Q&A: 50 years on from university and industry success

Q&A: 50 years on from university and industry success


Patrick le Quément (centre) in discussion with Steve Jobs (left) on the subject of "how do you maintain a team creative?" Paris, 2002

Patrick le Quément is a Designer once described as "the most imaginative designer at work in the mainstream car industry". His work across the years has included roles at Renault, as Senior Vice President of Corporate Design, Exterior Design Director (Ford of Europe), Ford FC and Director of Advanced Corporate Design Strategy at Volkswagen Audi.

We caught up with the now consultant in industrial and strategic design to find out how he went on to study at Birmingham City University and then take the automotive industry by storm.

Take us back to the 1960s where you studied at Birmingham City University. How did you end up studying there and what influenced your choice of a BA in Product Design?
"Designers need to be curious and observant, in the same way that they must always think how their designs are going to improve the lives of the end user"

I was born of a French father who was a colonel in the French Foreign Legion and an English mother. When my father died in a freak car accident when I was eleven years old my mother decided to send me to a boarding school in England, and it was thus at the age of twelve that I was confronted and fell in love with the English language. I knew very young that I wanted to be a designer, I loved all that was associated with motion, be they trains, boats and planes but especially cars. At the time, in the sixties, despite the many excellent design schools in Europe, several of which were in Great Britain, none were teaching Transportation Design as in the United States. So, as going to the USA was out of reach for me, and if I could not study Transportation Design, I could do Product Design which was close enough. My choice of Birmingham City University came through reading about one of the professors, named Naum Slutzy, who was in charge of Product Design for the first year students. Born in Kiev in 1894, he had been a former member of the Bauhaus after having received his training in Vienna where he was a student of goldsmithing.

The thought of studying with a man who had taught at the Bauhaus and had been associated with an array of exceptional individuals was the determining factor that made me choose Birmingham City University. I did not regret my choice!

How was your experience at Birmingham City Univeristy?

By the time I began my design course I had already spent a few years in Great Britain and was therefore well integrated, even if I missed the South of France. But life at college was so rich in events, there was so much to learn and experiences to live through that it turned out to be a very enjoyable part of my life.

What did you learn from your course tutors at Birmingham City University that helped prepare you for the future?

When I joined Naum Slutzky's product design class, akin to joining a new religion in many respects, he was in his final year of teaching, nearing the age of seventy.

"Our mental palette was to comprise analysis, reasoning, justification, argument, demonstration and theorizing. Plus discourse."

The first thing that we were asked to do was to forget everything that we had learned from our former art teachers or any other types of art school that espouses a more or less traditional approach. We had to begin again - from zero. Our mental palette was to comprise analysis, reasoning, justification, argument, demonstration and theorizing. Plus discourse.

We endeavoured to combine technical knowledge with a creative stance, coupled with graphic and oral expression. Every project was concluded with a presentation before the teaching staff and fellow students. It was all about clarity of delivery, linkage between the visual and verbal, clarity of expression and proof that we were doing our research.

Then after my allotted time at BCU, I left with my diploma in hand and started to look for work in the automobile sector, because my childhood dream was again uppermost in my mind.

You went on to work at Ford for 17 years, in the UK, Germany and the USA, how did you manage to get work with such a respectable company after graduating?

I joined Ford after having been employed in another car company, SIMCA. An opening was created after a massive move from some Ford designers to the British Motor Corporation. I began in interior design and quickly moved on to exterior design. In 1969, whilst working as a Senior Designer, Uwe Bahnsen, a Design Director in Ford of Europe, suggested that I follow a two year post graduate course in Business Administration at what is known today as the Anglia Ruskin University. In 1981, whilst working as a Design Executive in charge of Truck Design and Advanced Exterior design, I drew my first ever plaudits from the design community for the work on the Ford Cargo truck. Then, out of a range of projects over which I held a shared responsibility, the Ford Sierra in Germany, in 1982, emerged as an important milestone in the history of auto design. In June 1985, I set off again to the United States, the task being to prepare me to step into the shoes of Uwe Bahnsen who was then, Vice President of Design in Ford of Europe. I resigned shortly thereafter lured by an even more exciting offer in another company.

"The training I received in BCU was remarkably relevant and, of course, furthering my management skills through an MBA was hugely important."
You progressed quite soon into senior roles within the industry, what were the driving factors behind this?

First thing first, the training I received in BCU was remarkably relevant and, of course, furthering my management skills through an MBA was hugely important.

