Toyota's Calty Design Research in Newport Beach, CA - Click above for high-res image gallery

In anticipation of the debut of the all-new 2011 Toyota Sienna at the 2009 LA Auto Show in December, the folks responsible for the minivan invited us to take a peek inside their Calty design center in Newport Beach, California. Calty Design Research is the Toyota design center that created production cars like the '78, '90 and '00 Toyota Celica, '07 FJ Cruiser, '07 Tundra, '08 Highlander, '08 Scion xB, and '09 Venza, as well as the Lexus LF-C, FT-SX, Scion t2B, Scion FUSE, FT-HS and A-BAT concepts.

It's not very often that they open the doors of this design center to the public – let alone journalists – so we jumped at the chance. We spent a day with the group directly responsible for the 2011 Sienna and also met with Calty and Toyota officials. It was an enlightening day in which we learned about what inspired this third generation people-hauler, what Calty offers to differentiate it from other Toyota design houses, and why full-size clay models are still so important in the world of design, among other things.

Follow the jump to travel with us past the velvet rope and into Calty.

Way back in 1973, Toyota had the bold idea to open a design center in Southern California. They figured the California lifestyle and their proximity to the home of cinematic arts would inspire the designers in a unique way. The idea was revolutionary at the time, although today it's almost hard to imagine an automaker not having a SoCal office of some sort. It's strange to think that with the establishment of Calty, Toyota became the first major automaker to set up a design facility in the region.

Calty moved around a bit before landing in its current Newport Beach home, a facility that was expanded to its current 85,000 square feet during an expansion in 1991. Eventually, another branch of Calty was established in Ann Arbor, Michigan as well. Combined, the two campuses employ about 100 people. Newport Beach is responsible for the more "future think" designs, while Ann Arbor gets to work on the more real-world, production-car design development. Basically, SoCal is the home of the dreamers and Michigan reins them in and makes their visions doable.

Calty is one of five design houses that Toyota has around the globe. When a new project comes up, the company picks three of these groups to work up design proposals before choosing which design to go with. Designing for Toyota, Lexus and Scion, Calty has contributed to a long list of vehicles in its 36 years of existence:

Design Projects:
2011 Sienna, 2009 Venza, 2008 Highlander, 2008 Scion xB, 2007 Tundra, 2006 FJ Cruiser, 2005 Avalon, 2004 Scion tC, 2003 FJ, 2002 Matrix, 2001 RAV4, 2000 Celica, 2000 Avalon, 1999 Solara, 1998 Corolla, 1997 Prius, 1995 Tacoma. 1991 Lexus SC400, 1990 Previa, 1989 Celica, 1979 Hi-Lux, 1978 Celica

Auto Show Projects:
2008 A-BAT (Detroit), 2007 FT-HS (Detroit), 2006 Scion FUSE (New York), 2006 F3R (Detroit), 2005 Scion t2B (New York), 2005 FT-SX (Detroit), 2004 Lexus LFC (New York), 2004 FTX (Detroit), 2003 HPX (New York), 2001 RSC (Chicago), 1997 Solara/Convertible (Chicago), 1995 FLV (Tokyo), 1985 FXV-2 (Tokyo), 1979 FXV (Tokyo), 1977 F100 (Tokyo)

The 2011 Toyota Sienna was the vehicle they brought us in to see, and as we learned about the new-gen minivan, we also learned about the design process at Calty. We started out with a brief overview of the operations, a refresher on Calty's timeline, and a glimpse at some of the inspirational objects, materials and images the designers utilize on campus. Particularly fun was the History of Automotive Color, where color chips and actual interior materials are mounted on the wall to give designers a tactile reference along with the visuals. It's amazing to see what some companies were able to get away with in the past.

After working our way up to the presentation room with Calty President Kevin Hunter, we met two of the young men most responsible for interior and exterior design, Ben and Ian. Even while throwing out designer-speak phrases like "vibrant clarity," "distinctive nose graphic," and "unity of essentials," it was entertaining to see the enthusiasm this team had, even while facing the immense challenge of making a minivan cool. We learned about the movement from design ideas to a production vehicle, where Newport thinks up themes and general outlines and Ann Arbor turns it into a real-world vehicle with equal parts style and functionality.

Our next stop was a walk outside, where we saw the finished product along with the new color palette Toyota has chosen for it. New colors exclusive to the Sienna are mocha and dark teal. They are newer, trendier colors that you'd swear came straight out of your local Starbucks and they really help make this new Sienna look like a luxury vehicle. After lunch, we had a chance to poke and prod the vehicle and the patient Toyota staff even answered all of our probing questions. Before letting us go, the Calty crew had one final surprise for us, which ended up being the most enlightening part of the day.

They set us up with clay forms and a set of tools in the modeling room, then had a couple of their master modelers show us how it's done. We only had about half an hour to work out our own clay Siennas, but in that time, we came to appreciate the complexity of adding flair to something that needs to seat eight or haul sheets of plywood home from Lowe's. Toyota still uses full-size clay models and the majority of the work is done by hand. Although there is some automation to the sculpting, the finished work is done by master modelers who sometimes spend three years apprenticing before they get to touch any of the final mockups. They even have to craft their own tools, just like a new Jedi.

Even more amazing was hearing from Mike and Larry that they were trained by a master crafter from Japan, who worked with them for several years before returning home, finally trusting them to do it on their own. Mike told us that humans are still needed in the process because a machine-made vehicle ends up looking somehow unnatural, with finished designs that look like they were created on a computer rather than crafted by artful humans. Once the full-size models are finished, they are measured and scanned for the final dimensions.

Those models may be reshaped a few times before the final design is realized, but once finalized they are baked and made permanent. The clay that the sculptors use is even a special proprietary clay that comes all the way from Japan. It is said to be less caustic than the typical clay used by American modelers. Because of that they try to reuse as much of the scraps as they can, putting the material back through a huge meat grinder to produce new bars for their next project.

We felt honored to be presented with our own feeble attempts at modeling as we left. Getting a sneak peek inside Calty definitely made us appreciate the design of the new Sienna even more than if we had just seen it unveiled on stage in LA. It also reminded us to think of the designers when we see a new vehicle that doesn't match our own aesthetic preferences. At the same time, it also makes us despise poor designs even more, because we have seen how it can turn out if it's done right. And like they say, it's just as easy to create a good design as it is to create a bad one, so why not do it right?

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