Friday, February 6, 2015

Martin Davis: The Black History Maker Behind The Cadillac Escalade Crystal-Like Headlights (Part One)

Martin Davis ( photo credit: GM)

The LED lights of the 2015 Cadillac Escalade were designed by a team led by Martin Davis.

With this being Black History Month, we wanted to take a moment to spotlight one of the hidden gems in the field of auto design. Being that this field is so competitive, one has a better chance of becoming a professional athlete with the NBA or the NFL. Yes, the odds of becoming a car designer is very slim. That means it even harder for blacks to breakthrough in this super competitive field. Even with that being the case, we stumbled upon Martin Davis. 

Davis, a thirty-seven year old Detroit native, was destined to work in the auto industry. Like most people from Detroit, its in their bloodline. Davis, who is General Motors' first exterior lighting manager (and the only black person currently in the industry to hold such an influential position), is changing the way we view the headlights and the taillights on today's vehicles. 

Martin is holding a taillight. (photo credit GM)

Just like with the overall design of a vehicle, the headlights can make or break a car design. In fact, a glass skyscraper in New York city was the inspiration behind Davis and his team in developing the sharp-edge, crystal-like headlights on the 2015 Cadillac Escalade. After trying to connect with him for over two years, we finally secured what we believe to be his most extensive interview to date. Take a moment to peruse part one of our interview with this creative genius.

JeffCars: Martin, did you grow up around cars?
Martin Davis: Yes. My father worked at the Ford Dearborn Stamping Plant. At that time, Mustangs were built there. At one point, when I was young, my father stored a 1966 Mustang in our garage for a friend of his. This Mustang was red. I use to get inside and pretend to drive it.

JeffCars: So Martin, at what point did you know that you wanted to become a car designer? And, how old were you at the time?
Martin Davis: I always had an interest in drawing and making things. In fact, not only drawing cars, but making my own model cars out of cardboard and paper. Somehow at that age, the store bought toys were boring. Mine were better. I guess they were better because I made them. I also made houses and even a model of a complex freeway interchange by my parents’ house. All of this started when I was about six years old. From then on, I knew I wanted to be either an architect or a designer of some sort.

JeffCars: Who or what had the most influence on you becoming a car designer? 
Martin Davis: My father. My father always encouraged me to draw and kept telling me that I could make a living doing so. So, when I was in the eighth grade, I sent a letter along with some of my drawings to "Ford." I put Ford in quotations because I had no idea to whom I was sending my drawings. I saw an address for Ford somewhere, so I used it. Two months later, I got a phone call from someone in their engineering department. An actual phone call! The person on the phone said that he’d forward my drawing to their design department. Soon thereafter, I received a package in the mail from someone in Ford's Design HR department, outlining the steps to becoming a car designer. That was the start.

JeffCars: Besides your father, was there anyone or anything else that inspired you?

Martin DavisMy vocational high school, Crockett in Detroit, had a great arts program. Cheri Parker, Otis Gregory, and Matt Corbin were my instructors for three years. However, it was Matt Corbin who was the car nut. He would sit and draw cars with me correcting my perspectives, proportions, etc. It was amazing! It was then that I knew I would become a car designer.

JeffCars: Today there are only a handful of people who look like you in the design field. In fact, outside of the U.S., Asians and Koreans have dominated the design field. As a young black kid growing up in Detroit in the 90s, how did you know that you could actually become a car designer?
Martin Davis: Well, even when I was young, the thought that I couldn't become a designer never entered my mind. Never. From my perspective, I liked designing and drawing things, mainly cars. Furthermore, not once did anyone even say that it would be difficult. Everyone supported what I wanted to do.

JeffCars: How did you end up at GM, after graduating from CCS (The College of Creative Studies) in 1999? 
Martin Davis: Quite simply, GM made me an offer. Ironically, Ford did not make me an offer. So, GM it was!

JeffCars: As a young designer at GM, what was your first assignment?
Martin Davis:My first assignment was the Oldsmobile O4 show car. I did all of the theme work. It was pretty cool having my sketch selected and on how I was informed (that I received the assignment). One day after I arrived back from lunch, the executive design director, Jerry Palmer, was in the (design) studio. He called me and my boss over to the board where my sketch was hanging. He took his finger, poked my sketch a few times and said, "This is theme I want. And, this is theme my boss, Wayne Cherry, the vice president of design, wants. Get it done." Incidentally, the 04 became the last show car Oldsmobile created as the brand was eliminated shortly thereafter. 

JeffCars: Interesting. So Martin, how did you gravitate toward the area of exterior lighting and design?
Martin Davis: I gravitated toward the exterior lighting area because there was an opportunity to push the design envelope with that area of the vehicle. The design lamp internals (the exterior lights) can be very extensive as a design project on its own when compared to the overall exterior of the vehicle. With developments in lighting technology, such as LEDs, we (as designers) are able to create truly compelling and expressive lamp designs, which can enhance and reinforce the brand character of any vehicle under development.

JeffCars: When did you become a lighting design manager?
Martin Davis: In 2012, I became the first design manager for exterior lighting for GM, which has been a great privilege. As the manager of this team, I am able to make a distinctive design statement with exterior lighting for every design program that comes through my studio.

JeffCars: Just wondering, where does your creativity come from? What inspires you as a designer?
Martin Davis: My creativity comes from everywhere. It could be a something in nature, from another creative person, a movie, photography, a cool hotel room or even a really cool landscape from a neighbor's house. I'm always aware of what's happening around me.

To continue with Part Two of the interview, click here.



We really loved seeing your work . said...

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