Auto designer combines luxury, sensibility

By Lauren Kelly

The annual Chicago Auto Show is happening this week, and The Chronicle got a chance to talk to Alexandra Dymowska, a GM designer and Columbia alumna.

Dymowska, who graduated from Columbia in 2000, studied art & design after her family immigrated to Chicago from Poland. She said the Chicago Auto Show is an opportunity for Columbia product design students to be influenced and inspired.

The day before the event opened to the public, Dymowska talked to The Chronicle about her experience at Columbia, her work and the future of the automotive industry.

The Chronicle: What did you learn at Columbia that has helped with your job?

Alexandra Dymowska: Something said at the graduation ceremony by Dr. Carter was about “authoring the history of our times.” I really keep that in mind. It helps you have a very active approach, as opposed to passive approach, to your work and to your life. It forces you to think that you are creating the world of tomorrow, today. In nothing is that more true than design and art.

I really thought of Columbia as having provided me with a classical kind of fine arts education. It’s definitely a strong part of my position as a designer today.

What were the first things you started working on at GM?

I began working in the Color Interim Studio. I was working on generating ideas for advanced projects.

What the Color Interim Studio does in a nutshell is if those people didn’t do their jobs, the cars would be naked. These designers are the people who make proposals about exterior colors and what forms of the interior will match up-the materials, colors, patterns, textures. They dictate the placement of these details that can make or break the form. The job really requires understanding form, having a really good sense of aesthetics.

What do you think is the most important part of what you do and the connection you create for the customer?

I work primarily with the luxury brands, so for me, it’s really important to understand what the expectations of the luxury customers are. Because once you understand that, it’s easier to make a connection. Design is really about anticipating needs and being proactive.

The audience for the Cadillac brand is expanding. I’m working with materials that will appeal to the younger generation. That’s a high-level view of how to make a connection. But when you get down to the details, it could be about selecting the decorative trim for an interior of a car that sends a cue to the driver; it sets the mood for the interior.

My job as a designer is to help those features come to the surface, so the expectations of the customer are met, and they reflect their personality.

There are many things that are taken into consideration in terms of helping the product connect with the customer.

Given that the economy may be suffering, do you think luxury brands will continue to be a main product for GM? What do you see for the future of the auto industry and your job with the current economic situation?

I think that the luxury brands like Cadillac will continue. They have been part of the American culture for such a long time. Cadillac has always been identifying what luxury is in America. Now it’s expanding, and Cadillac is becoming a global brand.

I don’t think that luxury as an idea will go away. I think what is happening is the definition of luxury is changing.

In the past, we’ve seen two types of luxury customers. One is the “ultra” consumer and the other is the “uber” consumer. The ultra consumer is very conscientious and may look for ecologically sound products. They seek simple things. On the other hand, the uber consumer is looking for things that will help them show off. They’re interested in extravagance and exuberance and things that are over-the-top.

What we’re predicting is that these extreme personas will merge. You can have luxury and be environmentally and socially responsible. I think that’s where we’re heading. It’s about redefining luxury.


Why did you decide to go to Columbia?

I decided to stay in Chicago for college. I lived in Chicago for a long time. My family emigrated from Poland. Columbia seemed very diverse, which is what I was looking for. It turned out to be a really good choice for me. I graduated early; I was there for 3 ½ years. When I was graduating, I thought it was one of the most formative experiences in my entire life. I happened to have really great professors and overall a really great academic experience.

What was your career path after college?

I went on to get a Master’s degree at Pratt Institute in New York.

GM offered me a design position seven months before I even graduated from Pratt. I was lucky enough to have job security before I even graduated. Within two weeks of graduating, I was sitting at my desk at GM.

What have you been working on that will appear at the auto show?

Well, it takes about five years for GM to develop a car. That’s a standard in the industry. I’ve been with GM for a little bit over a year-and-a-half, so nothing that I’ve designed up to this point is going to be seen on the market for another several years. I have worked on developing the aesthetic vision for most of the eight GM brands, but primarily I have been focusing on the Cadillac brand and luxury, luxury trends. That’s become my area of expertise as of late.

A lot of graduating seniors at Columbia are worried about getting a job out of college. What you were just talking about seems like an opening for graduating design students to get in the market and create jobs. Do you think that there will be new opportunities in that regard?

I think that it is a sign of the times that there are definitely less jobs than there have been, generally speaking. But one of the good things coming out of this is the fact that design has become increasingly more important. What you see happening is that large corporations are seeking out young talent who are right-brained thinkers, who will help them have that competitive edge.

There’s a book I will recommend to any Columbia student working in the arts, A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink. What he talks about is how large corporations have been relying very heavily on left-brain thinkers. What the future needs is people who are ambi-minded. I think there are a lot of people like that, at least when I was at Columbia, who thought that way. It’s a matter of realizing, for Columbia students, that that’s their advantage, that they know how to do that.

Do you have any recommendations for graduating seniors about utilizing that idea and getting a job in creating the future of the design industry?

I think that starting anything on your own is a good idea. For a large corporation, it might take a long time to trickle up an idea that is fresh or groundbreaking. It’s much easier to do it when you’re an independent.

A large part of being a designer is communicating your ideas and influencing the work with your idea. You can do that on your own or partnering up with people who are like- minded. There are really two avenues that you can explore. You can work on big products like cars, or influencing the world with your design thought by developing an independent career.

Tell me a little bit more about your project with art in immigrant communities.

My project right before graduate school was an organization here in Chicago called archi-treasures. Its motto is “raising community involvement in the urban landscape.”

The projects I’ve worked on as a design partner is working in an outside classroom in Humboldt Park. I worked primarily with an immigrant Puerto Rican community. I partnered up with Lowell Elementary School that has an adjacent underutilized lot that was overgrown and in need of some care. We acted as a catalyst in helping to activate the assets and creativity in the community. The objective was to create an outdoor classroom, a place for the kids who lived in the city to learn about nature.

The program was designed to be a sustainable space, so once we were out of the picture, the school and the community and the students would be actively involved in preserving and maintaining the space without our continuous input. I believe it has continued so. Every summer I drive by and it looks really amazing and green.

I’ve also worked to create public art with public housing residents, to help them create a sense of ownership in the space they live in.

Do you think any of those people will be inspired to pursue a career in design?

I think that some of them come from an environment that is very economically difficult. Sometimes they need an introduction to the professional world to see what the possibilities are. It helps to open up their minds to other careers that exist. Columbia being around the corner is a great choice, as well.