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TSUGI, Japan -- In a world of digital design, old-school clay models may seem an anachronism that will someday fade away. But Infiniti's top designer says the iconic modeling medium is here to stay.

Alfonso Albaisa, 51, who has spent nearly three decades in design at Nissan Motor Co. and its premium Infiniti brand, says there will always be a need for both clay and computers when conceiving and crafting cars.

If anything, the young stylists coming out of design schools these days are perhaps too skewed toward the two-dimensional digital world, Albaisa told Automotive News.

"A lot of the young kids are in this bubble and a little bit less adventurous in clay. A little timid," said the American designer, who now serves as global design chief at Infiniti.

The familiar red clay used to sculpt full-size tangible models, by contrast, evokes "artistry," he said. It is also more democratic because it does not require specialized computer training.

"It's like a community thing. You have professional modelers and designers and corporate vice presidents who physically can jump in," Albaisa says. "Whereas in the digital [realm], there is such a level of expertise. To make very basic surfaces, you're a genius basically."

Clay enables, on the one hand, more experimentation with free-form creativity. On the other hand, it also allows leeway to veer into questionable designs a software program might snub.

"Clay is much more linked to our brain. We can make terrible shapes in clay because we're free to do it. The computer will reject some things," Albaisa said.

In any event, clay and computers feed into each other, speeding up the design process.

Computer-aided design programs can drive milling machines to speedily churn out detailed models. Handheld photo scanners can instantaneously capture exact digital likenesses of clay models and beam them into a computer for further refinement, Albaisa said.

"If there were a fly on that model, it would capture that fly. If there is tape on it, the tape comes out on the scan. It's 100,000 percent accurate," he said. "The analog has become much, much faster because we can convert things immediately into digital."

While computers achieve different results, clay still has a place. "There's no need to end it," he said. "I'm naively dreamy. I think every tool has an inherent potential for beauty. Just don't try to make it do what it doesn't naturally want to do."

In the meantime, even a self-professed "geezer" like Albaisa, who waxes romantic about Leonardo da Vinci and other Renaissance artists, is captivated by the awesome power of today's technology.

"The biggest advantage we have is our tools. They are very expensive and very, very amazing," he said. "Even those of us who are in love with Michelangelo, if we were making "David,' we would scan him immediately, and then make changes to him digitally."

You can reach Hans Greimel at [email protected]
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