Ex-Ford designer keeps cars close at heart in art, furniture work

Maureen Feighan
Detroit News Design Writer

You can’t pigeonhole Camilo Pardo.

The New York-born, Metro Detroit-raised designer is an artist, fashion designer and furniture maker.

Pardo’s bold, bright paintings of performance cars have almost a pop art, surreal vibe that oozes power, speed and sex appeal.

The famed designer may be best known for one car: the Ford GT. In 1999, Pardo, a former chief designer at Ford, and his design team were tapped to redesign the GT, eventually creating a muscle car coveted by everyone from Kid Rock to Jay Leno.

These days, Pardo — who splits his time between Detroit and Los Angeles and has a studio in the Bankle Building — also recently added another title to his resume: reality show contestant. He’s one of 10 designers competing on truTV’s “Motor City Masters,” which pits designers from across the country against one another to find the ultimate car designer. Pardo and Rochester native Darby Barber are in the final three.

When it comes to iconic car design, which will be on display Saturday in all its glory at the Woodward Dream Cruise, Pardo says it’s very much like art.

Iconic design “is like a moment in time,” says Pardo, 51, talking on the phone from California, where he recently appeared at Monterey’s Classic Car Week. “... It never gets old. There’s architecture like that, furniture. It also applies to fashion and cars. They were fantastic pieces then and they’re fantastic now.”

“Cars that hit right on the money will always be an inspiration,” Pardo says.

Pardo was 10 when he moved from New York to Rochester, Michigan. His mom was a painter, and his dad was an engineer. He did a lot of painting during his childhood, and by fourth grade, he knew what he wanted to do for a living: design cars.

“I just put two and two together,” he says.

He moved to Detroit to attend the College for Creative Studies, from which he graduated in 1985 with a degree in transportation design (he later taught there). He was hired by Ford right out of college. Working out of its Advance Design Studio, in 1999, he was tapped to redesign the Ford GT, the car created by Henry Ford II to outperform Ferrari.

Pardo says it was a long process, which he likened to tuning a piano, according to an interview with Detroit Public Television.

A car like the Ford GT “can’t be underestimated,” he says. “Once you put your foot on the pedal, you better be prepared for an explosion of power.”

Pardo, who left Ford in 2009 after the company downsized the Advance Design Studio, says his furniture evolved decades ago in the late 1980s. Playing off Detroit’s rough, aggressive reputation, “we took that and used it as a resource and reconfigured it and applied it to something creative — like furniture, fashion,” Pardo says.

He and a friend, Michael Chetcuti, created a small line called Merkury HG. The table, chair and lamp — made of steel and glass — curve and contour in a very architectural way. They may look like they were inspired by the automotive world, but they weren’t, Pardo says.

The line has “organic lines,” he says. “... When you sit in a chair, there are certain curves and contours that have to be addressed that makes a lot of industrial design organic. You can definitely see the organic lines on those furniture pieces because they curve, but it’s industrial design. There’s that contrast.”

And while the Merkury HG line once was showcased at galleries across Metro Detroit with some showings in Japan as well, it’s now only available on request through Inner State Gallery in Detroit.

“We did them because they were sculpture,” Pardo says. “They were fun, and they were fun to look at.”

Today, Pardo is drawn to more figurative art. His exhibit last fall at Inner State, “Zero Gravity,” featured beautiful models in futuristic-looking space gear.

“It was a subject matter I needed to exhaust,” he says.

Still, he’ll always be drawn to cars — fast ones.

Pardo, who does a lot of commission work, says he’s inspired a lot by the great artists from the 1960s that painted race cars. His work has an illustrative vibe, but he acknowledges it’s very commercial. He uses acrylics with a lot of washes “and a lot expression,” he says.

And while he won’t be in town for Saturday’s Dream Cruise, he’ll continue to represent the D on “Motor City Masters,” which premiered June 24 and runs through August. Sponsored by Chevrolet and filmed in Los Angeles, the winner gets $100,000 and a Camaro Z28.

Pardo, who was approached last fall about being on the show, says the experience was challenging in that a lot of materials weren’t available (such as X-Acto blades and foam core), but none of the designers had them so it was an even playing field.

“I got good at using a utility knife blade, but it hurt,” he says. “... But we’re like, ‘OK, whatever. We’re not going to complain. We’re going to move along.’ ”

In fact, Pardo says given the choice, he’d do the show again and recommend it to any designer. “I would recommend it to automotive designers, product designers, architects, furniture designers,” he says. “It really pushes you to your limit and forces you to exercise your abilities.”

Working under the constraints of a reality show, he says, was like preparing for the Auto Show. “You have that kind of pressure,” Pardo says. “You better make a decision and nail it.”

That’s something Pardo knows a lot about. Just check out the Ford GT.


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Camilo Pardo

■Age: 51

■Former chief designer for Ford who paints, designs fashion and furniture; splits his time between his studios in Detroit and Los Angeles.

■Currently competing on truTV’s “Motor City Masters,” a reality show that pits car designers against one another. Airs 10 p.m. Tuesdays.

■Best known for redesigning the Ford GT in the mid-2000s; most recent art exhibit, “Zero Gravity,” was at Inner State Gallery in Detroit.

■Reproduction prints of some of Pardo’s paintings are available through his website, www.camilopardo.com.