Jason Wilbur and Michelle Christensen in Downtown L.A. in Christensen’s 1965 Malibu Chevelle.

feature / alumni / faculty / transportation-design
April 25, 2016
Writer: Hugh Hart
Photographer: Stella Kalinina

Michelle Christensen and Jason Wilbur

Their hearts beat for style and performance, and for each other.

He quit Rochester Institute of Technology to go snowboarding in Vermont, burned out on his suit-wearing gig as a New York graphic designer, before relocating to Los Angeles.

She grew up in San Jose hanging out in the garage with her dad while he worked on muscle cars, then moved to L.A. toting her high school drawings of prom dresses and horses. Taking an ArtCenter at Night course she generated an impressive portfolio of car renderings.

Both decided to study car design full-time, earning coveted spots in ArtCenter’s renowned undergraduate transportation design program.

Jason Wilbur and Michelle Christensen (both BS 05 Transportation) met on their first day of Orientation in the fall of 2002. “I looked around the Transportation department and it was all dudes except for Michelle, who clearly was not,” Wilbur laughs. “That piqued my interest.” As Christensen remembers it, “I totally finagled my way into sitting next to Jason. I thought Oooh, he’s cute.”

They’ve been together ever since.

Acura’s Precision Concept car, a design led by Christensen.

On this January afternoon, Christensen, barefoot in blue jeans, has just returned from Detroit’s North American International Auto Show where the Precision Concept car, a design she led at Acura (on the heels of last year’s NSX supercar), earned rave reviews. Describing the sporty sedan’s low-slung charisma, Honda Motor Co. Ltd. CEO Takahiro Hachigo told reporters, “This is a start for the next 30 years of Acura.”

Chatting over cups of tea with her gregarious husband in their 16th-floor Downtown Los Angeles apartment, Christensen notes that her car of the future draws heavily on a passion for old-school drama. “We’re interested in putting the emotion back into cars, so it’s exciting to see brands push more toward the desire part of it that captured everyone’s imagination in the 1950s. For the Precision in particular, we focused on figuring out how to convey performance through the styling and other design cues. It’s exciting to see that there’s still a heartbeat in that realm of car design.”

Christensen tapped into that heartbeat as a girl, enamored with the smells and sounds of high-powered “Mopar” engines that her father tinkered with in his spare time. Dropping her dream of becoming a pit crew mechanic, she arrived at ArtCenter with plenty of artistic talent, an “inspiration folder” filled with her dad’s hotrod sketches, and a confession: “I used to be a little bit of a slacker,” she says. Enter taskmaster instructor Harry Bradley. “Oh my God, he just struck terror in you,” Christensen recalls. “In hindsight I liked having such a hardcore teacher because he held everybody accountable for their work and being punctual.”

Wilbur’s watch design, the Devon Tread 1.

Christensen recently acquired her dream car, a 1965 Malibu Chevelle tricked out with new suspension by ArtCenter pal John “Jonny Huck” Hotchkis (BS 86 Transportation). Wilbur skateboards four blocks to his day job at Honda Advanced Design Studio, where he brainstorms futuristic mobility scenarios. Their rides reflect a shared fondness for analog “authenticity,” as Christensen puts it. Wilbur elaborates: “People in the industry talk about ‘the connected car’ and look at the Internet as the thing to follow, but not everything needs to be connected.” Extending his wrist to show off an award-winning watch of his own design—the Devon Tread 1—with its luxury steampunk aesthetic that eschews liquid crystal display for numerals transported mechanically on a miniature conveyer belt, Wilbur asserts, “Not everything needs to be a digital version of reality.”

The couple, married in 2007, offer a tour of their favorite things: four vintage guitars in one corner; a pile of snowboards in another, awaiting their regular weekend visits to Mammoth Mountain; dirt bike helmets; and a classic red Craftsman tool chest Wilbur bought Christensen for her birthday.

Disappearing into a closet to retrieve her very first design project, a now-faded red prom dress, she ponders a question she fielded many times over the course of her career: What’s it like being one of the few women to design exteriors for cars? “For me it’s not really an issue,” she says. “My work is unisex—that’s what I strive for. I don’t want it to look like a chick car or a dude car, I just want it to look sexy or badass or whatever it is. I like it [gender] to be invisible because I’m really just trying to make something cool.”

Peering over Wilbur’s shoulder at a lithograph featuring a grid-like array of classic Porsche cars, she adds “I love all those Porsches on that wall for the same exact reason that Jay does.” Wilbur teases, “You’d rather them be pink.” Christensen laughs: “He knows I hate pink.”