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Architecture + Branding: Lexus pursues to perfect the premium Japanese automobile marque

1-Aiming higher

Notwithstanding the dramatic travails, bad press, and technical issues that befell the company in 2008-2009, Toyota Motor Company, weakened though not beaten, remains a dominant player in the automotive landscape. After some soul searching and hubris, the company that sought to be number one in sales and overtake General Motors, has settled back on its tradition of incremental improvements and quality control with a newly evolving focus on creating exciting and engaging vehicles.

Today, Toyota, the Japanese juggernaut, could be easily mistaken for a domestic car company by virtue of its perennial sales leadership in passenger cars, its U.S. based manufacturing facilities scattered across multiple states, as well as its Nascar racing program. As common as that fact may be now, such was not always the case.

Initially introduced to the United States in 1957 as Toyopet, a name change to Toyota soon followed in the 1960s due to the “toy” and “pet” connections. Over the following decades, Toyota gained a strong and formidable reputation by building reliable, capable, though somewhat uninspiring vehicles.

During the 1980s, the American automotive landscape changed dramatically as the Japanese government and U.S. trade representatives negotiated export restraints for mainstream car sales. The negotiations created opportunities for Toyota and other Japanese automobile manufacturers to export more expensive higher margin models.

2-Striving to become aspirational

Honda was the first to exploit the opportunity by exporting the JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) Honda Legend, marketed as the Acura Legend, thus creating the Acura luxury brand. Nissan followed shortly thereafter, revising the JDM Nissan President sedan to create the Q45, which would be the flagship for the newly created Infinity brand. Toyota, however, took a more involved approach.

At the time, the Cressida was the upper most model within the Toyota line, leaving long time loyalists and new buyers limited luxury choices. As a result, brand defection was occurring at an alarming pace at the premium end of the scale.

Unsatisfied with reading an existing product,Toyotawould instead embark on a massive challenge, which Toyota chairman Eiji Toyoda laid out at a secret meeting with company executives in 1983. The challenge, which would become known as Flagship One (F1), had the singular aim to develop a flagship sedan that would expand the Toyota product line and provide a foothold in the premium segment and offer, both long-time and new customers, an upmarket product. (source: Wikipedia)

After exhaustive market research, forging ahead with a new brand and a new sales channel was concluded as the optimal means of introducing the new flagship sedan. Lexus would soon become a force in the automotive luxury scene.

3-Launching a new identity

In the Fall of 1989, Lexus launched with two vehicles, the LS400, a technological tour-de-force flagship sedan resulting from the F1 endeavour, and the ES250, a tarted-up version of the Toyota Camry.

Lexus LS400, Generation 1, circa 1989 (source: wikipedia)

Lexus ES250, Generation 1, circa 1990 (source: wikipedia)

Distancing itself from the more mainstream Toyota brand, Lexus dealerships were set up as separate entities, many as stand-alone experiences, away from the more common, non-luxury parent brand. Although a new brand, Lexus would be competing with previously established competitors with prolific pedigrees, as well as having to address long-held perceptions from more affluent buyers which they now sought out. The dealership experience, from first sight, had to convey quality, exclusivity, style, prestige, desirability and at a minimum be replete with all the necessary accoutrements of luxury marques with entrenched lineage.

Lexus dealership, Reno, Nevada (source: lexusofreno.com)

In the early years, Lexus dealerships imparted a classic elegance and timelessness through the use of muted colours and tones, minimum overwrought architectural detailing, and judicious material choices. Although new, the buildings had a quiet presence that was unobtrusive, displaying a finely aged characteristic, as though having been there for some time.

Lexus dealership, St-Louis, Missouri (source: lexusofstlouis.com) 

Lexus dealership, Cicero, New York

Large glass expanses, perilously spanning the chasm, under the massive banding elements which seemingly bear on slender columns, gave the buildings a sense of heft and solidity, yet achieved lightness and brightness. These vertical ribs, reminiscent of stamped concrete form, added to this sense of heft at the roof line. Additionally, this vertical surface treatment created a rhythm that seemed to accentuate the distance from end to end, therefore making the span seem even longer, and the technical feat even more impressive, much like the cars inside. Especially in the evening view, the airy sense of openness and warmth, disarming and soothing, becomes evident, and seemingly radiates an aura of being ensconced in luxury and opulence.

