Interview: Chip Thole, Exterior Design Manager, GM Full-Size SUVs
Chip Thole loved to draw things, especially cars, from early childhood, and his high school art teacher steered him to the Cleveland Institute of Art. He graduated in 1997 and joined GM Design, partly thanks to a Cadillac project he did there.
In the Cadillac studio, Chip was part of the team that created the brand's Art and Science design philosophy and penned the award-winning Evoq sports car concept that introduced it to the world, then worked on the first-generation Cadillac CTS and SRX before moving to the Corporate Brand Character studio to create advanced concepts.
Chip led design of the 2006 Chevrolet Impala, then took on assignments in the U.K. (the Cadillac Cien concept), Sweden, and Australia before being named to lead the exterior design of the 2015 Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban, GMC Yukon, and Cadillac Escalade. He has now moved on to a Buick exterior studio, but he was happy to discuss these all-new SUVs.
TT: Was this a fun project?
CT: I was thrilled with this assignment for two reasons: the scope of the program -- what it means to the company -- and the sheer history of it. The 12th-generation Suburban was a cool, iconic vehicle to work on, right up there with any classic American vehicle. I have five kids, so it's the kind of vehicle I need. I had a lot of real-world experience to bring to the table. And for the first time in history, these SUVs share no sheetmetal at all with the pickup trucks, so we were absolutely free to do them right. That was a huge enabler for us.
TT: What is your design philosophy?
CT: I start with what intuition tells me about the market and get the team going on that. You look at trends around the industry -- fashion, culture, what people are buying, what they say they want now -- and project that into the future. The fun part is putting those ideas to paper and going from there.
CT: Today's Suburban is a great design with a huge share of the market, but there were things we wanted to change. We wanted to take what was good about today's vehicles, bring that forward and make them new and different with that spark of freshness that people recognize, without making them gimmicky or overdone.
These vehicles are high-tech and incredibly capable, with a ton of features, so how do you communicate that? The interior got wider for shoulder room, so we moved the rear track out 28 mm per side, which gave us space between the face of the tire and the beltline for sculpture in the body side. We put the rear wiper up under the spoiler for visual reasons and for functionality, so it's clean and dry and doesn't get caked in snow. We also spent a lot of time in the wind tunnel getting them as smooth and clean to the air as we could -- around the air dam, front and rear corners and leading edges, and closeout panels under the engine to get the underbody clean.
TT: What design cues on the Chevrolets differentiate them?
CT: The Chevy is an evolution that harks back in a modern way to previous-generation Suburbans. I challenged the team to look for a fresh new way to do split headlamps -- a Chevy identity feature on Suburbans for decades -- and one designer came up with a great idea with the high- and low-beam functions split and stacked like on older Chevys, but in a way that creates a new graphic leading into the iconic Chevy split-port grille.
TT: The GMC?
CT: More on the industrial side, kind of high-end sculpture, like a Nixon watch -- strong, bold and beautiful, with technology baked in. The base GMC comes with the full gamut of LED rear and front turn lamps. The Denali's face is very iconic, but with a premium chrome trim that stands out from the grille surround with a lot of sculpture on its sides. One goal was give it more character to appeal to competitive customers who may not have looked at GMC before. There's an attention to detail in textures and finishes that really adds that high-end appeal.
TT: And the Cadillac?
CT: The Escalade is a different mindset with a different drivetrain and a totally different interior, and we had a separate team working on it. Our primary exterior concern was making sure it was an Escalade first and foremost, so we amplified the front and rear differentiation.
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