The Maeda Touch: Mazda’s Decade of Design Revolution

Katayama Osamu interviews Mazda’s visionary designer Maeda Ikuo.

Maeda Ikuo, Managing Executive Officer of Mazda © MAZDA MOTOR CORPORATION

With 1.6 million units sold worldwide, less than a sixth of Toyota Motor’s, and far below the top 10 slots in global shares, one automobile manufacturer pays more attention to being a Japanese brand and the Japanese aesthetic sense than others—Mazda Motor.

Mazda launched a 2% strategy in 2015.

Maeda Ikuo, Managing Executive Officer of Mazda, said, “I do not think that we have to be accepted by all people. All we have to do is to obtain empathy from 2% of the world market.”

Mazda targets the 2% of core enthusiasts. It is a bold strategy that is not used by other domestic automobile manufacturers.

Can Mazda garner empathy from the 2% enthusiasts? This is the story of Mazda design.

Mazda and Maeda’s Dilemma Under Ford

Maeda Ikuo revolutionized Mazda design. His design philosophy changed cars and is Mazda’s current driving force.

“KODO — Soul of Motion.”

This is a word that Maeda Ikuo, who assumed office as General Manager of the Design Division of Mazda in 2009, finally came up with after one year of thinking.

Maeda combined the following ideas in the word combining kodo, which means beating, and tamashi, or spirits, which means life. “The motion of soul and life. You can say that it is Mazda’s way of life.”

Maeda was born in Hiroshima in 1959. In 1982, after his graduation from Kyoto Institute of Technology, he joined Toyo Kogyo (currently Mazda Motor) and was assigned to develop designs at the Yokohama Design Studio and the North American Design Studio. After being stationed at Ford Motor’s Detroit Studio, Maeda was engaged in developing mass-produced designs at the Headquarters Design Studio. He worked as the chief designer of RX-8 and the third generation DEMIO.

But his career as a designer did not go well. He experienced misfortune from his late thirties to late forties at the peak of his career as a designer. It might have produced the greatest results in his years of service to the company.

Maeda said, “I had many things that I wanted to do, but it did not go well. I was under a pressure. Magma was spewing up, about to erupt.”

Maeda was caught between his position under the umbrella of Ford and Mazda’s identity. Mazda faced a management crisis in 1979 and was put under the umbrella of Ford. Maeda reminisced about those days, “A decade had passed since Mazda was put under the umbrella of the Ford Group. I had so many things I could not handle as I hoped and a great deal of stress grew within me. What lifestyle should I lead as a member of a Japanese company and as a Japanese person? I spent that decade idly under the large umbrella of Ford without a vision in sight.”

In the face of ailing management, Mazda formed a capital tie-up with Ford holding 24.5% of its stocks for survival. In addition, in the 1990s Mazda ran significant deficits for three consecutive terms due to the collapse of the bubble economy and the failure in multiple sales channels. In 1996, Ford raised its ratio of capital contribution to Mazda to 33.4%, put the Japanese company under its umbrella and took control of management.

Henry Wallace, from Ford, assumed the presidency, with James E. Miller from Ford in 1997, Mark Fields from Ford in 1999, and Lewis Booth from Ford in 2002 since taking office as president.

“Directors for design sent from Ford were not bad people, but their perspectives were different,” said Maeda.

Moray Callum, sent from Ford, was the first to assume office as the manager of the Design Division, followed by Laurens van den Acker. At that time, the Ford family had name brands such as Land Rover, Jaguar and Volvo. Mazda, which became a member of the family, was given a role as the non-premium segment’s sporty brand.

Maeda said, “I speculate that Ford people wanted to put the Mazda brand in an appropriate position within the Ford Group. That is, there was an unwritten rule that Mazda had to play a role as a non-premium brand within the Ford Group. I was always frustrated and disappointed by that and hoped to change it someday.”

The pressure from Ford worked as a springboard for Mazda’s leap. It was somewhat meaningful that Mazda was put under the umbrella of Ford.

