we’re trying to clean things up.”