The Man Behind The Magic: An Interview With Joe Dehner, Head of Dodge & Ram Design
Courtesy of Chrysler Media – Story by Ashley Fournier
When you see a car cruising down the street, you don’t often think of all the aspects that had to go into the creation of the car. At the very beginning, a car must start with an idea and then a design of that idea. It’s no secret that Chrysler Group is known for their iconic cars and incredible styling, knowing this; I wanted to get to know the people behind the work. Who was designing these cars? How did they come up with these ideas? Have they always loved car design? In truth, car designers, and particularly the ones here at Chrysler Group, are fantastic artists and they may not always get the recognition from the public they deserve for their work. Here’s a chance to get to know a little bit about these guys, they’re the Picassos, the Matisses, and the Rembrandts of the automotive world and they’re very good at what they do.
The first designer I sat down with was Joe Dehner, the Head of Design for Dodge and Ram Brand. I visited Joe in his office at the Chrysler Group headquarters in Auburn Hills, Michigan. The room was impeccably clean and streamlined with hints of pictures and die cast cars giving the office a racing influence. Ironically enough, these might be some of the words you would use to describe the design of the2011 Dodge Charger or Challenger, two of the cars designed under Joe’s watch. Immediately, I felt at ease sitting down with Joe, his relaxed demeanor and friendliness calmed the nerves I had racked up over the idea of getting to interview someone who was in such an incredible position within the company. Once I got talking with Joe, he shared some very interesting stories and information about his design influences, his favorite projects, and even what happened when FIAT came aboard. Enjoy!
Ashley: When & why did you start designing cars?
Joe: “I started designing cars when I was in high school, I graduated high school in 1983, went to the Cleveland Institute of Art in Cleveland, Ohio, graduated there in 1988 and the era I grew up in, car design was coming out of a lull, if you will, a lot of the designs at the time were not very passionate, kind of extruded looking, and then a lot of the designs were becoming more sculpted, more aerodynamic, more organic and that got me really excited.”
Ashley: How did you decide to pursue car design in school?
Joe: “It wasn’t until I looked at different brochures and catalogs for different art schools that I found out that cars were actually designed, at the time I thought that they were engineered, I never realized that somebody sketched them out and made models of them and it was pretty exciting, that’s what ultimately steered me to the Cleveland Institute of Art.”
Ashley: What did you do after graduating from Cleveland Institute of Art?
Joe: “I came right to Chrysler, this is the first job I’ve truly ever had, I’ve been here 23 years, and it’s been really good to me, every creative moment I’ve enjoyed, and it’s really been awesome.”
Ashley: Being the Head of Design for both Dodge and Ram brands, how do you separate the two?
Joe: “With Fiat coming on board, we realigned our studios to be more brand centric because up to that point, we would have Dodges designed in the same studio next to a Chrysler, which from the perspective of being very efficient with platforms and things like that, it was good, but the danger there lies in cross-pollination of design elements because you want each brand to have its own design language, so by having Dodge and Ram under my watch, I have two separate studios because the brands have separated and as a result we can allow for a little bit more sterile environment for each of those brands, to spread their wings and get a design language, and a look and feeling that is unique to those brands and not shared with any of the others.”
Ashley: How did it go down when it came to separating the Dodge and Ram badges?
Joe: “In the very beginning when some of the discussion about doing that were fresh, the first thing we decided was well, what were the mascots going to be, and so obviously Ram, the trucks, were keeping the crosshair, and it was going to be a very defined crosshair and they were going to keep the Ram’s head as a mascot. Dodge, as it would move away from Ram, it would still have a crosshair but maybe it would be a little more ethereal, more transparent, not as obvious, we did significantly alter the crosshair for the 2011 model year with what we call a split crosshair design, it is a little more organic, a little bit less mechanical than the one you see on the Ram brand, and that will continue to evolve. Then, because we had no mascot for the Dodge brand, we also created a new logo, we picked a new font, stretched out the word Dodge, and then added the twin racing stripes to provide an accent and give it a little bit more of a performance look.”
Ashley: What are you favorite things about Dodge and Ram designs?
Joe: “What’s really neat about Ram is the brand has so much visual presence, when you talk about Ram design to customers, with the front end of the truck and the crosshair grill, there’s a lot of visual presence to it and a lot of imagery and that’s what’s exciting about it is you can just say the name Ram to a lot of people and they get all excited because they know what it is.”
“Dodge is very steeped in its historic presence in the muscle car era like Challenger and Charger, there’s a lot of visceral appeal there and a lot of imagery that people remember back to when you talk about Dodge and while the brand is much more than just those two vehicles, there is also the Caravan, the Journey and the Durango, a lot of that muscle car DNA, a lot of that brand language, makes its way into the vehicles, so there’s a little bit of a rub off and I think people will notice that and appeal to that also”
Ashley: Where do your inspirations come from?
Joe: “The inspiration comes from everything. I get inspired just by the designers working in the studio, it’s truly a collaborative effort, and their inspiration ranges, including mine, anywhere from the racing world to things in nature. I think as car designs, especially for the Dodge and Ram brands, start to become more earth friendly and more “green”, we can get our inspiration from nature also. It might not be as tangible as something mechanical like a race car, but we still get inspired by it. Also, the product world and furniture design, there’s been a lot of big movement in the furniture design world as far as materials and processes and how that can relate to the construction of a vehicle, the shape language that we see on the exterior. There are a lot of influences from all points of the Earth.”
Ashley: Do you have any favorite projects that you’ve worked on?
Joe: “The one that probably stands out for me and by no means is it more special than any of the other cars I’ve worked on, is the 1999 Dodge Charger concept, that was a group effort with many of the designers in the studio and to this day that car still gets talked about and is a point of influence and reference whenever we talk about the Dodge brand and Charger, so that one, if anything, has a special place in my heart.”