TOKYO – Shiro Nakamura, the slick-suited, mustachioed design maestro who graduated from trucks to penning some of Nissan’s most daring and memorable cars, will retire after 17 years of pursuing cutting-edge looks that put Japan’s No. 2 carmaker on the map for its styling.
Nakamura steps down amid a wider design shuffle at Nissan Motor Co. that promotes a new generation of stylists, one from inside the company, another from a Germany luxury rival.
Karim Habib, the former head of design at BMW, has been named as global design chief for Nissan’s premium Infiniti brand. Alfonso Albaisa, currently the head of Infiniti design, has been promoted to senior vice president of global design for all of Nissan Motor Co.
Nakamura, 66, who currently serves as senior vice president and chief creative officer, will retire on March 31. Albaisa, 52, takes the reins the following day. Habib, 46, joins Infiniti on July 1.
“I have big shoes to fill,” Albaisa said by email of his appointment to succeed Nakamura.
The personnel shuffle was announced on Tuesday by Nissan and Infiniti in separate statements.
Habib, a Canadian of Lebanese descent, will be based at Nissan’s global technical and design center in Atsugi, Japan, just south of Tokyo, and report to Ablaisa.
“Karim has a strong background and impressive track record in automotive design and the knowledge and mindset to develop a global premium brand” said Infiniti President Roland Krueger, another a BMW transplant. “Design is one of the key pillars of our global brand development at Infiniti. Karim brings unique design skills that will accelerate Infiniti’s progress toward the goal of capturing and expanding our share in the global luxury market.”
At BMW, Habib was responsible for such production and concept cars as the X1, the X2 Concept and the CSL Homage. Before BMW, he worked as head of advanced design for Daimler and helped develop the current Mercedes-Benz C-Class. News of Habib’s departure from BMW first surfaced in January. At the time, it was unclear what he would be doing next.
Before leading Infiniti, Albaisa ran Nissan's U.S. design studio in San Diego and Nissan's European studios. At the luxury marque, Albaisa steered the look of the brand's cool Emerg-E plug-in electric concept from 2012 and designed the swoopy new premium look that gives a more athletic, sculpted look to the lineup, as seen in QX30 and especially the upcoming QX50.
Under Albaisa’s watch, Infiniti also floated the Q80 Inspiration, a large four-door fastback concept that signals the luxury brand’s vision for a sleek and sultry future halo car.
Sexier looks were a big part of Albaisa’s ambition.
In 2013, after becoming lead designer, the Cuban-American Albaisa said he wanted to give Infiniti a more Latin feel that exudes “romance and red-blooded sensuality.”
Nakamura leaves Nissan design in his hands and Habib’s after a stellar career in which Nakamura not only made Nissan known for its design but helped reinvigorated Japanese auto design across the board. His Nissan years marked a dramatic high point for a designer who got his start as a studio draftsman at lowly truck maker Isuzu Motors Ltd. back in 1974.
When the opportunity arose in 1999, he didn’t hesitate to jump ship to Nissan. Three years later, Nakamura got his first big break in penning the third-generation Murano in 2002.
Nakamura said that his design aimed to capture the “shock of the new.”
It was just the first of a long list of edgy designs that turned heads and cultivated Nissan’s reputation for sporty, handsome and sometimes downright quirky cars.
Nakamura presided over recharging Nissan's Z heritage with the 370Z and oversaw the styling of the global GT-R, the intentionally polarizing Juke, the Leaf with its upward bulging headlights, the Cube, Rogue crossover and Maxima sedan, among others.
As guardian of the brand’s aura, Nakamura used design as a fulcrum to change old American perceptions that Nissan was a discount brand while winning new appreciation in Europe.
Nakamura’s urbane persona only helped the cause.
Nakamura’s impeccably tailored silk suits are a personal trademark, along with his manicured moustache. The Osaka native is also a jazz bass player who refuses to carry an iPod for fear that it will limit his discovery of new music. In interviews, he sometimes gushes about his penchant for Italian design, especially Alfa Romeos and Ferraris from the 1960s.
As Nakamura settled into his role as Chief Creative Designer in 2014, he began to ruminate publicly about retirement, but remained a fixture on the auto show circuit.
He also focused on planting kernels of future creativity by opening an independent training program inside Nissan. Students interested in auto design were selected for two- to four-week programs run by Nakamura and his team in Tokyo, with no career promises from Nissan.
Hundreds of young Japanese designers have passed through the programs, with many going to work for Nissan’s competitors, including Toyota and Honda.
“As long as we get the best of them, I'm fine with the others going to other companies,” Nakamura said in a 2014 interview with Automotive News. "In the end, I think the quality of Japanese design is getting better."
Lindsay Chappell contributed to this story.