Vintage Commentary: Influences – Chuck Jordan On The Art Of Cribbing

‘Influences,’ ‘References,’ ‘Inspiration;’ all professional terms for what we at CC commonly refer to as cribbing. As time puts distance from a product’s release, a designer will occasionally admit what’s obvious to all: no idea comes out of nowhere, and everyone borrows from anywhere and everywhere.

Dating from 1997, this Chuck Jordan column elaborates on some of the cribbing that took place in Detroit’s studios. Back in those days, that meant a lot of Detroit was Italian inspired; lacking internet, visits to European shows and lots of picture taking did the trick. The California Custom Scene gets a prominent mention as well; not an odd source, as Chuck was a California native and undoubtedly took some of those ideas to GM. In all, no ‘influence’ went unused.

To admit such matters drives PR departments mad; and depending on the stylist’s temper, they agree or deny such realities. While styling has some objective principles, we all know it’s ultimately a subjective matter. And it always starts from a previous point: a designer will take from a ‘source’ in order to provide a new take, a variation, or an unforeseen direction. All this for a simple reason: the human need for something new. Not too ‘new,’  for it will find resistance -another human trait-, but ‘new enough’ to awaken interest and desire. It’s a tough balancing act.

The stylist’s job is in the end, to bring all ideas and influences into one cohesive whole. Easy to say, hard to do. That’s without mentioning engineering and marketing needs. While car lovers enjoy dissecting such details, there’s some kind of disappointment in the public’s eye -and the media- when such mundanities are pointed out. The myth of the ‘creative genius’ is seductive, and a tough one to shake away. To be fair, PR departments have their work cut out; the public is certainly fickle. To admit the ’97 Malibu is just a warmed over Camry with ‘karate-chop’ headlights (a Larry Shinoda quote) just makes for unexciting print. Instead it was: ‘The car you knew America could build.’

Unsurprisingly, Chuck quibbles a bit about regulations and its pressures on styling departments. The doldrums of the committee-guided ’80s era don’t get high marks either, but his excitement picks up with the ’90s and the styling tendencies of the period. His love for concept cars is obvious; he had created a few Motorama pieces back in the ’50s, and his love for their persuading power remained unabated. Ironically, Chrysler ran away with the concept-car-into-production idea, and placed styling at the forefront of their offerings during that decade.

Talking about Chrysler, Tom Gale -their design head during the ’90s- talked once about house furniture and its influence on car design. When it comes to cribbing, all is fair game. To my eye, current styling trends just remind me of aggressive Reeboks, with cues from video game graphics. Bob Lutz mentioned ‘angry kitchen appliances’ a while back. I haven’t read any stylists admitting to such influences, but could easily be the case.