Karma Automotive, based in Irvine, makes sleek, luxury electric vehicles for sale in and outside of North America. Forbes calls the company’s $83,900 GS-6 “a spectacular-looking sporty car.”
Michelle Christensen’s new goal is to improve on “spectacular-looking.” In September, the 41-year-old former senior manager of design at Nissan took over as vice president of global design at Karma.
“Cars were omnipresent in our lives,” Christensen says of her childhood in San Jose. As a baby, her parents took her to car shows, and as a child she shadowed her father as he tinkered with muscle cars and hot rods in their garage.
“One of my earliest memories is when I was maybe 4 years old,” she says. “My dad was working on a 1965 Plymouth GTX and wanted to take it for a spin. He put me in an empty milk crate and drove around the block. My mom was not too happy about that.”
We asked her about her cool Irvine job and her thoughts on the most beautiful car she’s ever seen.
You are celebrated as the first woman to design a supercar. At age 34, you supervised the exterior design of Acura’s highly successful 2016 NSX, a car of which it has been said “looks fast even when it is parked.” Tell us what made it so special.
For one thing, we paid a lot of attention to how the design might improve the car’s performance. So there’s a kind of dance in the way air moves in and out of the car, in one vent and out another. We designed the surfaces of the car to guide the airflow, to make it as efficient as possible.
Why do you love car design?
I’m passionate about cars. Other than a house, a car is one of the most important extensions of your style, and one you get to take around with you wherever you go. I also love the process of design, when I’m trying to get into the mindset of our clients.
What is the most beautiful car you’ve ever seen?
The 1925 Rolls Royce Phantom with a circular door. I recently got to see one at the Petersen Automotive Museum. It just smacks you in the face; it’s jaw-droppingly gorgeous, with all these amazing details.
This isn’t a particularly female-rich profession. How do you handle often being the only woman in the room?
I’m used to it. It just takes a lot of extra effort to keep and maintain the earned respect. Luckily, I’ve had the pleasure of working with very supportive leadership at Karma.
Describe a typical day.
Every day is completely different. Design is one of those departments that needs to take input from almost every other department while also maintaining our creative vision. So on any given day, we can be reviewing a new headlight design or color and material samples, or talking to marketing. Every day is completely different, which makes it very interesting.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how cool is your job?
Oh, a 10! I get to work with an amazing team. I love coming to work here every day.