In this story, Tom Matano – one of the founders of the MX-5 – and Jo Stenuit – Design Director of Mazda Motor Europe – talk about what makes a Mazda design so unique and what differences and similarities they see between the generations of design and designers. In the summer of 2022, Matano and Stenuit met each other at EYE Film Museum in Amsterdam, surrounded by various generations of classic MX-5s.
In 1974, Tom Matano started his career in the automotive industry and in 1983, he joined Mazda as Chief Designer for Mazda North American Operations. Later he became Vice President of Design and eventually Executive Vice President of Western Operations for Mazda R&D North America, Inc., as well as Executive Designer and Director of Mazda North American Operations. During his career with Mazda, his designs are clearly evident in many Mazda vehicles, such as the Mazda RX-7, Mazda MX-5 and the Miata ‘M-Coupe’ concept car, as well as numerous other projects created by him and his design teams. Even though he is already 75 years old, he still shares his passion for design with the younger generation and gives art classes at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
Over more than 20 years, Mazda Motor Europe Design Director Jo Stenuit has been involved in designing various concept cars and production vehicles – developing design and brand strategies. The combination of his studies in Product Design and Vehicle Design made him a strong solution-oriented designer with the ability to understand future customers, engineering problems and client wishes. He has been playing a significant role within the Mazda Design Management team in terms of lifting the brand to the near-premium design level it has now reached, not only by generating award-winning designs but also by contributing to the overall brand design image.
What are the biggest challenges and successes when it comes to designing a car?
Tom Matano: “Your initial design theme needs to be realised as a production design without losing the core essence that has endured the close scrutiny associated with product design and the manufacturing phase. During my time, we were fortunate with the FD RX-7, NA/NB Miatas, MX-6, and Mazda3. Mazda’s great engineering team supports the design vision and works with us.”
Jo Stenuit: “The challenge is to design and meet numerous requirements while ensuring that your vision as a car designer does not get lost. This works if you fully focus on your goal (in Mazda’s case: Kodo design) and regularly communicate with all stakeholders within the company. Success comes if all designers and engineers are happy with their contribution and our customers love the car.”
What makes a Mazda design so unique?
“A Mazda design has a soul that communicates through the surfaces of the vehicles we create. There is an emotional connection, and then there is the touch and feel of materials on the interior, as well as the feel of switches and other parts via which human interaction occurs,” says Tom Matano. For Jo Stenuit, what is important is also Mazda’s strong focus on creating cars for people who love driving. “This is expressed through the way we shape the exteriors with our Kodo design philosophy and the beautiful driver-focused interiors. Kodo creates a sense of motion through dynamic proportions and hand-crafted surfaces. The interior is always welcoming and uncluttered and covered in beautiful material combinations. This exterior and interior combo is uniquely Japanese and Mazda.”
What are the differences and similarities between generations of designers?
Jo Stenuit: “Obviously, we both designed for a different generation of customers, but in principle, car design has stayed very similar. We are both passionate about cars and want to create cars that move people. Modern cars are a lot more complex and require a more holistic design approach. A very big change is also the internationalisation of car design. Having a team of Europeans, Russians, Chinese and Indians all together is made possible because of a connected world, which also makes it a lot more competitive than before.”
For Tom Matano, there are differences based on their age groups because of their experience in various phases of life. “Along with new technologies, there are new materials and manufacturing processes continuously evolving and influencing the design outcome. Other factors are regulatory changes that affect fundamental architecture changes, such as safety rules or fuel consumption requiring much greater aerodynamic efficiency and lighter weights. Or zero emissions/zero carbon footprint sustainability movements.”
What is your personal motto, and can you explain it in more detail?
Jo Stenuit: “My personal motto is to create design ideas on paper and build them as soon as possible, preferably physically. Test them yourself and show them to others. Use the feedback to learn and improve. Design is all about trying out, communicating and ultimately making (the right) decisions.”
Tom Matano: “I always design things truthfully to what they do and as simply as possible, based on proportion, attitude, light and shade to create a dynamic movement along carefully tuned visual weight distribution. You become the object you are designing and think of design from ‘inside the box’ instead of just looking at it from the ‘outside’. I call it the ‘Empathetic Design Method’.”
‘Jinba Ittai’ has been the philosophy behind the MX-5 since day one. The Japanese term describes the harmony between a mounted archer and his horse. For Mazda, it represents the connection a driver forms with a car that intuitively behaves as the driver intends. Tom Matano and his team started with a dream of a new breed of an affordable sports car built for driving enthusiasts. But what has made the MX-5 so successful worldwide in all those years?
Jo Stenuit: “The success is down to the fact that there was a clear image from the start: make an affordable, small, agile car that people love to drive, even at low speed. A car that radiates positivity, including for people who see the car passing by. It stayed successful and relevant because we have already kept to the core concept of the car for over 30 years, which has resulted in a fan base that keeps growing.”
Tom Matano: “It is also the simple and clear ‘fun to drive’ message, through the design – both exterior and interior- superbly simple yet effective running gears and a well-executed feel for the car.”
What do you remember most when you look back on your Mazda career?
For Matano, he was lucky to be in the right place at the right time and could work with the right people. “I was able to use all of my knowledge and life experience while working in the United States, Europe and Japan and collaborating with top global talents. For example, Mazda designer Ikuo Maeda. He was a key player during my career and was my protégé in the United States when we started developing our design vision and philosophy in the late 1990s. Ikuo Maeda became a true global design leader.”
Jo Stenuit adds, “I, too, have been lucky. Lucky to work for a company that allows and expects you to have your own opinion and ways of working, that allows you to influence what happens in the Headquarters in Hiroshima, and that is strongly focused. I will always remember my two-year exchange to Japan as one of the highlights of my life and work because being submerged in the Japanese culture is a very unique and heart-warming experience.”
Available to order now for delivery in March, the 2023 Mazda MX-5 continues the winning formula that has seen more than 24,000 fourth-generation MX-5s sold in the UK since its launch in 2015. The 10-model line-up features a new naming structure with Convertible models taking the Roadster name used elsewhere around the globe, while the line-up now features the newly named Prime-Line, Exclusive-Line and Homura trim levels.
Updates for the 2023 Mazda MX-5 include the addition of the Zircon Sand paint colour to the MX-5 for the first time, while Homura manual models will feature red front Brembo front brake callipers. With continued strong retail demand for the Mazda MX-5, the 2023 model year car is ready to order with full price and specification guides live at Mazda.co.uk.