Aside from the brand briefing and the glimpse into the new-model future, the highlight of the 12,000 mile return trip was being able to walk through the Infiniti design studio. I can’t recall ever having been able to do this before, and especially not when the studio is in full working mode.
Obviously, I’m sworn to secrecy but I can tell you that the design studio is in Atsugi-Shi, Kanagawa, west of Tokyo, about halfway to Mount Fuji. It’s a very long, thin building on two levels. The design studios are on the upper level, looking over the clay modelling area on the ground floor and the viewing garden outside.
This long building is divided up into Nissan, Datsun and Infiniti design departments, which are walled off from each other. We took the long walk on the second floor to get into the Infiniti studio, which was at the far end of the building.
The corridor is lined with very large colour posters including supersize magazine-style layouts of the cars displayed at recent motor shows. Useful for the majority of designers who aren’t globe trotting.
The studio is surprisingly big and is mostly occupied by ranks of large computer monitors, all of which are under lycra shades, a bit like the reflectors used by photographers. In the middle of the studio is a giant flat screen on which designers spend long hours examining the tiniest of body reflections on computer-generated images of future models.
One area of the studio is given over to materials, where a handful of designers are experimenting with…well, I can’t say much more. But I can say that it is clear Infiniti is working very hard on interiors and interior materials and on trying to break out of the norm. It’s an admirable move.
Following a few trips to Japan over the past three years, I’ve come to realise that there’s one thing Japanese manufacturers can’t understand: why doesn’t the West have more praise for Japanese craftsmanship? The country holds dear its abilities with hands-on craftsmanship, from metal working to sword and knife making, calligraphy and so on. More than one senior Japanese boss has pleaded for understanding from journalists.
And they’re dead right. I don’t know if you’ve ever looked really hard at an upmarket Japanese interior, but they can be spectacular if you zoom in. To simply dismiss them as ‘characterless’ or ‘plasticy’ is lazy journalism.
It’s true that the design themes can be somewhat discontinuous - sweeping forms on door trims can suddenly stop or end in a rather clumsy truncation. Rather cheap, mass-market switchgear can also appear at knee height in the form of mirror controls and the like.
But the individual craftsmanship of the gear selector or switches on the centre console is amazing, and you know they’ll look and feel that crisp for a decade and more. The Japanese are also spectacular at instrument graphics and night-time lighting. The same goes for body fit and finish. And when was the last time a Honda VTEC valve train grenaded?
I was taking a very close look at the interior of the new Infiniti Q60 coupé and was extremely impressed by the way the leather upholstery had been constructed and stitched.
You might look at the switchgear lined up vertically on each side of the centre stack and think it a bit old school. And you might think the rotary controller on the console is a bit clunky and the three menu switches beside it and consider them a little unsophisticated.
Well, I’ve just stepped out of a new Audi A4 Allroad. And yes, it has a fine interior and some very slick materials. But I can also tell you that the function switchgear that’s hung under the dashboard is impossible to decipher in bright sunshine and that some of the menu switchgear around the rotary controller cannot be seen from a seated position.
Anyone who has used an upmarket Japanese camera in the field knows that the Japanese know how to do switchgear that works.
Even so, the showroom and walk-up appeal of Japanese interiors could be improved. It’s here that Nissan boss chief Shiro Nakamura is pushing his Infiniti designers really hard. Future materials, he says, will have to look both more authentic and more bespoke. He wants to put Japan’s exceptional craft skills on display, and for that he needs new materials and new treatments.
Of course, I can’t say anything, but from what I saw in Infiniti's studio, there’s a serious chance the company will halt the Western narrative about Japanese interior design. Fabulous functionality and deeply detailed design thought will finally be presented on a much more striking palette.