The Drive Interview: Alfonso Albaisa, Nissan/Infiniti’s Senior Vice President for Global Design
Harnessing the beauty of restraint to propel a luxury brand into the electrified future.
Alfonso Albaisa speaks with a jazz musician's flow. A master of restraint, his words glide and roll in a graceful legato that focuses his listeners' minds. It’s a skill that’s propelled the Miami-born designer from an introverted child to an operator in Japan’s notoriously insular corporate hierarchy.
Now, as executive vice president for global design at Nissan and Infiniti, Albiasa faces a pivotal challenge in his 30-year career: creating a new visual language that will define the electrification of Infiniti’s lineup. In the process, he and his staff will guide the luxury brand into an uncertain future.
Born into a family fleeing Castro’s Cuba, Albaisa had wished to emulate his father and great uncle in the field of architecture. His father, Aldofo, an adherent to the severe, unadorned concrete structures defining brutalism, found success in Cuba and in the U.S.; his mother’s uncle, Max Borges-Recio, was a notable mid-century modern architect best known for the sweeping, parabolic design of Havana’s iconic Tropicana Club.
Albaisa grew up playing on his father’s construction sites, but coastal Florida also exposed him to the sultry austerity of boat design and, providentially, to the Jaguar E-Type.
The E-Type’s simple, evocative shape pushed Albaisa toward mechanical engineering, but after a few classes, and a woeful 0.5 GPA, his mother hinted that maybe he follow his passion for design instead. Albaisa transferred to The Pratt Institute, where he would obtain a degree in industrial design, and was recruited by Nissan immediately after graduating. He’s stayed with the company, through thick and thin, ever since, slowly and methodically climbing the corporate ladder.
Albaisa’s vast portfolio comprises both humble cars like the Nissan Versa and show cars like Infiniti’s “Inspiration” concepts, and the one-off, neo-retro Prototype 9 racer. Infiniti’s electrification project now takes up most of his time, although the parent company still needs his hands, which, he says, “had to catch up to his mind,” to hone Nissan’s design language.
To Albaisa, the challenge of Infiniti’s electrification future isn’t one of science-fiction artifice, it’s of not overcomplicating the design. The Japanese word ma—meaning the “empty space between”—frequently comes up in conversation. Ma drives Albaisa's pen, connecting his father’s minimalist designs with his favorite nautical motifs. “Simple and beautiful,” he says, is the elegant solution to mass-market appeal.
We caught up with Albaisa during this month's Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance after he judged the—what else—Elegance category.
The Drive: How has Pebble treated you this year?
Alfonso Albaisa: So far, very good. I’ve just finished my judging.
TD: How did that go?
AA: A little bit difficult. I’m part of the judging for Elegance.
TD: I mean, you do have the background for it.
AA: [Laughs] True. But of the seven cars I just judged, really only one was elegant. It was the first car designed by Georges Paulin, who was a French designer specializing in aerodynamics. The others were 1920s racing Bentleys.
TD: As in the larger-than-life Blower monsters?
AA: Exactly. You know, they’re functional beasts and have a beauty of their own. But they’re not Paulin’s aerodynamically-integrated design. [Laughs] But yeah, I had a fairly easy morning.
Your father and uncle were both architects.
AA: Even more than just them.
And you yourself took a design path. Where does your family’s drive toward design come from?
AA: The issue about seeing things in your head...[Pauses]
...and then make them with your hands. I don’t actually know. This is a great question because I think there’s enough evidence to show a lineage. But, I don’t know if it’s just you wanting to be what your father or mother is? In my case, though, it was very much this. When I was very young, I would go to construction sites on the weekend. My dad was a kind of brutalist architect, mid-60s, -70s [designs], so concrete castings, you know? And I used to love going into those. My dad would take me up the structures. I’m running up 20-story buildings that have been just poured. The sense of seeing my dad draw during the week and then on the weekend I could see and touch these things, it made me want to be like him. So I drew and tried to be him.
My grand-uncle, who was probably more famous than my dad, he designed the Tropicana.
AA: [Smiles] Pretty big deal. He was a Cuban modernist, which most people didn’t even know existed. We visited my uncle’s custom-designed home from the mid-50s, super modern, and the Tropicana, and stuff like that a few years ago.
But you obviously took another path.
AA: I actually wanted to do boats. A boat designer. So during those years, I tended to draw boats. My brother, who’s a little older, was the one who drew houses and built amazing houses in our backyard. A three-story home he built by himself. Architectural drawings first and built to those drawings. Even to this day, I’m a bit shocked by that. But I loved the fluidity of boats, especially growing up in Miami. Then I saw a Jaguar E-Type pull up, which was owned by a client of my dad. I was shocked by this car and its shapes and I just started mimicking those designs from there.