Maeda said, “Looking back on those days, I can now see that it worked as a significant springboard. That repulsive force turned out to be an enabler. I must be grateful to Ford for its role.”

The Lehman Shock was the trigger for change in September 2008. Ford Motor fell into financial difficulties and began to reduce Mazda’s ratio of capital contribution to raise funds. Surprisingly, this worked well for Mazda because the Japanese company was forced to run on its own.

Mazda’s 3rd generation, 2007 model Demio on which Maeda worked as Chief Designer © MAZDA MOTOR CORPORATION

In 2006, immediately before the Lehman Shock, Mazda had begun to take a different path. Mazda could not allow its brand to fade away. As long as it continued to live under the umbrella of Ford, Mazda would be ruined. What was needed for Mazda to shine?

Mazda discussed its vision for the next ten years and began to develop fuel-efficient SKYACTIV technology. The company started manufacturing innovation to produce cars equipped with unique base technology and announced a long-term vision for technology development called “Sustainable Zoom-Zoom” in 2007.

Maeda said, “It does not mean that someone tried to control the situation from above. There was a growing trend within the company that we should return to the start to survive and pursue the essence of everything. Everyone began to think of how to bring our brand back to life as well as new designs.”

Mazda paid particular attention to the pursuit of essence.

Maeda said, “Mazda is a company that does not use tricky and eccentric tactics; it is a pitcher who throws only fastballs. That is why we always return to our essence—what Mazda is all about.”

In 2009, Maeda took over as General Manager from Laurens van den Acker, his predecessor from Ford, and assumed the post as the first Japanese head of the Design Division in eight years. It was a milestone for Mazda.

When Mazda was a member of the Ford Group, the axis of its designs changed whenever new General Managers were appointed. Every time General Managers for design were replaced, the company’s designs were forced to be for the short term. Now, Mazda can emphasize the direction of its design in the long term.

Yamanouchi Takashi, then President and CEO, said to Maeda, “Now, listen to me. Remember that showing brands as a bundle will become a strategy.” Yamanouchi, who assumed his role immediately after the Lehman Shock, was known for his strength and bravery. He always said, “Management is a gamble.” 

Mazda’s 2007 model RX-8 on which Maeda worked as Chief Designer © MAZDA MOTOR CORPORATION

Maeda said, “I also thought that our brand was essential to survival. Even if we pursue greater efficiency and profit, China and South Korea will soon catch up. Fortunately, Japan has 100 years of history in manufacturing cars in Asia. All we could do was to focus on Japanese car brands. We had to notice that as quickly as possible and return to the starting point.”

This is where the revival of the Mazda brand started.

Building the “Frame” of Design

Mazda, which became independent from Ford, went on the offensive and exploded. It strongly considered what to continue to use and what to give up.

Mazda redesigned individual car models with a focus on unified design concepts for all models. It thought about introducing a consistent design to all models to create a sense of unity so that they could be recognized as Mazda cars at a glance. Maeda said it was a design to be shown as a group.

However, it was very difficult work. Unity with powerless design would lead Mazda brands to collapse easily.

Maeda said, “If we create a group of designs with a consistent message and can increase brand presence, we will be able to compete with overseas premium brands.”

This was a grand experiment of changing Mazda based on design, but it was not easy. Honda once tried to unify its design under the same concept, but failed.

Maeda said, “That is why we had to produce real things. What should we do? We thought as hard as possible about the Mazda design.”

For the next six months, Maeda explored the aesthetic sense underlying Mazda design, looking back at previous models. Mazda cars in the 1960s, the birth of Mazda design, learned from predecessors, including Giorgetto Giugiaro, the famous Italian automobile designer, in pursuit of beautiful forms.

Mazda’s 1969 model Luce Rotary Coupe © MAZDA MOTOR CORPORATION

The first of those models was Luce Rotary Coupe, which launched in 1969. It was a top-class sports car whose design was entrusted to Bertone, Italy, to which Giugiaro belonged. Tanaka Hideaki, General Manager of the Brand Style Management Department of the Design Division, said, “A Mazda designer at that time worked with Giugiaro. He studied how Giugiaro drew lines and created forms.”

