Chrysler Pacifica designer makes minivans cool again

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

To reinvent the minivan, Chrysler turned to a mom from Tajikistan.

Irina Zavatski, a 38-year old mother of two, is lead exterior designer for the striking, all-new 2017 Chrysler Pacifica that has redefined elegance in the dowdy minivan segment. Like generations of Detroit companies before it, Chrysler drew on the region’s diverse immigrant community to make it happen.

Jewish émigré Zavatski and her family fled religious persecution in their native, majority-Muslim Tajikistan in 1994 as the country descended into civil war after its independence from the former Soviet Union.

“I was just 15 when we came to the United States,” explains Zavatski. “My mom explained to me she wanted a better future for her children.”

Educated at the Cleveland Institute of Art, Zavatski’s design future is bright — and thanks to her innovative design, so is that of Chrysler’s crucial minivan line. Typical of Fiat Chrysler minivans, the Pacifica is a Swiss Army knife of functionality, boasting innovations from hands-free sliding doors and a tri-pane moonroof, to Stow ’n Go seating. But it’s the Pacifica’s sleek exterior design that is crucial to keep customers coming back to minivans in an SUV-obsessed nation.

Zavatski and her team had to think outside the boxy minivan. Yet, she knew from her own driving experience that she couldn’t sacrifice function to form.

“The exterior is a huge part of the story,” says Zavatski, who has an 8-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter. “The fact that I drive one and I knew how useful the vehicle was, for me I want to keep all of that functionality but make it look really beautiful. This is a very personal vehicle for me.”

The result is a sculpted body with brush-like chrome lines and a distinctive, lower bow-tie grille. Her efforts got raves when the production Pacifica debuted to media this month. “The Pacifica is one of the best-looking van bodies ever plopped atop four wheels,” raved auto enthusiast-bible Car and Driver.

Ralph Gilles, Fiat Chrysler’s head of global design, said, “I brought on Irina straight out of the Cleveland Institute of Arts and have watched her grow as a designer. Her vision — to make the all-new Pacifica more of a sculpture on wheels and at the same time appear to have organically grown that way — was not easy. She is a true industrial designer that, as a mom, happens to appreciate the incontestable virtues of a minivan.”

Zavatski earned her stripes the hard way.

She didn’t speak a word of English 22 years ago when her parents and older brother arrived in Cleveland after her mother’s sister — also a Russian transplant — helped them escape Tajikistan’s violence-torn capital.

“We came to Cleveland (because) they have a large Jewish support system,” recalls the designer. “The Jewish community center helped us settle in. They gave us loans for the first four months that we could pay off later.”

While she adjusted to her new surroundings in Cleveland’s South Euclid suburb — learning English by watching TV and observing her classmates — she took refuge in her artwork.

“I turned to art a lot as an escape from not knowing the language,” she says. “I had very good art classes.”

She also had an older brother who loved to build model cars — models that his little sister would play with after she managed to get them down from his hiding places when he wasn’t around. By college, she knew she wanted to go into automobile design — if she could convince her engineer father first.

“I went to Cleveland State first because my Dad said ‘Artists starve, so you can’t go to art school,’ ” she says. “I convinced him to take a tour of the Cleveland Institute of Art and we went into the transportation design program, and I said, ‘This is what I want to do.’ I think I convinced him I could make a living doing this.”

Multiple design internships — including one at GM — and a degree in product design later, Chrysler recognized her talents.

“I brought on Irina straight out of the CIA and have watched her grow,” says design chief Gilles. “She was involved in the new minivan project almost from the beginning.”

With the Pacifica, Zavatski was given a rare opportunity — designing a new product from a clean sheet. She brought her own style and background to the recipe.

“I feel that as a designer all your experience in your life influences what you draw,” she says. “I do feel like not being from here, I bring something different to the table.”

She describes her style as simple: sketching out a full vehicle in three or four lines then filling in the details. It suited Chrysler’s elegant design language that premiered with the 2015 Chrysler 200 mid-size sedan. The 200 is rounded — free of corners — which suited Zavatski’s goal of eliminating the van’s mom-mobile stigma.

“When we started working on it, I heard a lot of the stigma thing,” she said. “To be perfectly honest, I really didn’t get it because I didn’t grow up here. But I could tell people felt like they had to give something up to own one... so I want to make this awesome because I want moms to be happy driving it.”

With the Pacifica behind her, she has moved on to a Jeep crossover project. But as she looks forward to new challenges, she hasn’t forgotten her past. She reconnected with her best friend from Tajikistan in Moscow in 2012. And both her children are learning Russian so they can converse with their émigré grandparents when they visit them in Cleveland in mom’s new minivan.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Reach him at Or Twitter: @HenryEPayne