Ralph Gilles Drive to Design

Ralph Gilles Drive to Design

Welcome to number three in Semi Permanent’s eight-part interview with Abstract: The Art of Design executive producer Scott Dadich. In this installment, Scott tells how working in a bagel shop lead him to become a graphic designer. Then we segue imperceptibly into a conversation about Ralph Gilles, Head of Design at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and featured designer on Abstract.

Ralph became obsessed with cars as a child, and his episode explores his story and philosophy while simultaneously tracking the development of Chrysler's ‘Portal’, an all-electric, semi-autonomous concept minivan. It’s an amazing show, and after you read this, you should go watch it.

Before we talk about Mr. Ralph Gilles…Wait, am I saying that right, Gilles?
It’s Gilles. The French pronunciation of Gilles. He’s from Montreal, Quebec.

Gilles.
Gilles.

Before we talk about Ralph Gilles, I wanted to ask was there a time in your life when you realized you were more interested in technology than everyone around you?
Oh yeah. Actually, I was reminded by a friend of mine recently that when we were in college, we were waiting in line for Phantom Menace Star Wars tickets and I was the only one in my group who had a flip-phone. (Laughter)

So I think, yes, I’ve always had that curiosity for technology. When I was younger it took the shape of playing with my dad’s stereo and hi-fi, building with Lego and making models; I was really obsessed with the way machines worked, and that was something that translated into my school ambitions; though I found out pretty early that I took the wrong path to the right result in terms of how I would chase down a design education.

Ralph Gilles
Ralph Gilles

What were you initially planning to be all those years ago?
I had always wanted to be a car designer. Growing up, I thought it would be one of the greatest things to design Corvette’s and Lamborghini’s and Ferrari’s. I was just car obsessed. And I was good at math and enjoyed it, and I enjoyed my physics classes and chemistry and the science side of creativity. Coming out of high school, I thought that I would want to be a mechanical engineering major, but I quickly discovered in my freshman year that doing calculus three problems at two in the morning was not going to be my thing. (Laughter)

So I officially withdrew from engineering school and became an undeclared, and went and worked for a little while.

"Whether it’s a windshield wiper or an engine cover, it all has to be done with love. The observer recognizes that… And that’s good design and, ultimately, that’s good art."

Ralph Gilles

Where’d you work?
I found work at a bagel shop where–very much through happenstance–I ended up doing some lettering on a chalkboard which lead to me meeting an art director who introduced me to the world of graphic design.

That’s amazing.
And it was through graphic design that I… Well, I didn’t even know that you could get paid for that job. One of my colleagues at the bagel shop said, “Yeah, graphic design, you know, it’s like designing cereal boxes, and they pay you for that!” (Laughter)

And I was like, “I like cereal… Sure! That sounds pretty good!” So I ended up in design communications, and got my BA from Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. And while I was getting my degree I worked for a design agency, the ad agency there in town, and was able to pay my tuition with work, and actually learn on the job and get real-world experience. So I had a bit of advantage in that I’d already had a job four years by the time I had graduated.

Ralph Gilles
Ralph Gilles

Do you ever wonder what would’ve happened if you hadn’t got the job at the bagel shop?
Oh yeah, I think about that all the time. I don’t know where I would be. I don’t know if there’s any good answer to that. I think so many people have had great happenstance occur to them, but certainly I count myself very fortunate to have been counseled in that way and to have had the opportunity to work for that company.

“You trust your gut instinct that it’s going to work, and eventually it’ll become a trendsetting design.”

Ralph Gilles

Okay, Ralph Gilles the car designer. Did you know him prior to making the show?
I had met Ralph through WIRED. I was such a huge fan of his, both his work on the Viper ACR and the 300, and just knowing his history working on the SRT program at Dodge; I loved the lines and the weight and volume of his work, and have been a really ardent fan of his for years. I got to meet him the year before I started working on the Abstract project, and he really stuck in mind as someone we’d want to be in touch with in the event that the series should get green lit, and when it did he was one of my first calls.

You said earlier that you’d wanted to design cars when you were younger, which would be great, but at the same time there must be so many constraints working for a car manufacturer; the bureaucracy must be... 
Yeah, well I think Ralph faces that challenge. The auto industry has so many challenges in terms of design perspective; the fact that they have to tool-up an entire manufacturing line and spend a billion dollars to launch a new automobile, and the manufacturing line has to support the industry or the making of that car for five or seven years. So it’s not like you can go and redesign quickly. It’s necessary that they create scale but also safety, and the national transportation safety board has regulations about every aspect of an automobile, so to work within those constraints is certainly defining. But it’s also I think for Ralph and his team it’s liberating in other senses, and I think so many designers will tell you that firm constraints are necessary to do great design work. When you don’t have constraints, when you don’t have limitations, it can be hard to drive great decision making.

Ralph Gilles
Ralph Gilles

Were they any inputs into Ralph’s work outside of automobile design that surprised you?
He’s one that finds influence from nature. I think it’s fair to say that, like Tinker (Hatfield. Episode 1), he’s someone who loves to be out in the world and loves to meet people and loves the history of his craft, loves the art of driving. He has raced semi-professionally himself and goes out on the weekend…

He goes out racing?
Yeah. He and his wife go race Vipers.

Wow.
So he is someone who is influenced by the act of driving and the sport of it. But he’s also someone who has been trained and interested in automobile design since he was a kid. And we explore that in the arc of his story.

“My love affair with cars came from just walking around and seeing how ugly cars were. I remember thinking to myself, “Ugh.” And then one day I saw a Porsche 911 Turbo. I think I was maybe nine years old. And it struck me as being, “Why is that car so much more attractive than the one next to it?” And then I started noticing the more beautiful cars.” 

Ralph Gilles

Do you have a favorite car?
I’m lucky enough to actually own my favorite car.

What is it?
Well, I saved up for a few years, and then about eighteen months ago I bought a Porsche 911 Targa GTS.

Which one’s that?
It’s the 911 with the retractable roof. It’s not the full convertible, it’s not the cabriolet.

I think I know the one.
It’s pretty wicked.

This interview with Scott Dadich is the third after Tinker Hatfield and Es Devlin in a series of eight that will be released weekly exclusively on SemiPermanent.com

To watch Abstract: The Art of Design, head to Netflix on February 10

To follow the adventures of Scott and his Co-CEO partner at Patrick Godfrey at Godfrey Dadich head to @godfreydadich

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