In the past, I interviewed the master Giugiaro in a hotel room in Tokyo when he visited Japan. As soon as he entered the room, he saw so many Japanese press members that he came back and said, “The air is thin in this room.” The genius, who was difficult to please, limited people who were allowed to enter the room to a certain number and finally returned 30 minutes later. I will never forget the interview.

Maeda thought anew about the Luce Rotary Coupe, whose design they entrusted to Bertone, and said, “Why were cars at that time beautiful? Because they had a neat frame into which engineering thoughts were put.”

Maeda strongly felt that he had to reach that level.

Maeda said, “Up until now, Mazda put importance on creating clothes rather than building a frame. That is why it looked good at a glance, but it was not big-boned. You know, as long as cars run, they should be big-boned. That is why we thought of starting with Mazda’s frame.”

It is said that overseas sports cars are beautiful because their frames are firmly built. Designs with a focus on frames create strength and beauty. Mazda has a concept of “unity of rider and horse,” which means piloting a car at will. Based on this concept, they considered giving car designs rich expressions and a powerful sense of liveliness.

Maeda said, “We wanted to make cars that were naturally shaped. We thought that unnaturally shaped cars would destroy nature. That is why we wanted to make cars that blended into nature. Creatures control themselves in the natural world. We wanted to make cars like that.”

The Birth of Shinari

Is it possible to give life to cars and make them alive?

“I tried hard for a year. I thought and thought.”

One day, Maeda was struck as if by lightning. He was shocked by a professional performance of the Kodo Taiko Performing Arts Ensemble, based in Sado City, Niigata Prefecture.

“I was moved and touched by their great performance. I wanted a rhythm like that,” Maeda says.

The Kodo drummers’ powerful rhythms, which would move almost any heart, had a spirituality similar to Mazda design.

Maeda says, “Originally, Mazda design expressed movements with rhythm. Mazda design comes with rhythm.”

I have seen many of Kodo’s concerts, since immediately after their debut, and I can well understand how Maeda was fascinated with Kodo’s rhythmic, moving, primitive drumming. I felt that Maeda’s story of intuitively feeling the rhythm of the design in their drumming revealed part of his aesthetic.

Maeda’s coinage of the term Kodo (Soul of motion) for Mazda, partly derived from kodo (lit. “beating”), was born from this experience. He put meaning into the word of giving life to cars; he envisaged giving cars a sense of the soul’s liveliness and moving the souls of those who see the cars. The power of words is immense. The mystical power dwelling in words is said to be powerful enough to influence human souls. This word, “KODO,” would be the driving force behind Mazda.

However, it took some time for the concept to gain traction.

Maeda says, “People said that it was difficult for them to understand the meaning of my word. A lot of people bashed it. When we were under the umbrella of Ford, we could easily share western-clothed designs. All we had to do was to obey specific instructions from Ford. But people said that what I said made no sense. Even when I tried hard to explain, they just asked, ‘Yeah, what about specific designs?’”

Maeda was not able to persuade people within the company. He thought and thought.

Maeda says, “The thing that was more necessary than anything else to get people around me to get involved was the self-confidence of thinking harder and more seriously than anyone else. And persistence. If you compromise once, then you are finished. That is why I always had to be serious.”

Mazda’s Shinari, released on September 3, 2010 © MAZDA MOTOR CORPORATION

What was required was a clear story that could go straight to the heart. Maeda focused on a wild animal, the cheetah. He found the ultimate beauty in cheetahs, the fastest animal on earth, said to be able to run faster than 100 kilometers per hour. The cheetah embodied the beauty of living things more than anything else. Everything about them displayed the beauty of life: quick cornering, the sense of tension they show when they leap on their prey, the explosive power they show when running fast, and the power of life.

