Profile: Joe Dehner, Chrysler’s Point Man

While looking through a curriculum catalog for what became his alma mater, the Cleveland Institute of Art, Joe Dehner saw a photograph of Industrial Design students creating clay models from their drawings. He recalls, “I pointed to the picture and said, ‘That’s what I want to do!’”

If you had only one word to describe Joe Dehner, director Interior/Exterior, Design Studio #2 Chrysler Group, it would be “unassuming.” Dehner’s laid-back style and vehicular interest comes naturally. Born and raised in Indianapolis, his dad was a product engineer for GM and Joe—who attended high school in the early 1980s, a low point for automotive design—loved to draw but never really realized cars were styled. “At that point in time,” he says, “cars seemed to be ‘engineered,’ not styled.” However, while looking through a curriculum catalog for what became his alma mater, the Cleveland Institute of Art, Dehner saw a photograph of Industrial Design students creating clay models from their drawings. “My reaction was immediate,” he recalls. “I pointed to the picture and said, ‘That’s what I want to do!’”

During his junior year, an internship at GM convinced him he was on the right path, even though it didn’t lead to a job offer. Set on working for an American car maker, he looked to Ford, but its response was “wishy washy.” However, his meeting with a vice president of Design at Chrysler could not have gone better. “He looked at three or four of the pieces from my portfolio, closed it and offered me a job,” he says with a smile. Rather than being thrown into a large group where he’d start by designing door handles and wheel covers, Dehner was placed in an advanced studio for a year of seasoning and worked on a pair of show cars—the Eagle Optima and Neon Concept. “From there I did the standard rotation out to the Pacifica studio in California before being stationed in Auburn Hills,” he says. Dehner believes this career path is what attracts design students to Chrysler. “People come here because they can hit the ground running and make their mark right away,” he says. Pigeonholing is not allowed.

“We have smaller teams, hold each member to a higher standard, and want them to play more positions on the team,” he says. “That means each designer must become proficient in both exterior and interior design.” Why this is important Dehner makes clear as he describes how a seemingly small change in beltline height, for example, affects packaging and other issues throughout the interior. “Whether you move that line an inch or a mile, the effect is the same,” he says, suggesting that the manifestations are huge, so having both disciplines in the same studio—and designers familiar with the concerns of their opposites—has a large effect on speed-to-market. It is a concept with which Dehner is very familiar.

As the designer of the Chrysler Crossfire show car, Dehner and studio mates also were offered the chance to take the car to production. Though swamped with work, it was an opportunity too good to pass up. “We were extremely busy at the time,” he recounts, “but it became the quickest program we’ve ever done.” Once the platform was chosen—a modified Mercedes SLK was used—just 18 months passed from the initial sketch to the car rolling off the assembly line. “We did this,” he states casually, “while starting work on the Stow-And-Go minivan, finishing up the Pacifica, working on challenge models of the LX, and completing a couple of other projects.” Dehner, who had just been promoted from a senior manager to become the youngest design director on staff, had moved from the frying pan into the fire.

He may renew his familiarity with that concept as the 2007 Sebring sedan hits the market. Though the design process began before the public introduction—and strong sales—of the Chrysler 300, the initial design for the car was what Dehner calls the “easy answer,” a shrunken version of the 300. “It didn’t have the same drama,” he says, “because the proportions—especially the dash-to-axle relationship—were so different.” Though this design was frozen, Dehner joked with the design team, referring to the car as “Mini Me’s limousine” because the car didn’t have the same presence as its bigger brother. “The details were nice and it researched rather well,” Dehner recalls, “but it didn’t move the needle.” So little did the needle move that the designers who worked on it—the average age in Studio #2 is 28 years old, the target age group for the Sebring—weren’t thrilled. “When asked what they thought of it,” he says, “the guy who started the 300-like design said: ‘I worked on this car, but I don’t think I’d buy it.’ So we challenged them to come up with something they’d buy.”

The Airflyte concept was moving through the design process about the same time, and created a lot of energy and interest from the young designers. Not unexpectedly, they adapted its modernized Art Deco design to Chrysler’s mid-size platform, right down to the Crossfire-like strakes on the hood. “The designs in that segment are, for the most part, not memorable,” says Dehner, “so we wanted to create something that stands out in the crowd. Part of standing out is in detail elements like the strakes.” It is an element, he admits, that 15% of the consumers who participated in design clinics hated. “I’d rather have them say they hate them than say nothing at all,” he quips.

Early reviews suggest Dehner and the Sebring team may hear that word more than expected, but he’s quick to point out the same was said of the 300 when it first debuted. “The one thing this office and this company will never be is followers of a cookbook,” he states emphatically. However, he’s also been given the task of consolidating the Chrysler portfolio in a way that generates a common set of characteristics without creating cookie-cutter sameness. “Some of that will be dictated by packaging, some by what is appropriate to the design,” he says, “but it will continue what we ushered in with the Pacifica, Crossfire, and 300.” You can be assured one thing: it won’t be unassuming.