The Canadian remaking Infiniti
Karim Habib, the mind shaping future designs at Nissan, knows a thing or two about change – and that's going to serve him and the auto maker well
Karim Habib is accustomed to being a stranger in a foreign place. The Canadian car designer hired to lead Infiniti out of obscurity was born in Lebanon in 1970, just before civil war broke out. In 1976, his parents moved with him and his brother and sister to Iran.
"Then the revolution started there," Habib says, "so we had to go somewhere else." His family moved to France, then Greece, before emigrating to Canada and settling in Montreal in 1981.
He grew up there, studying mechanical engineering at McGill University. At 24, he left for Switzerland to learn how to draw cars at the ArtCenter College of Design, finishing his studies at the school's campus in Pasadena, Calif. He got a job with BMW straight out of school and relocated to Munich in 1998. He rose quickly through the ranks and in 2012 became the head of BMW's design team.
Ask Habib where he's from and he'll say this: "My hometown is Montreal. I've lived now, actually, longer in Germany than I did in Canada, but you know, it's those formative years. It's my hometown."
His mother still lives in Montreal, and when Habib visits, he makes sure to go to B&M, a diner on Saint-Viateur Street in the Plateau, for a hamburger or a peanut-butter milkshake. "I'm sorry, it's not very premium or whatever, but that's what I like!" he says with a laugh.
Now on the other side of the world, Habib is still learning about his newest adopted country. He and his wife moved to Tokyo in June with their two children. He started work at Infiniti in July, sat for this interviw at the Tokyo Motor Show in October, and appeared at the L.A. Auto Show this week. .
Officially titled executive design director, his new job is similar to his old one at BMW – except it's completely different. He's still ultimately responsible for shaping cars. But while BMW is an established leader in the luxury-car market, Infiniti is still trying to make its mark. Where BMW is the core brand in its group, Infiniti is a small offshoot of Nissan, which is part of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance. Infiniti has less history to work with, too, having launched its first cars in 1989.
"The sheet of paper is a lot emptier than it is at BMW," Habib says. "That really allows us to be very creative."
"The reason for a customer to come to a new brand cannot be because we're doing the same thing. There's no point. We have to do something – I don't want to say 'different,' because that's not enough – it has to bring a new experience or offer to make your life better in a different way."
What that new experience is or how it will make your life better, let alone what it will look like packaged as a sedan or SUV, Habib doesn't know yet. But he's excited about the opportunity to figure it out. He sees potential to make a mark. "The idea that I can be one of the many factors in rebuilding that brand, I love that. That's what drives me."
It's hard for a car designer to get recognition outside the industry. Most work anonymously, sketching in corporate studios, drawing headlights or concepts that never see the light of day. Habib will likely be able to go for a milkshake in Montreal inconspicuously for the rest of his life. But in the car-design world, he became a minor celebrity in 2007 when the BMW CS Concept debuted at the Shanghai Motor Show.
"That vehicle, his sketches are online with his signature all over them," says Paul Snyder, chair of transportation design at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. It reimagined BMW design, making the cars sleeker, sportier, less chunky.
Before Habib's CS Concept, BMW's cars were difficult to look at. Certainly jarring, borderline ugly was the general consensus. Chris Bangle, then head of BMW design, was responsible for this avant-garde, deconstructed look that came to be known as flame surfacing. Gone was BMW's Bauhaus refinement; in came this bold new look featuring big panels with complex curves and concave (negative) surfaces. The 2001 7 Series, the first of those cars, was ridiculed for its bulbous and lumpy trunk, which came to be known as the Bangle Butt. The flame-surfaced Bangle BMWs that followed, such as the 2002 Z4 and the 2003 5 Series, were just as controversial. That those cars still look futuristic today shows just how far ahead of their time they were.
"Flame surfacing was always so advanced, but it wasn't really appealing to so many people," Snyder says. It was influential, but not popular. Habib took Bangle's flame surfacing and translated it for the masses. He made it beautiful, showing the way forward for BMW and automotive design in general.
"[Habib's] CS concept signalled a more refined, a more sophisticated and more appealing interpretation of Bangle flame styling. … They had a huge impact. Even Audi started putting negative surfaces on its cars – even the Japanese and the Americans did as well." The influence of Bangle's design – and Habib's more pleasing interpretation – can be seen across all car brands today, Snyder says.
"Now that it has mass uptake, that everyone is doing it, people are looking to see what the next thing is."
In Tokyo, Habib is in awe of everything. "Honestly, the layers of [culture] shock are pretty impressive," he says.