Maeda says, “Wild animals always move stably when they are running in the wilderness. When they are chasing their prey, their eyes are fixed on it. They neither stumble nor stagger. Their legs, head and tail are connected by their frame and control their relationships with the ground. This is the same with car manufacturing. I have to firmly understand principles such as the movement of the backbone and translate them into the form of cars.”

Watching movies of cheetahs running, Maeda kept drawing sketches. Watching the cheetahs’ movement and analyzing the beauty of their form, he found that they always had an unshakable axis and that their movement was continuous. He found the moment when the cheetah kicked against the ground, shifting its weight to its legs, particularly beautiful.

The Advance Design Studio of the Design Division created a design concept car named the Mazda Shinari, the embodiment of the beautiful movement of the cheetah. The vision model of the Shinari defined the direction for all Mazda’s car designs for years to follow.

In September 2010 the Shinari was unveiled to management. The moment the cover was removed from it, they applauded.

Maeda says, “They told me that they finally understood what I had been thinking.”

Just as the never-moving Polaris is an important landmark for navigation, Shinari became a guide showing Mazda the direction their design would take.

“The level of Mazda’s design had to come up this far,” said Yamanouchi [Takashi, then President and CEO of Mazda; see Part I].

Beyond Beauty

In and after 2012, Mazda launched Kodo design models, such as the new Atenza and Axela, one after another, starting from the first-generation model CX-5. Consumers supported a hybrid utilizing the fuel-efficient SKYACTIV technology that was launched at the same time, and the company’s global sales increased by 23% from 1,247,000 units in 2011 to 1,534,000 units in 2015.

The next issue presenting itself was the evolution of the Kodo design. What should be expressed beyond the beauty of the dynamism of life? Maeda (now Managing Executive Officer) got aggressive.

“Because we built a universal frame, the next theme we wanted to consider was how to instill Japanese aesthetics into it,” he says. “When speaking of Japanese aesthetics, people often think of shoji, sliding paper doors, and bamboo. But such simplistic expression spoils their essence. We thought that we had to take the approach of spiritualism.”

German cars are just German because they represent the history and culture of their home country. What about Japanese cars? Can you say that they represent Japanese-ness? Do they lack an appeal despite their technology?

Tanaka Hideaki, General Manager of the Brand Style Management Department of the Design Division, says, “I think that we should pay more maniacal attention to our responsibility to be a Japanese brand made in Japan.”

Maeda was keenly aware of the concepts of rin and en. He thought that the Kodo design that gave life to cars could be completed by adding rin, meaning a keen sense of self-restrained dignity, and en, an alluring sensuality that is exuded by life, to the do, or dynamism, expressed by Kodo design.

Mazda’s RX-VISION Concept debuts at the 44th Tokyo Motor Show, October 28, 2015 © MAZDA MOTOR CORPORATION

Two next-generation design vision models were launched as evolutions of the Kodo design. EN was expressed by the Mazda RX-Vision, a concept sports car launched at the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show. This model had no character lines and expressed a soft and curved en with a form of light and darkness.

Tanaka says, “The design without press lines was an original Japanese design, which manufacturers in the West can’t imitate.”

The dynamic change of the light of RX-Vision was created by clay modelers. Tanaka says, “If you take an approach focusing on form for artistic expression, it is too much. The RX-Vision represents an artistic expression of light and darkness. Although the model has no character lines, it shows a variety of expressions depending on how light strikes it.”

The largest issue was how to create the light reflections that the designers intended. The effect was realized by a Zebra floodlight, introduced by the Metal Mold Production Division, which enabled designers to confirm the light reflections they intended to create could be reproduced by referring to CAD data.

In 2016 Kogai Masamichi, then Mazda President and CEO, received an invitation letter from the BMW Group. The invitation letter asked him to bring the RX-Vision to a prestigious heritage event for historic vehicles held in Italy, “the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este.” It was a great honor.

The venue for the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este was the Grand Hotel Villa d’Este on Lake Como in northern Italy, with collectors from around the world gathering with historic cars costing hundreds of millions of yen.