So there’s something in your DNA.
AA: On the other hand, I was an introvert. Like a paralyzed introvert. So when you spend a lot of time by yourself, you need to imagine things because you don’t have them. Like friends and other things.
You get lost in your own imagination and create worlds.
AA: So, I don’t know how much was my lineage and heritage, and how much was my dreaming. Eventually, [for artists] your brain makes everything and then your hands catch up. In my case, that’s what happened. But I cannot deny that I had many before me. I’m sure I had a tailwind.
Something pushing you toward this life.
AA: A massive tailwind behind me. We were salmon.
TD: Swimming in one direction?
AA: [Laughs] I was Nemo.
TD: There’s an unspoken truth that seems to infect all car designers. That you’d rather pen a car design meant for the masses versus something far rarer and meant only for a select few. A Versa compared with a GT-R. Is that something you’ve sought?
AA: I think other than the guys at Volkswagen and Toyota… Let’s just say the guys at Toyota and Volkswagen, and I’ll also include me and my team, are the luckiest because it’s not a Versa versus GT-R. It’s a GT-R and a Patrol and a Versa and EVs and SUVs and everything in between. We have the strangest gift. Sometimes when I look at our team, and we have 800 people, and I’m looking out, and of course they’re tired, because we work our butts off, but we get to design all of those things. So, I don’t have that issue of “rather” do this or that.
Editor's Note: At this point, Albaisa looks over at a nearby minder and asks if he can say what he's working on right now. The answer: He cannot.
AA: [Chuckles] Let’s just say, I’m literally going from supercars to cars like Versa. From the ultimate of luxury to EVs. And I always give credit—if it wasn’t for Tesla, we wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing. Tesla did something for us [designers], because it’s not about the shape or anything like that, it’s about the idea that all the dreams that you’ve had can happen.
I was about to ask, because of the lack of structure and mechanical components in EVs, do you feel freer to design something much more beautiful than your average car?
AA: Much. Though the problem with freedom, it really depends on the point of view or where you’re at. We’ve been freed from all the mechanical issues—though it’s not just the EV drivetrains, it’s the connectivity too—and all the mechanical components disappearing, but then we have another issue with the batteries and where to put the batteries.
They’re not small.
AA: Right. Solid-state batteries are the promise, but it’s not tomorrow. What we’ve been trying to understand where the battery pack skateboard, the magic carpet and the little watermelons, that’s all that defines the powertrain. I’m not shitting you. And you have all the safety envelope for the humans, but you have none of the mechanical stuff in between that.
You’ll also see very soon our cars come out with almost no physical buttons and stuff like that. So the eye and the hand and the gesture will replace mechanical things.
TD: How do you set engineers to that task when so much of their training is in the physical world?
AA: One of the biggest things we have is how you recruit in this situation. Where design is much more about software engineers more than mechanical engineers. You need designers that have a little bit of film editing, with the ability to transition information you must know right now to entertainment to...
TD: User interface designers?
AA: Yes. This has changed my world. I’m very proud of my relationship with Toyota. As soon as Simon [Humphries] took over design there—and he's also a foreigner like me in Japan—I called him over to have lunch. I said, “Let’s talk, because we’re similar.” So we shared stuff and I was inspired and I reformed our [UI] design processes to be able to better adapt to the ever-changing environment.
I couldn’t imagine trying to do this a few years ago, especially how much I spend on animation. I employ short filmmakers animation specialists, content people. It’s crazy. I count myself very lucky that I sought efficiencies because I’ve had to reinvest in these things.
TD: It’s interesting to hear you talk about seeking efficiencies because you said that a first sketch of a car is “a delicate flower that’s then bombarded with technical restraint.” So, you’re taking that restraint to the entirety of the design and engineering process.
AA: But I don’t want [my people] to feel it. In my case, I’ve taken everything I can onto my plate so that there’s very little awareness of technical and financial issues. I’ve focused my team into the interaction between the human and their ship. There’s a beautiful word in Japan, this word engawa. An engawa is a deck, normally in between the interior of the house and the exterior yard. In Japan, in the old days, they’d keep the screens open and let this engawa be an emotional space between outside and inside. And most of the interactivity that we’re making for user interface, I refer to as engawa, because I believe there’s you and your stuff and that in between is where you can make a difference.
Right now, everyone is being bombarded by content and we’re about to go into the era where you’ll have access to thousands of apps and kitsch and how will you deal with that? That’s where we’re in right now. We’re still dreaming and I find this super exciting, but how do you integrate content that’s mostly technical and critical to someone’s real desires? Like, why do I have to touch a button? Why doesn’t the car recognize my habits? And how does the car show you it knows this without intruding in your life? We’re dealing with major, major stuff.