Lexus dealership, Bridgewater, New Jersey (source: lexusofbridgewater.com)

Lexus dealership, Warwick, Rhode Island (source: lexusofrhodeisland.com)

While the exterior was tasked with communicating traditional luxury values, the interior was designed to thrill, delight, and engage the customers. Service waiting areas included such amenities as on-site cafes, designer boutiques, plush seating, expansive lounge areas, refreshment bars and indoor putting greens. The service bays were punctured with large picture windows allowing owners to watch their vehicle being serviced.

The strategy was brilliant, Lexus required, yearned for, a distinct identity, one that brimmed with quiet confidence and radiated trust from the first moment. Respectable, dignified, solemn, and aspirational, Lexus was to be a crown jewel in the Toyota conglomorate, a shinning example of Japanese technology to rival the established German oligopoly. Through unrelenting efforts, Lexus managed to surpass both Mercedes and BMW in luxury automobile sales, going from newcomer in 1989 to the best selling luxury brand in the USA for over a decade.

 4-Asserting a Lexus identity

As sales grew and Lexus gained more prominence within the Toyota empire, the brand began to undertake several initiative to promote, protect and stamp the Lexus name in many circles. Lexus entered motorsports in 1999, scoring several victories over the years at race series in the U.S., Canada and Japan.

A brush with Tinseltown came along as the Lexus 2054 was produced exclusively forHollywood, being featured in the film Minority Report.

Lexus “2054” concept, from film Minority Report (source: wikipedia)

In 2005, amid expansion plans for Europe, Asia, the Middle East, as well as launching in the Japanese home market, Lexus would complete an organizational separation from the parent company, gaining dedicated design, engineering, training and manufacturing centers working exclusively for the luxury marque. As company executives sought to expand outside of the U.S., its largest market at the time, the next generation of Lexus models would require a broader approach in design to serve as global models for international release.

5-Adding drama

As Lexus evolved from an upstart in 1989 to one of the best selling luxury automibles marques, the brand had taken on a more conservative look and feel. Its products, though technologically impressive, had grown stale in styling compared to the competition, often chided for being too similar, reserved and derivative.

L-finesse, a design language derived from Japanese cultural motifs and pioneered by Lexus stressed characteristiss such as fastback profile, lower-set grille and the interplay of convex and concave surfaces. Concept cars in the early 2000s helped to introduce L-finesse, but it was not until the 2006 GS model that it had been applied to a production vehicle. The design language became more apparent with each additional release, the 2007 IS-F, the 2009 LF-A supercar, and more recently, the 2013 GS line.

Lexus LF-A, 2009 (source:wikipedia)

Initially unveiled at the 2012 New York Autoshow, the GS launched a new corporate face for the brand, which also includes more dramatic lines and the hourglass grille (spindle grille). L-finesse, in its current form, unmistakenly communicates a Lexus that is more daring, more evocative, and willing to produce engaging and polarizing designs.

Lexus LF-Gh hybrid concept vehicle (source: autoblog.com)

As manufacturing sophisticated machinery is not an instantaneous process, this newly energized, polarizing and risk taking personality, has been in the works for some time, and is finally starting to bear tangible proof.

From an architectural standpoint, newer dealerships have abandoned the reserved and traditional look of the original brand launch design, and have been displaying a flair for the dramatic as well. Newer showrooms have taken a modern interpretation towards luxury. The look can be described as sleek, crisp, creased, angular and dramatic.

Lexus dealership, King Street East, Kitchener, Ontario

Lexus dealership, along Highway 40, Montreal, Quebec

The customary expansive glass front is now capped with a lighter roof element, a backsloping slant that conveys an image of slicing through the air, invoking movement and precision. The colour palette is still muted with varying shades of gray, silver, and black present, along with wood tones, that recall the vehicle interiors.

Lexus dealership, Hunt Club Road, Ottawa, Ontario

As Lexus builds on its brief heritage and also attempts to attract younger buyers, reinterpreting the more conservative elements of the initial launch architectural identity with more modern materials and crisper line seems to balance both ends of the spectrum quite nicely, and should facilitate in continuing and evolving the architectural traditions that have been previously established.

Lexus dealership, McArthur Avenue, Ottawa, Ontario

Lexus dealership, McArthur Avenue, Ottawa, Ontario


All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.


About marc lortie

marc lortie is an Architectural Designer (Technologist) currently based in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada). marc has several years of experience working in Canada and the USA on various projects, including commercial shopping centres, big-box stores, industrial plants, educational facilities, warehouses, storage facilities, intermodal facilities, hotels, offices, and residential developments. marc is a graduate of Carleton University, Algonquin College and La Cite Collegiale.


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