By Rob Ludwig

There is nothing like January in Detroit. A line of Smart Cars rolls by... blistering cold weather, slush covered sidewalks, and soakers: it must be time for the NAIAS. And so begins the annual ritual known as the North American International Auto Show, wet feet and all. With the stakes rising every year, the world’s automakers are hungry for booth designs that command attention and brand identity. As Detroit Free Press journalist John Gallagher put it, “Want to catch some of the most innovative designs at this year’s North American International Auto Show? Just look up.”

Driving the Brand
Creating an environment that speaks to the customer and relates brand identity has been the driving force in recent auto show booth designs, and this year is no exception. Automakers are trying to sell brands, experiences and lifestyles, in addition to a car’s attributes and features.

So what separates the new Ford Mustang from its Daimler Chrysler rival Dodge Challenger? About 50 feet and no less than 800 theatrical lighting fixtures doing their thing. With booth budgets in excess of $1 million, it becomes clear that what used to sell cars—a beautiful model standing next to a beautiful model—is just not enough any more.

“We’re into creating an environment that’s specific to the brand, as opposed to just featuring the lighting on the vehicles,” states designer Howard Werner of Lightswitch. “For the Chrysler Group, it’s very specific to creating an overall environment: the Chrysler elegance as opposed to the texture and organic nature of a Jeep. It’s a philosophy that works throughout the booth design, the exhibitory design and also the lighting.”

Illuminart’s Stefan Graf, who has been designing for the automotive industry for several years, adds, “The style and character of the fixture and how it relates to the architecture is an important design consideration.”

During a booth carry-over from one year to the next, designers start their projects around mid-summer. Design teams are serious about searching out new technology, and about holding off until the last minute to pull the trigger on deciding which products best fit the needs of their booth design philosophy. It can make any lighting industry supplier, who is used to working under tight deadlines, have serious fits about delivering sizable rigs in a matter of days instead of weeks. But that’s “just in time” delivery and another day at the office for automotive industry types, so we better get used to it.

Technocrats Abound
’Scuse me...Pardon me...‘Scuse me... Man, this place is crowded...It’s full of...HID Fixtures? Yep. Automated fixtures? Got ‘em. LED Fixtures? For sure. Fiber Optic Lighting? You know it. Ethernet? It’s all over the place. Wireless Ethernet? In the flesh. Large format LED Video? Only the latest technology. Truss? Yeah, it’s everywhere, but you can’t see it because it’s hidden by all those soft goods. One thing is certain; during press week, you cannot walk more than 100 feet in the Cobo Center without bumping into a lighting, set or video designer. Take away all the cars and this place looks like Pro Production or LDI or PLASA. As an example, let’s pose a question: how hard is it for five of Lightswitch’s principals to get together in the same place at the same time? Answer: nearly impossible, unless, of course, it’s early January in Detroit, where they are responsible for five NAIAS booth designs in addition to press events and the charity preview.

That’s because they, and many other LDs, are needed to specify and oversee the gigantic designs that take up a decent portion of their annual business. It’s also why much of the technology used at the show is cutting-edge. NAIAS pushes the design envelope. With more than 18 years of experience, GM lighting designer Tom Bagnasco, of Lighting Design Services, has been doing this as long as anyone, and he knows that bucking the system and using new technologies is what this show is all about. He remarks how his use of new technology has kept him designing for the world’s largest auto manufacturer, and he notes that GM’s booth, which consists of eight universes of DMX, was programmed via wireless Ethernet, using an MA Lighting grandMA console. This is technology bliss...

From atop the Dodge booth, you can see clear across the roofline at the mass of hundreds of lighting fixtures. From any vantage point, it’s easy to see multiple LED video displays, and although not new, there’s even an “intelligent” waterfall that spells out the words Jeep, 4X4 and USA as it mystifies curious onlookers.

A Paradigm in Design
Arguably, Nissan/Infiniti could be entirely to blame for the phenomenon known as “branding” automobiles at the NAIAS. “Four years ago, when it was designed, they spent a great amount of time and energy to create a unique architectural and environmental definition of what the Nissan was,” explains Lightswtich’s Chris Medvitz.

According to Medvitz, Nissan made a brilliant move and commissioned a Japanese architectural firm, Fumita Studio, to establish their booth’s conceptual guidelines. Designed and built by George P. Johnson, their booth has the same clean look and sleek lines as their driving machines. It is decidedly Nissan and says, “I’m sleek, I’m contemporary, I’m cool and I’m full of advanced technology.”

“It’s become a definable piece of architecture for the show floor... The Nissan booth has become like a building; it has a very distinctive architectural look to it,” adds Lightswitch’s John Featherstone.

To ensure everyone is receiving the same message, new Chromatek 6mm LED screens, made in Japan by Hibino, are used to provide the onlooker with an added touch of stimuli that’s reminiscent of Tokyo’s famous Shibuya Crossing.

With that said, this is the last year Nissan’s current booth design will be employed at the NAIAS... But next year’s design is already underway.

As a counterpoint, its interesting to note how the conceptual branding of a car will precede the new vehicles introduction & actual sale. As in Mercedes’ “Smart” booth, in which stylish mini cars, highly fuel efficient and unavailable as yet in the USA, were lifting consumer eyelids by the thousands before even being sold to USA carbuyers. A crafty campaign of edgy guerrilla marketing stunts made them the Show’s big hit right out under bigger brands’ noses!

There is nothing like January in Detroit.