TD: How does that work in a company based in such a technologically-savvy part of the world?
AA: I’m lucky because Japan is going through a technological renaissance so I’m hiring short filmmakers and animators and I’m bringing them in and asking them to show me a transition from something quite dry and technical to something exciting and entertaining. And how do they blend those elements? You’ll start seeing some versions of that real soon. If you go to Tokyo Motor Show you’ll see it.
With that push toward the technological, is there room for traditionally defined luxury?
AA: I’ll answer it this way. For the most part, we’ve not talked about how we’re Japanese. Even internally, we don’t talk about being Japanese.
AA: To talk about Japanese DNA internally had been something you just couldn’t do. And I didn’t notice it, but about four and a half years ago, Shiro [Nakamura, Nissan's now retired Senior Vice President] and I were doing an interview together, and I’m sure this caused great tension within him, but they asked him “Is Infiniti and Nissan Japanese?” Because he’s Japanese, he danced around it. Touch it and back out of it. The interviewer said, “Ok, Alfonso, what do you feel about it?” and I answered, “We’re Japanese. What are you kidding me?” I was a bit sassy, but I believe this is a massive asset.
The reality of being Japanese is motoneshi, a sense of hospitality, a sense of craftsmanship. It’s not done enough, so I have had to make sure that’s understood. I had a huge meeting a year ago with [Nissan’s President and Chief Executive Officer Hiroto] Saikawa-san, the big boss, and the bosses of the other brands. I showed them a movie we made about the meaning of being Japanese and the meaning of being Japanese in the sense of how to make artifacts, how to make beautiful luxurious objects. They watched it. It ended. They were silent. Everyone.
In Japanese culture, before you do anything, you think about the implication on society, you think about the implication on the people next to you, you consider the potential waste that it has on the materials, the efforts to create those materials, the general risk, and then you do it. For a Latin man, it’s the most frustrating part about working in the Japanese system. But there’s a beauty in it. So if you think about a culture like that, and then you think of a premium car, which this is what the movie was about, and I went step by step with “If you accept that we’re Japanese craftsmen, then when you do seam lines they go like this, when you do a body it’s like this, when you do glass it’s like that, when you do doors they go like this, and I went on with bong, bong, bong, bong, you have something to latch onto and design around.
So Saikawa-san turned to the head of all engineering after the movie and asked after his pause, “You can make a car like that?” And he said, “I’m going to.” That’s my biggest achievement. So if I’m gone tomorrow, I’ve done that.
That bleeds into a perfect segue. After your 30-plus year career at Nissan and Infiniti, what else do you still want to do?
AA: It’s hard because I don’t think we’ve yet achieved this level...I’ve not achieved this level where when people see [our cars], they see power and consideration and harmony. But I have some models in Japan that are very close. In those terms, we’ve found some words of meaning in Japanese history, such as ma, which roughly translates to the mastery of the empty space, that have helped me toward those goals. When I heard this, I fell in love with this term, which was brought to me by a Russian guy.
That’s usually how it goes.
AA: [chuckles] Japan is probably like any other culture. You’re American, like me?
AA: If you ask us what it is to be American, I think we can only really touch the basic stuff. It’s difficult to truly define. The same for the Japanese. But for Westerners who come into the company, we see the big things, the obvious. With a little bit of digging deeper, we find words that mirror the deep things we feel. So, this Russian guy found ma and I fell in love with it. I asked my coworkers if his translation was correct and they laughed and said, “yeah, it absolutely is.” But this isn’t a concept they think about.
Yet, you’d think they would. You were just talking about the self-restraint and producing the least amount of waste. That’s mastery of the empty space.
AA: Yes, but it’s just natural. Just like for us, we’re not able to truly describe the freedom that we have. As soon as this word came into my psyche and I started using it, you could see it, they all had this epiphany of their own.
Another word was kubuku, which is the root word of kubuki which is the dramatic theater, but means slanted and comes from the forest where all the trees are vertical, but one is slanted and there’s a beauty in that. They embrace this irregularity.
So for all these cars we’re doing, for both Nissan and Infiniti, there’s this sense of ma, but the elements that you recognize as defining a character are all a bit slanted, a bit unusual. Kubuku. Hopefully, in the white [Inspiration] concept cars, you would feel that there’s some irregularity in the shape in the design.
TD: It’s not what you’d expect in a car.
AA: It’s not normal, but it’s not unnatural and that’s what we’re looking for. That’s what I’m looking for. [laughs] Very abstract, very abstract. But as an introverted kid at heart still, that’s enough to make something in the world like that.
Got a tip? Want to talk? Email the author at Jonathon@thedrive.com or find him on Twitter @jonathon_klein.