A Rebel With A Car

Behold, the Nissan Quest. Awash in the glow from four skylights, the Quest was inspired, oddly enough, by the airy, contemporary homes of Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Pebble-grain leather seats suggest sofas in a SoHo loft. A cylindrical pod, which houses the gearshift and stereo, juts from the dash like a postmodern entertainment center. But this is no sleek luxury car. It's a minivan. And to Quest designer Alfonso Eduardo Albaisa's kids, it's a place to play house. "It's hard to get them out of it," he says.

Albaisa is not your typical gearhead. He washed out of car-design school in Detroit in the '80s when he was told his quirky look (Napoleon jackets, bleached white hair) didn't fit Motown's buttoned-down culture. He found refuge at New York's Pratt Institute, where he indulged his passion for furniture and boat design. Albaisa also has architecture in his blood: his father, a Cuban refugee, designed Richard Nixon's Miami home. But he'd given up on cars when Nissan's American design chief at the time, Jerry Hirshberg, happened to catch an exhibition of his motorcycle sketches at Pratt in 1988. Taken with Albaisa's diverse training and unpolished style, Hirshberg hired him. "His drawings were coarse," recalls Hirshberg. "But you could tell he followed his own path." Now, as Nissan has blossomed into a design hothouse, Albaisa, 38, has emerged as one of its most influential stylists.

He's lost the Napoleonic look, but Albaisa can still make the suits squirm. His Japanese bosses balked when he moved the Quest's gauges to the center of the dashboard. "We were not confident," says Nissan chief designer Shiro Nakamura, "and wondered if we should go back to the normal position." The brass ordered up two prototypes--one with gauges behind the steering wheel and one with Albaisa's approach. Albaisa argued that if they were to create a rolling living room, the info center must be placed for all to see--just like the television in the den. To enhance the motif, he put a clip to hold a family photo where the speedometer usually was. That won over the brass.

Though he's been at Nissan for 15 years, Albaisa still relishes giving Detroit's stuffed shirts a reason to sweat. He let NEWSWEEK have a sneak peek at a concept SUV debuting at the Detroit auto show in January. Informally known as the Silver Bullet, it's just 14 feet long, but fits six passengers in pumpkin-colored seats that fold flat. Its sunroof can double as a translucent video screen, playing images of falling leaves or rain. "Things don't have to be mundane," he says. "You can make a statement." With statements like that, Albaisa is driving car design in a new direction.

A Rebel With A Car | News