He took his kids to Tokyo Disneyland and discovered that everyone was dressed up as Disney characters. They spent much of the day wondering who worked there and who was just an enthusiastic visitor.
"I love this place. [Tokyo] is crazy. … You turn around and you see, in the middle of a not-very-pretty building, a little light, and it's this beautiful place that looks like a mini French bistro – and it's perfect." He gets excited talking about the things he's seen in his first few months living in Japan – all the beautiful details hidden in unlikely places. "Residential architecture, it's so innovative, so creative. … Some houses have a metre between each other. How do you make sure there's daylight? How do you keep your privacy? It's fantastic stuff."
Habib speaks four languages – French, German, English and Italian – and, of course, he's learning Japanese too. He's enamoured at the moment with omotenashi, traditional Japanese hospitality – a formal kind of warmth.
"I like that feeling of new: a new vocabulary, a new way of solving problems."
He's processing everything about his new home, taking it all in, learning to adapt again. All his finely detailed observations, you get the sense they're building up to something, some fuzzy new idea he hasn't quite yet been able to bring into focus.
"I'm trying to understand things."
As enthralled as he is, he's wary of falling into the trap of reducing the country and culture to a bunch of easy tokens: samurai swords or kimonos or a certain kind of hospitality. Even worse would be to build a car brand around those tokens.
"Being an immigrant of Arab descent in North America, as you can imagine, probably now, it's not always easy. … I'm always afraid of national identity and the border between that and nationalism." He mentions the rising tide of nationalism in Germany, and the recent election in Austria that could see an Islamophobic, anti-immigration party form a coalition government. As a design philosophy, national identity isn't so much dangerous as it is just plain bad. The design solutions Habib sees all around him in Japan are exciting and inspiring, but he doesn't want to make a Japanese car. Not exactly. And how could you define what that is?
Even if he can find some new identity for Infiniti, something for the company to offer that other luxury cars don't, there's still the problem of getting whatever that is into mass production.
"Unfortunately, like a lot of near-premium manufacturers – Acura, Cadillac, Lincoln, – [Infiniti] is not spending the money on the architecture," Snyder says on the phone from Detroit. The cars are too closely related to their mass-market Nissan counterparts. "They add more content, and probably have top-gun engineers and stylists. … [But] I don't think they're spending the kind of money it would take to genuinely lead and go up against the Germans, not like Lexus is."
The lines on Infiniti's current Q50 aren't as crisp as the lines on Audi's new A5 Sportback, Snyder points out. "When you're looking at the Infiniti, it just looks sloppy and loose, like it's not held together by tight lines," he says. It's a manufacturing issue, a deficiency in Nissan's sheet-metal stamping equipment. "You can see they're trying."
Habib thinks Nissan is ready to commit, finally, to Infiniti and spend the money – he must, otherwise he wouldn't have taken the job.
"To be honest, I think it's now or never," Habib says. "I'm counting on that commitment to come. And I do think it will come because it's plain business sense."
He points to Volvo and Jaguar as recent success stories. They are proof that, with massive investment and revitalized design, a struggling brand can come from behind and make class-leading cars. "It is a positive thing for customers to have more choice, and hopefully a choice [in Infiniti] that really does offer something else."
Change seems to come comfortably to Habib – or, if not comfortably, at least enjoyably. His new house in Tokyo is within walking distance of his daughter's school. His kids were in a German- and French-speaking kindergarten in Munich. Now, they're in an English-speaking one in Tokyo. He tells me his daughter was counting in Japanese the other day.
It'll be three or four years before we see the first Infiniti that Habib has designed from the ground up. He's got some time to figure out what's next. At a time when the car industry is changing faster than at any point in the past 100 years, his adeptness with change should serve him, and Infiniti, well.
"I think Nissan is fairly well positioned for that," Snyder says. "They were one of the first companies to employ a cultural anthropologist in product development. … They're really thinking about the future."
And so is Habib. His story is a classic Canadian one. To find success on a global scale, he had to go abroad. The car-design profession is a small one; there are no major studios in Canada. Now that he's found success, we're eager to claim him as our own.
"We were Lebanese immigrants," he says. "[Canada] opened the world to me. It gave me an education. It gave me an openness to the world. It gave me a tolerance and understanding of so many different cultures."
Marshall McLuhan said in 1967, "Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity." We're defined most by a lack of definition.
"Canadians know, you're a little bit, kind of in the corner of the planet," Habib says. It provides a good vantage point.
Having grown up in Canada and lived in nine different countries, Habib is something of an expert on identity. Conveniently, Infiniti is a brand in desperate need of one.