Bold, classic, hip — Ralph Gilles’s designs have been turning the heads of consumers, pop culture icons and other industry professionals worldwide. But it isn’t style that drives his approach.
Gilles considers himself a problem solver — tasked with the challenge of devising solutions for millions of people.
“I don’t see myself as the classic car designer that’s all about style,” said Gilles in an interview with Forbes magazine. “I’m always thinking about the business case, the big picture implications of whatever we’re working on, the engineering challenges. A true industrial designer is more of a problem solver. A true artist tends to make a singular piece that stands almost by itself in a museum, whereas an industrial designer is designing a solution for millions of people…. [Earning my MBA] opened my eyes and made me understand the bigger role in everything I touched, and I really recommend it to other designers because it extends your value beyond just a hot sketch or a cool-looking car. It also allows you to sell your ideas better. You can put your ideas in a context that others understand.”
Since first joining the former Chrysler Corporation in 1992 as a designer, Gilles has put his extensive academic background in industrial design and business administration to use. In addition to awards and recognition for specific vehicles he has worked on, Gilles has received the Michigan State University Eli Broad Graduate School of Management Young Alumni Achievement Award, Automotive Hall of Fame Young Leadership & Excellence Award, NV Magazine Innovation Award, Black Engineer of the Year President’s Award and N’Digo Foundation N’Design Award.
Born in New York City, Ralph Gilles first became obsessed with automobiles at age 6 when his father bought him his first model car. By age 8, he was drawing the cars he fantasized about someday racing. Gilles’ aunt was so impressed by the sketches that she sent them to Lee Iacocca (Chrysler’s CEO at the time). She received a response from the company’s design chief, K. Neil Walling, recommending that she encourage her nephew to consider design.
“Initially, I pursued engineering school in Montreal,” said Gilles. “But I ended up spending more time sketching than taking notes. My creative side wasn’t being stimulated enough. Then my brother showed me some photos he took during a visit to the College for Creative Studies (CCS) campus, and I was sold.
“At first, my choice to study art/design was a less comfortable option for my parents. However, once they realized I could make a living at it, they became more supportive of my decision.”
As a leader in the automotive industry, Gilles is active both at Chrysler and in the community. He serves as the executive sponsor of the Chrysler African American Network (CAAN) in addition to playing a leading role with The Chrysler Global Diversity Council. He is also on the board of McLaren Oakland (Pontiac, Michigan) as well as the Board of Trustees and Capital Committee at CCS.
Outside of his professional life, Gilles is an avid car enthusiast who enjoys spending time at the track, go-karting and watching Formula 1 auto racing. He has participated in the Targa Newfoundland Rally, the Car and Driver One Lap of America and the SRT Viper Cup Series. He has frequently served as a judge at Pebble Beach, Meadow Brook and Cranbrook Concours events, along with the EyesOn Design car show.