The Handmade Tale
Automobile|December 2019
As Lexus marches into the future, increasingly it’s embracing the storied traditions and skills of Japan’s past.
Arthur St. Antonie

LEXUS AND INFINITI

IT’S HARD TO remember just what a massive impact Lexus and Infiniti had when they appeared in 1989. Until then, luxury cars were either American (read: dated and chintzy) or European (expensive and faulty), and buying one usually meant a forced familiarity with the dealership’s service department.

No one at the time thought a credible luxury car was within the skill set of the pragmatic Japanese. Honda’s then-new Acura division, which entered the market in 1986, had done little to dispel that notion, but then the first Lexus and Infiniti cars appeared, and they changed everything. Everything. These were proper luxury flagships: leather-lined, V-8 powered, and smooth as silk. They were five figures cheaper than the Europeans, and they worked flawlessly in the days when first-year cars were expected to be bug-ridden.

Today, luxury buyers can choose a wide range of cars from a profusion of brands, of which Lexus and Infiniti are just two more players. But 30 years ago, they created a revolution; we look back at how Lexus and Infiniti changed the luxury car world in the winter of 1989.

Aichi Prefecture, Japan – I’M STANDING INSIDE the Lexus Design Dome, the company’s top creative facility, not far from Nagoya, the country’s third most populous city. My smartphone, laptop, and iPad have been temporarily confiscated—they all have cameras, and photography is strictly forbidden under the vaulted ceiling of this secretive safe house for future Lexus concepts. At the moment, though, I’m not trying to sneak peeks at anything off-limits. Instead, I’m staring transfixed at a sheet of burgundy cloth lying on a presentation table.

Like an intricate piece of origami, the cloth is pleated in row after exquisite row, each arcing gracefully downward as the folds within the rows gradually grow smaller and smaller. It’s a stunning work of fabric sculpture, but it’s not a museum piece. This is the door trim included as part of a $23,100 Executive package on the Lexus LS 500 flagship sedan. Each pleated piece is folded entirely by hand—from a single sheet of cloth.

This brings us to Yuko Shimizu. She works at the small Sankyo Co. Ltd. studio in the beauteous Japanese city of Kyoto. Her specialty is hand-pleating wedding dresses. Yet when a sample of Shimizu’s remarkable skills came to the attention of Lexus, the automaker realized it had discovered a shining example of timeless Japanese craftsmanship to showcase in its products. The transition from bridal gowns to cars was far from easy. Given the challenges of surviving in an automotive environment—heat, dust, rowdy schoolkids, etc.—the cloth supplied to Shimizu was far thicker and less malleable than any she’d employed before. As a result, it took her four years to perfect the special origami-like technique required to deliver the complex Lexus “L motif” pattern. That Shimizu ultimately succeeded, though, was no surprise. She is a takumi, a master artisan in the traditional Japanese mold. Today, each of her pleated panels requires three days of demanding, hands-on effort to produce.

I turn to Koichi Suga, general manager of the Lexus Design Division and chief designer of the new LS. “If these are all handmade,” I ask, “how many pleated pieces can possibly be delivered given such a time-consuming process?”

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