The RX-Vision appeared with Maeda behind the wheel. The rising morning sun was reflected in the body of the car and the deep green of the scenery around Lake Como blended into the car body. It was breathtakingly beautiful. It was the first time that Maeda had seen the RX-Vision with outdoor scenery in the background.

Maeda says, “An Italian millionaire came to me and said, ‘This car is so sexy. But it is also as delicate as a Japanese garden.’ It was the best compliment.”

The Aesthetics of Subtraction

Following the RX-Vision, the Mazda Vision Coupe, a concept four-door coupe, was unveiled in October 2017. This model expressed rin. The entirety of it from the front to the rear was connected by a set of motions and it emitted a linear hard light. A unique plane structure with hollowed side panels revealed gentle gradations depending on how the light was shone on it.

In fact, the Vision Coupe took roughly an extra two years until it was unveiled, although work on it had started at the same time as the RX-Vision. This was because Mazda sought to express more delicate light than with the RX-Vision.

Clay modelers and digital modelers collaborated, repeatedly creating clay models by hand, translating them into digital data, examining the reflections, and then creating clay models again.

Maeda says, “A Mercedes chief designer came and kept looking at us. He said, ‘I can’t tell how the reflection is created.’ In fact, the reflection of light involves a series of things you must not do when creating a general car form. The Germans were so rational that they did not do such a difficult thing. That is why they could not understand what was going on. But I speculate that the German designer had some idea.”

The aesthetics of subtraction were introduced to the Vision Coupe. It has also been called “the aesthetics of cutting off.” It is a noble and delicate Japanese aesthetic style that has been cultivated since ancient times. Tanaka explains the aesthetic, saying, “It is a design with less information from which the beholder can sense subtle emotions within it. Unlike the world of Western flower arrangement, for example, with 100-flower displays, it is a design that allows people to imagine a scene with many flowers in full bloom from just one flower.”

Cut, cut and cut. Maeda devoted himself to expressing the aesthetics of subtraction in car design. Maeda says, “Simply making things simple is what German design also does. But ensuring that things are simplified until they are left with just their essence is unprecedented. Designers generally think of adding things. They feel relieved by the addition of things; they are afraid of cutting things off. They always struggle with the fear that they will cut off value and appeal, which will result in nothing remaining.”

German architect Bruno Taut is said to have been moved to tears when he saw Katsura Imperial Villa. Why? Taut discerned not just the beauty of its shape but the Japanese spirituality lying behind it. Cut, cut and cut. Then, you are left with Japanese aesthetics based on negative space, change, curves and pauses.

Maeda says, “It was the Vision Coupe that we worked on with the approach of focusing on these elements and incorporating them into car design.”

When I was young, I was a jazz enthusiast. I noticed that Japanese jazz had a unique “pause” in comparison with authentic American Jazz. It is an exquisite pause that only performers notice. This symbolizes the Japanese mentality of showing consideration for delicate things. In this sense, “negative space” is also a worldview unique to the Japanese. Tanaka says, “In calligraphy, you fill negative space with letters, thinking about how to do it. Negative space is intentionally created in both Japanese paintings and the Rock Garden of Ryoan-ji Temple to express an overall worldview and spirituality.”

Curves also express an aesthetic unique to the Japanese who feel a subtle curve beautiful. Those curves are used for the forms of Japanese swords and the roofs of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, as represented for example by the Toshodai-ji Temple Golden Hall and the Todai-ji Temple Daibutsu-den Hall.

“What I found the most difficult to handle was the expression of change,” says Maeda. While Westerners pursue something permanent and find it beautiful, Japanese aesthetics puts importance on things that change. Maeda expressed change through the light and darkness on the side of the body.

In January 2016 the RX-Vision was awarded the Most Beautiful Concept Car of the Year at the 31st Festival Automobile International held in Paris. The Vision Coupe received the same award in 2018.


Maeda Ikuo introduces the Shinari at the Los Angeles Auto Show, November 17, 2016. PHOTO BY VICTOR DECOLONGON/GETTY IMAGES FOR MAZDA MOTOR CO.