I also had been an ardent campaigner, since very early on in my career, to promote design as a key factor in the strategy of a corporation, and designers as being major actors in the same environment. It was painfully obvious to designers that you had to be a person with an engineering or financial background to be taken seriously or considered for a very senior position. Of course designers were partly to blame, enjoying the advantages to be taken of sloppy time keeping and faulty budgets...the number of times that I heard the comment "Well, now that our artist friends are all present, we can start the meeting!" That was something that I immediately put a stop to as soon as I began to enjoy a position of seniority.

Little by little the reputation of Design and designers changed around the world as other like-minded design leaders emerged, and very soon designers were increasingly recognized as not only being creative, but also reliable and apt to strategic thinking, to the point that some senior designers were now being asked to take charge of cross disciplinary projects, in addition to their primary functions... as I was in 1990 when asked to lead a trans-disciplinary group within Renault to reduce the time to market by one third.

Where did life take you after your work with Ford?

Carl Hahn, the Chairman of the Volkswagen Audi Group invited me to set up a Center for Advanced Corporate Design Strategy for a two year period, before becoming the first ever overall head of Design within the group.

During the course of 1987, only 2 years after having joining Volkswagen Audi, an even more attractive proposition came my way; to take charge of Renault Styling, with carte blanche from Raymond H. Lévy, the company's Chairman and CEO, to effect any changes I saw fit in order to turn the design function into a strategic tool.

I remained 22 years head of what became Renault Corporate Design. Amongst other production models, emerged Twingo (1993), Scénic (1996), Espace III and IV, Laguna II (1994), Kangoo (1998), Mégane II, Twizy, Zoé and many others...Since 1988, more than twenty concept cars were presented to communicate on Renault's vision of the future, many of which were awarded international design prizes. As 1994 drew to a close, I was appointed to also take charge of Corporate Quality, in addition to my Design responsibilities and I was made a member of the Board of Directors reporting directly to the CEO. At the start of 1999, in the wake of the signing of the alliance with Nissan Motors, Louis Schweitzer, Chairman and CEO of Renault, asked me to focus my energies once more exclusively on Design and at first to help Nissan Design to return rapidly to a high level of creativity. I thus became Chairman of the Joint Design Policy Group which coordinated design policy within the Renault-Nissan Alliance.

You left Renault in 2009, what have you been up to since then?

After I retired from Renault in October 2009 I created my own consultancy, mainly active in yacht design as well as advising international companies in innovative design. My first creation, a 59ft sail catamaran, the Outremer 5X, was developed together with the famous naval architects VPLP. It was awarded the coveted prize of European Boat of the Year 2013 and in 2014: US Multihull of the Year. So far in 2014, six of the boats I co-designed have been launched, several have won awards, close to 200 have been built and I am currently working on my 25th project.

In 2012, together with Maurille Larivière and Marc Van Petegem, we cofounded The Sustainable Design School; an international design school based in the ECO Valley in Nice on the French Riviera, whose mission statement is Design Innovation for Human solutions.


VPLP 170 ft catamaran, prospective project for the largest catamaran in the world

What advice would you give current students wishing to enter the automobile industry?

The automobile industry seldom hires outside a small circle of designers who have graduated from schools specialized in Transportation Design, which is something which I deplore. One the most important criteria being the extraordinary level of drawing skill expected from automotive designers. So if a student wants to apply for a job within the automotive industry, irrespective of all the talent and skills he or she may possess, it will also be expected that he or she be exceptionally proficient at drawing.

Furthermore, designers need to be curious and observant, in the same way that they must always think how their designs are going to improve the lives of the end user, they must live and anticipate the experience, they must be inhabited by it, it's not just a job, it's to do with life and living...

How do you think universities can improve their support for students across all industries in getting in to fields they aspire to work in?

A good design education is one that develops the individual skills required to perform as an even better designer. With this in mind universities must also encourage students to learn to work with others, be it with other designers or more importantly with engineers, marketers, sociologists, sales people, planners, men or women and different nationalities...for the idea of a designer as a Renaissance man is not a plausible reality today, given the complexity of modern science and knowledge. As Enzo Ferrari once so accurately said "Teamwork has replaced solitary genius".

You have received countless awards over the years, which awards stand out the most to you?

I have been lucky to receive numerous awards, four of them deserve a special mention: the French Grand Prix National Prize for Industrial design in 1992, as it was my very first big prize. In 2002, I was voted by my peers European Car Designer of the Year in recognition for what they described as my 'audacious and innovative designs'. In the same year, the Raymond Loewy Foundation presented me in Berlin the Lucky Strike Designer Award for my lifetime contribution to design. I was also awarded in Madrid in 2004 Personality of the Decade by Car and Driver.

Patrick le Quément is now a consultant in industrial and strategic design.

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