Words by Gyasi Williams-Kirtley
I'm sure you've heard the term: flattery will get you everywhere. According to car enthusiast and designer Brent Lawson, diligence and patience will get you one step farther, while a Lexus IS 500 will take you to the moon and back if you're up for an adventure.
When Lawson stepped into the world of cars, its glamour lay in the reconstruction and transformation of something inanimate. Imagine your favorite Lexus model. Now imagine the impossible, like adding Wings West spoilers, Speedline rims, and fish tanks in the headlights.
Brent lives in that universe and wants other companies to follow suit, giving consumers the freedom to add their personalities to their vehicles, a sight he witnessed during his adolescent years. Remaking an object against its former nature is something he identifies with as a queer person, but the car industry has been slow to adopt certain levels of individuality. On the other hand, Lexus is moving in a promising direction according to Lawson, who speaks highly of their steps towards electrification.
Brent prioritizes performance, similar to Lexus, but with some differences. His mission? Dismantle the elitism, protect the underrepresented, preserve the past and break the narrative that car culture and design are monolithic.
We got to chat with Lawson about his journey this far, his next steps, and his feelings on the direction of car culture and industry.
Walk me through your journey into your field up until this point.
When I was younger, I [designed] cars to make sense of the very binary world around me. Growing up in Fontana, I wasn't given [many] tools [to] explore and express my identity. I always appreciated how the cars in the tuner and mini truckin’ scene of Ontario, and Pomona made me feel like I could be as weird as I truly was. [To] find my voice, I moved out of Fontana to my grandma's apartment in Santa Monica, to pursue transportation design.
What motivates and inspires your work?
A lot of my work now is based on creating art around the scene that I grew up around---that Mini Truckin' Import Tuner Y2K scene isn't talked about much anymore because people aren't building cars as much. Still, I am hyperfocused on its resurgence because I think that scene is a perfect vessel for exploring culture and identity.
Given the world's current events, why is this chapter of your life as it is, and how far into the future do you see yourself creating an impact before it's time to change gears?
I am [focused] on moving forward from transportation design. I spent so many years practicing and preparing for it, so when I couldn't afford to go to school for it, It sort of stunted my growth.
I see myself dedicating the rest of my life to making sure queer people and women are accurately described and depicted in contemporary car culture. The internet has done a great job of helping people find their communities, but it has polarized people [in the same respect.] People are onions, and I want to remind the world that I can be gay and not know who Madonna is.
I find it fascinating that back in the day, the car world was a very masculine thing, right? But every so often, you had people like Michelle Mouton or even Sofia Loren participating in car race rallies up against the boys. If we look at stock cars as binary, anything customized or altered can technically be identified as trans or gender-nonconforming.
When I was a child, I remember going to Hot Import Nights and seeing these "souped-up" Honda EG civics, Lancers, Eclipses, Saturns, and Pontiacs. [They] had crazy large aftermarket bomex kits, wings west spoilers, speedline rims and fishtanks in the headlights that really makes me believe that there is a space to talk about trans identity and queer/ non-binary car culture.
Does car culture's one-to-one experience make it difficult to create inclusivity? If not, where's the disconnect in your opinion?
I think when we talk about car culture, there is never a one-to-one experience. There are certain design ecosystems that people like to place trucks, euros, Japanese, and muscle cars in, but with custom car culture (especially around 1999-2006), you never would see a car that looked like another. Car Culture is the only way to design inclusively because traditional industrial design/transportation designers are not doing it for culture. I find a lot is just creating for their egos/ for the sake of innovating. It's part of why I felt like I didn't fit in at the Art Center.
Outside of your apprenticeship at the Automotive Driving Museum in 2015-16, how did you get your car education?
I always wanted to build a car with my dad when I was younger, but we were more into spectating when I was a child and pre-teen. My grandma swears that by the time I was five years old, I was looking out of the window of her 91 Honda Accord coupe, spotting cars and educating her.
I did enroll in the Driving Museum because I wanted to be around classic cars. On my first day, they had me go into the hangar and detail a 1959 Packard Caribbean. Come to think of it, that car probably took about 2 hours to shine and detail, but it taught me a lot about patience and my passion.
Why is Lexus an essential player in the journey, and what similarities can you draw between their brand history/story and your own when it comes to risk-taking?
What's cool about Lexus is that they are taking their time to truly develop and include a new audience before [going electric via LF-Z-based concept vehicle]. I appreciate the capsule they did with Salahe Bembury because it shows that they are interested in diversifying and pushing design language for a new audience.
On the contrary, German premium brands in the same segment as Lexus have rushed to catch up with a particular American electric car brand (Tesla). I believe its diversity has truly suffered in these German brands positioning. I think of the UCF10 LS400 as a great representation of reliability, craftsmanship, and quality, so I am happy that Lexus' brand heritage extends beyond itself and into emerging markets.
If no one would judge, what's something about the car industry that you hate and want to be changed.
Transportation design has been viewed as some prestigious opportunity only granted to a select few, which I think is bullshit. [Many] more successful designers coming out of these schools will never learn how to change their brakes or overhaul their cooling systems. I hate that tuning culture is dying, and nobody is giving queer people a chance to identify within it before it completely disappears. I appreciate designers like Chip Foose or Niels Van Roij because although they have formal education as car designers, they truly build beautiful bespoke cars that reflect people, ideas, and concepts.
What risks are not being taken by the car industry and the design industry you want to see in your lifetime?
Cars shouldn't have to be adapted to; they should adapt to people. I've seen that people in the bracket to afford advanced electric cars have difficult times with these companies' service design and product usability/ accessibility. I want to see the industry implement a sort of Hot rod bespoke approach in less premium brands so that more people can experience joy and pleasure getting from point A to B.