As head of design for GM's Performance Div., Wasenko is responsible for the look of all GM's specialty models, which stretches his creativity from the CTS-V to the SEMA Show's Aveo concept.
When John “Kip” Wasenko sits down to create, his tool of choice is likely to be a pen and pad of paper. He joined GM in 1969, when design computers were more than 20 years into the future, and spent most of the 1970s at Opel in Germany and Holden in Australia. Although some believe that the personal contact with the vehicle through the point of a pencil on a sheet of paper, which brings a human aspect to the art of automotive design, will disappear, Wasenko isn’t so sure: “There probably is some truth to the suggestion that the next generation of designer is losing some of the flow and gesture that comes from drawing a vehicle, rather than building it on a computer screen,” says Wasenko. It is a common complaint heard within the halls of design studios and art colleges around the world. But the ubiquity of the grumbling doesn’t make it true. “The misconception is that everything is done on the computer, but that just isn’t the case,” he says, “at least not at GM.” Design ideas can be found in sketches done on restaurant napkins or beautifully rendered computer images. “Then there are guys like me who still do everything by hand,” Wasenko adds. “It depends on which tool you are comfortable with, and how you choose to express your creativity.”
Wasenko’s insistence that every artist expresses himself in the medium they see fit has at its base the understanding that more than one set of eyes, or one set of hands, takes a design from concept to reality. Which means the modern designer’s toolbox encompasses pencil clay, and the computer screen. “It’s true that you can’t just do a doodle and blow it up,” he says, “any more than it’s true that you can do a design without relying on math.” But the computer’s greatest benefit, he believes, is its ability to quickly correct surfaces flaws. “I have shown on an actual section drawing how much crown I wanted in a panel,” he says, “and then explained where the ‘hole’ was in the spline on the computer model. It was easy to draw the corrected section over the computer model, and have the change made.” He believes that this ability to compress the time factor makes CAD an efficient design tool.
For better or for worse, Wasenko is best known as the man who gave the world the Evoq concept car, and Cadillac its distinctive creased look. (But what most people don’t know is that this lean, outgoing man with gray/white hair was Saturn’s first design chief.) He had just finished the Oldsmobile Alero when then-GM Design chief Wayne Cherry asked him to work on a concept car for Cadillac. Known internally as “Icon,” it was a two-passenger vehicle that was to set the tone for Cadillac’s resurgence. “It had to pay respect to our heritage, but in a very modern way,” says Wasenko. Copying past Cadillacs, whether the finned monsters of the late 1950s or the slightly more restrained look of the mid-1960s, was never seriously considered. “We all recognized the commercial value of retro design, but it wasn’t a way to establish a division for the next 100 years,” he says. Instead, high-end Danish audio company Bang & Olufson was studied for its beautiful-but-serious industrial design. The F-117 Stealth Fighter made it because, “It didn’t have the classical, Lear Jet-smooth shape, but it was beautiful because of its technological advantages,” he says. As a result, the idea of, ‘What is beauty?,’ took on a different meaning to the design team. The Icon broke cover as the Cadillac Evoq, before entering production as the XLR.
Vertical LED taillights, stacked headlights and an egg crate grille became Cadillac’s heritage cues, and were combined with lean forms intersected by sharp creases. “Bill Mitchell [former GM Design chief] always talked about having design elements that were like, ‘a crease in the pants of a freshly pressed tuxedo,’ in order to signal formality,” reminisces Wasenko. This look, he stresses, can be bold or subtle, and stretch from the entry-level CTS to cars like the Sixteen, which draws from Gerry Brochstein’s 1988 design for Cadillac’s Voyage concept.
Thinking polarization and performance
The look of the Evoq/XLR (and, by extension, all the new Cadillacs) polarized people to the point where they either loved it or hated it. There is no middle ground. “That was understood and agreed to from the start,” Wasenko explains. “To have something controversial wasn’t an accident, it was part of our strategy.” And the strategy had at its core a look that appealed to an American audience, didn’t copy the competition, and placed Cadillac on the consideration list of the next generation of buyers. It worked. Says Wasenko: “A research event conducted using three Cadillac concepts–the Evoq, Imaj and Vizon–showed the division had a surprisingly strong appeal to the next generation of drivers, those between 16 and 30.” A good thing since, at the time, Cadillac had almost no appeal to their parents.
Wasenko’s latest design gig places him in the position of director of Design, GM Performance Division, and once again in the spotlight of the 16 to 30 crowd and their parents. “I’m responsible for the Cadillac V-Series, and the production GXP Pontiacs,” he begins, “ as well as the Red Line Saturns, and GM’s SEMA vehicles and limited edition programs.” Not to mention the design–graphics and body panels–for GM’s various race programs. It’s a full plate. And one that should never leave him hungry.