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.
In 1926–7, he briefly attended painting school at the University of Notre Dame before working on commercials for the Studebaker Company.
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.
“That variety makes wood a wonderful medium for individual craftsmanship. Long established skills enable us to utilise its special properties, and its potential is evolving as we research new possibilities.”
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.
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.
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.