Virgil Exner (1909 – 1973) American Industrial Designer

Plymouth ENR designed by Virgil Exner
Plymouth ENR designed by Virgil Exner

Virgil Exner (1909 – 1973) is most known for his opulent ‘dream vehicles’ and sculptural experiments in space age’ tail fin designs for the Chrysler Corporation in the years following WWII. 

Automobile: Portrait of Chrysler chief stylist Virgil Exner posing at his desk
Automobile: Portrait of Chrysler chief stylist Virgil Exner posing at his desk Detroit, MI 8/24/1958 CREDIT: John G. Zimmerman (Photo by John G. Zimmerman /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Education

In 1926–7, he briefly attended painting school at the University of Notre Dame before working on commercials for the Studebaker Company. 

Biography

He was hired to work in the Pontiac design lab after coming to the attention of Harley Earl at General Motors. Later, in 1938, he worked for Raymond Loewy’s design consultant on Studebaker cars, particularly the 1947 Starlight coupé. Loewy received the majority of the critical accolades. 

He had so many ideas, he didn’t know when to turn them off. In other words, he would throw so many ideas,’hot licks,’ and various body configurations into a machine.

Designer Robert Bourke on Exner

Exner joined Chrysler’s Advanced Styling Studio in 1949 and worked on a series of ‘concept vehicles,’ including the K310, Dodge Firearrow, DeSoto Adventurer, and Plymouth XNR, all of which were built by Ghia coachbuilders in Italy. 

In truth, Exner shifted Chrysler’s design approach away from one dominated by body engineers, transforming the company’s automobiles from boxlike constructions to long, low, attractive machines. Exner’s aesthetic was defined by using enlarged tail fins, which he referred to as the ‘Forward Look.’ This, together with a series of technological advancements, led to a considerable increase in Chrysler’s market share and his appointment as vice president of styling in 1957, the same year he and his design team received the Industrial Designers’ Institute’s Gold Medal award. 

1961 Valiant with Virgil Exner Styling – Commercial (Plymouth Valiant Dealer)

Exner’s strict control of the clay modelling studio and insistence on having an ultimate say in the approval of die models was one of the reasons for the powerfully sculpted feel of many of these designs. Exner believed that his most significant contribution at Chrysler was not his corporate designs but how he revolutionised the styling organisation. 

In 1962, he quit Chrysler and founded his industrial design firm in Michigan. He worked on a range of projects for the Buehler Corporation, including leisure boats, proposals for a classic Duesenberg revival, and designs for Stutz, Packard & Mercer.

1955 Dodge Firebomb designed by Virgil Exner

Sources

Wall, J. (2018). Streamliner: Raymond Loewy and Image-making in the Age of American Industrial Design. United States: Johns Hopkins University Press. https://amzn.to/3AmjUOx

Woodham, J. M. (2006). A dictionary of modern design. Oxford University Press.

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