Lexus' New Sedan is Inspired by Historic Japanese Design

To create its most forward-looking sedan yet, Lexus invoked design principles from Japan’s past.By Joshua David Stein on March 15, 2019When Junko Itou, an interior designer for Lexus, was tapped to reimagine the cabin of its flagship sedan, she thought of materials that inspired her, like the wood of the sakura, or cherry tree. “Its touch relaxed me,” Itou recalled recently.

That love of fine materials emanates from every surface of the new LS 500, a vehicle for design geeks as well as mere car lovers. The LS has long been a vehicle of incremental changes—a nip here, a tuck there. However, a few years ago, Akio Toyoda, president of Lexus parent Toyota, issued a decree: “No more boring cars.” And the designers went to town.

With its flowing lines and Lexus’s trademark spindle grille, the exterior of the new LS is nothing if not sleek, and with the addition of an “executive package,” drivers get an interior that resembles a high-tech ryokan more than the inside of a car. Most strikingly, the doors are inlaid with panels of what seem to be minutely textured crystal, which is produced by a unique form of glass cutting known as kiriko. To add kiriko glass, one of Japan’s 232 officially designated native crafts (others include lacquerware and paper-doll making), into the LS 500, Lexus brought in the type of artisans who might normally be engraving intricately patterned sake glasses (“pure craftsmen,” according to Itou). That, in turn, resulted in an entirely new molding process.

The dashboard of the Lexus LS 500. Courtesy Lexus

Integral to the process were the takumi, a cadre of workers known for exceptional acuity. The takumi create an extra level of refinement, whether it’s smoothing out barely detectable imperfections or incorporating artisanal Japanese craftsmanship rarely found in cars. (To test their dexterity, Lexus routinely tasks them with challenges such as folding an origami cat with their nondominant hand in 90 seconds or less.)

Designer Junko Itou. Courtesy Lexus

One of a tiny number of female car designers, Itou grew up near Nagoya, the daughter of a salaryman and a housewife. “My parents loved creating things,” she said. “My mother designed and tailored her own clothes. My father made a bed for me.” When Lexus charged Itou with creating the interior for the LS 500, it gave her an opportunity to showcase nihoninron, a term usually translated as Japaneseness, as well as the values her parents had instilled.

That led to a dashboard whose lines, according to Itou, resemble the strings of a koto, Japan’s national instrument. And after what she described as “countless” meetings with a Kyoto-based textile company, the result was origami-style pleated fabric on the LS 500’s front panels. “The thickness of the fabric meant that this pattern could not be achieved with a machine,” said Itou. “All the pieces had to be made by hand,” she explained proudly, undaunted at the prospect of yet another detail to be mastered. “In the end, only twelve per day, enough for three vehicles.”