Why “Cars Are Art”

“Cars are art.” This slogan is not only intended to raise the standard of Mazda design but also to warn against situations in which the cars become commodities.

Maeda says, “Unless we maintain this attitude and try to improve cars, we will never be able to create anything good. In this sense, the things we intend to create may be well above what the slogan intends.”

One of the reasons why Maeda declared “Cars are art” was that he wanted to motivate himself. But beyond that, he intended to ignite the drive of the Production Division.

Maeda says, “Unless I keep myself motivated, I will slip and make a compromise once we start to mass-produce cars. Once I give up, start thinking that cars are a product, little by little, I will be unable to do what I aim to do.”

Tanaka explains that they received a complaint from a German design team. In Germany, there is a Bauhaus design style that built the foundations of modern design and architecture around the world. Even today, Germany is highly proud of its design.

Tanaka says, “The Germans said, ‘Cars are not art.’ I said, ‘I know what you mean. We want to aim to get higher to a level where cars can be art. We want to express that.’ Then, they seemed to be convinced.”

The circumstances surrounding cars are dramatically changing amid the development of self-driving technology and the popularization of car-sharing. The change from car ownership to car-sharing and car use will lead to drastic changes in what is expected of styling. Amidst this, how will Mazda design change for the next generation?

Maeda says, “We have to start by rejecting the current generation. That is why we reject them for now. Then, we will start all over aiming for an ideal. I think that some things will change, but many others will not.”

Maeda does not intend to produce hugely popular cars. What he continues to pursue is beauty. He is extraordinarily determined to do that.

Maeda says, “We do not create market-in designs at all; rather, they can be said to be product-out concept designs. It is just that after we’ve produced an ideal car, it results in that.”

That is why Mazda’s style is incompatible with market-oriented car design. It is a self-righteous style. Maeda says, “I don’t think that creating the designs that customers want is a professional style. To show products based on market research so that customers choose them is unprofessional. We used to do that. We went that easy way for many years.”

Maeda says that a good car cannot be produced by marketing.

Maeda says, “If we create designs to create smash hit cars, to target a majority, that is not the Mazda style. That is why I think only of using all that I have and creating the best products without compromise.”

Mazda cars are the antithesis of the mass-production age. That is why Mazda believes that all it has to do is to garner the empathy of 2% of the world market. In fact, Mazda’s share of the world market is just 2%. Carlos Ghosn of Nissan set a goal of 8% of world market share and achieved 10,600,000 units produced by an alliance of three companies in 2017, which elevated Nissan to second place in the world for units produced, overtaking Toyota. But Ghosn lost his head over these figures and lost his position. Mazda is the exact opposite of this, however. The automobile manufacturer thinks that it does not need to be accepted by everyone and that all that it has to do is gain the empathy of 2% of the world market. But it is not easy to capture core Mazda enthusiasts.

Maeda says, “I am exposed to a strong sense of tension. If the things that I created using all I have are not accepted, it means that all that I have is not accepted.”

Mazda can declare that all it has to do is to gain the empathy of 2% of the world market precisely because its management is small. An automobile manufacturer that produces 10 million units can never declare that. This shows how much of a free hand Mazda has in management.

A proverb says that a smaller thing outperforms a larger one. How far can Mazda go in its design challenge by using the small size of its management as an advantage? How can it promote the appeal of Japanese cars to the world? It can be said that this is a challenge that only Mazda can take on; one that other major automobile manufacturers cannot.

KATAYAMA Osamu is an economics journalist and representative of K-Office. He has published extensively, including Sumato kakumei de seicho suru Nihon keizai (Growing the Japanese Economy with the Smart Revolution), and Naze Za Puremiamu Morutsu ha uretsuzukeru noka? (Why does The Premium Malt’s beer sell so well?). Recent publications include Samsun kuraishisu (The Samsung Crisis).

This article first appeared in the March/April and May/June 2020 issue of the Japan Journal.



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