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Designing Women


Close your eyes and imagine what the inside of General Motors Design Studio looks like.  

What do you see? Something that looks like a cross between an artist’s studio and a sculpture gallery. And if you guessed either one of those, you are very close.

Now, picture this: 

A team of young, diverse artists sculpting intricate, sleek model cars out of thick brown clay. That’s right, and if you look closely, you’ll see Karyn Leland Najjar managing the entire sculpting process for global compact utility vehicles interiors.

Crystal Windham

Crystal Windham has spent much of her life in Detroit and all of her professional life with GM Design—with one small exception. 

As a student at the College for Creative Studies (CCS) in Detroit, Crystal interned for Ford in the summer of 1992.  But since then, including a 1993 internship, she has been involved with GM Design. 

After graduating from CCS in 1994 with a degree in Industrial Design, Crystal began her career at GM on a rotational assignment that allowed her to work on the Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Chevrolet and Saturn brands. 

Following a production-oriented design project, Crystal accepted a year-long assignment in Russelsheim, Germany, where she worked on the team exploring sharing internal and external design components globally. 

Crystal returned to the U.S. in 1998 as lead designer for the 2004 Malibu and Malibu Maxx interiors, where she ushered the vehicles from conception through production.   

Crystal earned an MBA in 2002 and was promoted to Design Manager for mid-size car interiors.  Her assignments there have included work on the 2006 G-6 coupe and convertible, the 2007 Saturn Aura and the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu.  

She takes tremendous satisfaction in her work at GM.  “As designers, we’ve been empowered,” Crystal said.  “There is an exciting renaissance of design going on at GM and I am thrilled to be a part of it.” 

As one of GM’s top young designers, Crystal finds the rich diversity of GM’s design teams one of the company’s great strengths.  “The diversity of our teams reflect the diversity of our global customer base.  It is exciting to be part of such a dynamic company whose products are recognized all over the world as stylish and innovative,” she says.  “I am proud to be a part of it.”  

Outside work, Crystal is passionate about glass blowing, an activity that allows her a different form of creative expression from her work at GM.

Esther Martinez

When she was younger, first-generation Mexican-American Esther Martinez never suspected she would be a part of GM’s noted Design Team.  Esther was born in Illinois and raised in Texas.  Eventually, she found her way to Michigan, where she spent several years working in a hospital.  When the hospital went bankrupt, Esther, a single parent of two toddlers, participated in a Michigan-based program called Focus: Hope, which helped her return to school and eventually land an internship at GM. 

Esther completed her degree in Vehicle Design in 2004 and is currently a Studio Design Engineer at GM. She also knows the value of what she learned, and that is something she tells to countless Latino/Latina young people: “Education is vital and no one can take that away from you,” Esther said.  “They can take away money or material possessions but not what you’ve learned.”    

Among other vehicles, Esther has worked on the Cadillac V16 show car and the Saturn Aura.  Her work on those vehicles reinforced for Esther GM’s commitment to outstanding design.  “GM understands the importance of design,” Esther remarked, “and you can tell that by the vehicles that the company has now.” 

The most challenging part of Esther’s work is to “sell the idea” of a vehicle, she says.  But the confidence she has in GM’s mission gives her the confidence to push hard for the ideas she thinks are most effective.  So far, the results have been pretty impressive. 

Esther’s life and her work at GM Design personify another of the pieces of advice she gives to young people: “If you want to do something, the sky is the limit.  If you work hard, you will find the opportunity to do it.”

Vicki Vlachakis

Growing up in Pasadena, California, Vicki Vlachakis was always fascinated by design.  She loved to draw and enrolled herself in Saturday art school classes when she was 15 years old.  She loved the 3-D aspect of product design specifically, and soon found herself drawing cars all the time for fun.  Even though her parents are Greek, Vicki may not have known that the “auto” in the word automobile is from the Greek language.  She did know she loved cars though.  Drawing cars was more than a hobby to Vicki; it was a passion.   

After an internship at Audi Design in Germany, where she learned a great deal about designing vehicle interiors, Vicki graduated from the Transportation Design Art Center in Pasadena in 1995. Soon thereafter, Vicki was offered a job in Stuttgart, Germany with Mercedes Benz’s Advanced Design Studio.  She jumped at the opportunity to return to Europe and learn even more about global trends in advanced car design. 

