Welcome to our new interview feature, Roadshow Asks, where we find out how people in the automotive industry snagged their dream careers. We’ll interview everyone from designers to race car drivers to get an idea of what their job entails, their education background and the role technology will play in their future.
Chris Piscitelli is a Senior Exterior Designer for Jeep. He joined the company in 2013 and worked as lead designer for the new. He also played a part in bringing us the Jeep concepts at the Easter Jeep Safari for the past three years. Piscitelli has a BFA in Industrial Design from the Rhode Island School of Design and a second BFA in Transportation Design from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan.
Piscitelli designed three of the seven concepts Jeep brought to the Easter Jeep Safari in Moab this year. He looked to the past with the 1990’s themed Grand One, a Craigslist-bought Grand Cherokee from 1993, complete with a Game Boy, a period-correct cellphone and a little hidden compartment for your post-trail cocktails. The Jeep Safari concept is meant to let families explore nature together, offering an excellent view for all passengers. The Jeep Quicksand is a 392 Hemi-powered hot rod/dune basher that’s full of humorous details, if you know where to look.
I caught up with Piscitelli at Easter Jeep Safari where Jeep was showing off its latest and greatest.
Emme Hall: What was your first car?
Chris Piscitelli: A 1965 Dart GT convertible. I grew up around old cars. My dad is a big old car fanatic so I was always wrenching on them. I’ve had an unhealthy addiction to cars for a long time. My old man and I fixed up the Dart and I still have it. Doesn’t run, but I still have it. I will get to it at some point.
EH: What was your first automotive job and how did you get it?
CP: At the College for Creative Studies we had a senior show and all the companies came down to look at the students’ work. GM picked me up in May, 2006 and I spent the next seven years in both interior and exterior advanced studios. Getting a job in car design is super tough. There were about 15 students in my class and only six or seven of us got hired into the industry. I think it was me and maybe three others that went to GM. I worked at GM for almost eight years, before I started working for Jeep.
EH: Normally I ask about an average day at work, but getting to design these concepts is really special. What is the process?
CP: Well, you have to think on the fly so there are a lot of napkin sketches. You’re starting from an existing car, so you always have certain parameters that are set in place. The fun part is seeing how far you can push those parameters. How much can you depart from what is a very recognizable and iconic car and how you can push it into a direction people haven’t seen yet.
After the sketch and ideas are on paper, it’s not like a typical design process where you go into clay. With the concepts, you go right into development. I went right into data, working with math modelers to create a data set for the body. There is also a lot of discussion about wanting to move the axles this much, change the proportions this much, etc. It’s a little bit of a mix between sketching and just trying to explain things on the fly. Expressing the design through math modeling is really wild. There isn’t a physical property or model you can look at and touch, so you just do the math, look at it in the computer in 3D modeling and hit go and start making parts.
This is my third year doingand now more than ever we’ve used the computer to visualize things. Even colors. We tried a bunch of different colors on the Quicksand but once we saw it on the computer in black we knew that was it.
Once we have the plans finalized they are sent out to the shops we work with in Detroit and they start building.
EH: What is the most tedious thing about your current job?
CP: With the concepts there is nothing tedious. It’s just racing against the clock. There is no room for tedium where you’re building things in a couple months. Managing the time and teams is the toughest part, because everyone needs something and they all needed it yesterday. So it’s just being the go-to guy and knowing how to allocate resources. At the beginning there were a few weekends where I saw my wife and kids, but towards the end we were all pulling 18-20 hour days, seven days a week. The shop guys were working to the wee hours of the morning. They would go home, shower and come back. We were living at the shop. It’s a mad dash and everyone is at their wits’ end but as it starts to come together it all start to be worth it, especially for me when I see my pencil sketch come to life. I get worried that the shop guys have all these hours into it and that they their annoyed they are working so hard, but when they start telling you “Hey, this thing is really badass,” that’s really validating.
EH: How does tech affect the future of your job?
CP: As an artist I depend on tech, but to a certain extent I am a little old school in that I do sketch manually. I sketch on the computer as well and that continually evolves. I teach sketching and car design at my alma mater, the College for Creative Studies. The computer is a great tool, but the computer won’t fix problems unless you have the base artistic skills. I think tech will only make things better as 3D scanning and printing come along. They really enable creative design.
EH: What automotive trend makes your blood boil?
CP: The discussion around autonomy in the sense that people say it will eliminate the need for design. They think that if cars are self-driving, why is there a need to design a car? There will always be a need for design. We have a relationship with cars that is unlike most products out there. I don’t see it going away.
EH: What is the one project you’ve always wanted to tackle professionally but have never been able to do?
CP: I’m feeling pretty good, honestly. I was the lead designer on the Compass, so that was my first full production car from bumper to bumper. That was huge and exciting, and I get to design some of the concept vehicles for Easter Jeep Safari. I’m a happy guy.
EH: If you weren’t working in the automotive industry, what would you be doing?
CP: I would probably be working in the product world. Like consumer stuff or furniture. It sounds lame when you say, “I want to design blenders!” but I’ve always been interested in that aspect of design. However, I’m so passionate about cars, about automotive history and automotive art. It would be a tough sell to yank me out of that now.