In 2000, General Motors recruited Vicki to join GM’s Advanced Design Studio in California.  Vicki had heard about GM’s renaissance through design and taking part in this turnaround intrigued her.  Thrilled to be back in California, Vicki flourished at her new job.  She soon became GM’s Design Manager and played a key role in the highly acclaimed 2002 Solstice Concept and the 2003 Chevy SS Concept.  Her most prized achievements, however, are the 2006 Pontiac Solstice and the 2007 Saturn Sky.  Vicki points out that those cars “both have a purity of design that we worked hard to preserve.  It’s about taking the initial theme that everyone was excited about and refining it until it rolls of the assembly line.” Apparently car buyers agree–these hot-selling convertible roadsters are flying out of GM showrooms across the country. 

At just 32 years of age, Vicki has already accomplished many of her life’s ambitions.  But her talents don’t stop with design.  Vicki is fluent in German and Greek. She is also an accomplished sports enthusiast who loves to surf, snowboard, ski and hike. But at the end of the day, she still loves to open her favorite fashion magazines to look at the latest runway trends – paying close attention to the latest designs.  For Vicki, “automotive design has a lot to do with dramatic shapes, perfect proportion, and jewelry-like detailing.”

Karyn Leland Najjar

As a Sculpting Manager for GM, Karyn oversees a talented group of creative sculptors, many of whom are women, whose specialty is sculpting cars. Karyn grew up in Detroit and loved the idea of building objects and working three dimensionally. Her job at GM is a dream come true. “Most people don’t get it,” she says. “I have my own studio at home and work in a studio at GM. I am an artist, a sculptor. But I build cars.” 

When Karyn started at GM in 1998 as a sculptor, there were few women in her department. Now, she says, eight short years later, “Our team is young, diverse, creative and a lot of fun.” She adds, “We are pushing the envelope. If you aren’t comfortable with change, you shouldn’t be here.” 

On the cars and trucks GM is now making, Karyn says: “They blow me away.” She drives GM’s new hot convertible Saturn Sky which just came out. “GM has come a long way,” she adds. “We are getting better every day.”

Liz Wetzel

Liz Wetzel has loved automobiles all her life. 

You might say it’s in her blood: she’s the fourth generation of Wetzels to pursue a career in auto making, dating all the way back to her great-grandfather, who worked as a tool and die maker at the Hudson Motor Car Company.  Her mother and father, who worked for GM, filled her weekends with car shows, races and rallies.

But she never dreamed that her passion for design would lead her into the world of cars until she toured the General Motors Design Center during her college years at the University of Michigan School of Art and Design.  Wetzel was entranced by the airbrush renderings of vehicle design proposals on the walls, sketches on the tables, and full-size clay models.  “Even the smell of the clay was enticing!” she says.

Out of college, she took a position with GM’s Advanced Vehicle Engineering, but soon moved into Design, mostly with Cadillac.  Under her leadership, the Seville and STS were awarded “Interior Design of the Year Award—Luxury Category” by Inside Automotives Magazine in both 1997 and 1998.  She rose to Vehicle Chief Designer in 1997—the first female to ever hold that position at GM.  

Now as Global Brand Design Director, Liz has one of the most challenging jobs at GM.  It is also one of the most rewarding.  Together with a team of 10 young designers, Liz is helping GM define the soul and core of each brand.  Her mission is to crystallize the true essence of each brand.   

For Wetzel, the people she works with are just as important as the cars and she always credits her team for their many successes.  Her management philosophy also comes from her parents: “Enthusiasm gets you a long way,” they’d say.  And they’re right, Wetzel has found.  “Enthusiasm is contagious,” she says.  “If you’re excited and showing interest in what people are doing, they’re going to get excited, too.” And they share Wetzel’s passion for automobiles.  “We’re all car nuts,” she says. “We love to talk about cars.” 

Wetzel does manage, however, to find some time for design even outside GM, when she and her husband are not busy raising their two sons.  She paints abstract art—acrylics on canvas.  And she designs furniture, which her husband sometimes builds into reality.  Their dining room table is her own design, “simple, and symmetrical,” she says—themes that show up in her GM work as well.

Go girls, Go!

Madelyn Miller is a travel and food writer who contributes to, ,, ,

She founded www.carladynews a few years ago after being invited to do a test drive and strives to give the female point of view. Madelyn is proud to be a member of the Texas Auto Writers Association.

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