Alumni Interview With Ralph Gilles ‘92, Chief Design Officer, StellantisDecember 3, 2021
From passion to profession, Ralph Gilles reflects on a 29-year journey to the top of the design world.
As the Chief Design Officer for Stellantis, CCS alumnus Ralph Gilles leads the Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram, Maserati, and Fiat Latin America brands making him not only synonymous with the brand but automotive design as a whole. Outside of the design studio, Gilles is a passionate family man who spends his spare time advocating for diversity and inclusion efforts within the design world, and traveling and racing with his family.
Join us as we learn more about Ralph Gilles, his time at CCS, how he builds a tight-knit work family, and some of his career highlights in the world of automotive design.
Ralph on his Career
College for Creative Studies (CCS): You started at Stellantis right after graduating from CCS. What was your first role?
Ralph Gilles: I started with interiors at the beginning of my career. My senior thesis at CCS was on full-sized interiors and so I felt right at home from the start.
CCS: You often cite your aunt and brother as having helped push you to follow your dreams and become an automotive designer. Once you got your start in the industry, did you have any professional mentors to help guide you?
Gilles: I had a few casual mentors along the way but Tom Gale was certainly a big influence for me. I simply asked him to be my mentor and he agreed. Actually, his guidance was one of the reasons I decided to pursue my MBA. I’m thankful for his help and support and we still meet up a couple of times a year for lunch.
CCS: What do you like the most about your career?
Gilles: The people. I especially enjoy watching new generations of designers come along to chase their dreams. I love that Stellantis puts so much effort into enabling their designers to nurture those dreams and integrate them into the work family.
CCS: What is the biggest challenge facing you and your industry?
Gilles: I’d say that finding and keeping the right talent so we can stay relevant. We put a lot of effort into recruiting and developing individuals from all design disciplines, including those with backgrounds in things like gaming and interiors. By doing that, it helps us to keep operating and designing for the future which is always the goal.
CCS: What professional moment are you most proud of?
Gilles: Being asked to run my first internship program. It was the first time I saw myself as a leader.
CCS: What about lessons learned? What’s one piece of wisdom you’ve picked up along the way?
Gilles: To remember to always speak of the team and refrain from using the word “I”.
Ralph on his Time at CCS
CCS: There’s an interesting story on how you made it to CCS. Tell us more about it.
Gilles: I loved drawing as a kid and would constantly sketch cars while living with my aunt in New York. She was very supportive of my passion and actually wrote a letter to Lee Iacocca. Shortly after that, I received a letter from Chrysler Motors signed by Neil Walling, their head of advance and interior design. In his letter, he recommended a few schools and said that my portfolio showed significant promise. CCS was one of those schools and the rest is history.
CCS: What was your experience like at CCS? Do you have any special memories?
Gilles: I definitely remember the all-nighters we would pull as we prepared for shows. I really enjoyed my time in the shop and just being in the clay studio with classmates helping each other out.
CCS: Earlier you mentioned running your own internship program. Did you benefit from an internship while you were a student?
Gilles: As a sophomore, I was fortunate enough to intern with Heuliez, a coachbuilder outside of Paris. I did not really know who they were at the time but I was excited to go to France and grow my skills. I got to work on some interesting teams and met my first mentor there.
CCS: Was there a favorite class or professor that you remember fondly?
Gilles: I had many great professors. Bill Robinson really helped me the most, as he always had great advice and stayed in touch with me. Carl Olson, Song Paik, Clyde Foles, and John Kaloustian were also very influential.
CCS: What’s one thing you learned in art school that you will never forget?
Gilles: That there will always be someone more talented than you.
CCS: You’ve served on the CCS Board of Trustees since 2010. What comes to mind when you think about how CCS has changed since then?
Gilles: It’s remarkable how well of a job the College has done adapting and staying current with new and existing programs. I think about the city of Detroit as well. Detroit has really come to life in the last ten years, making CCS even more of a destination school for art and design than it already was.
CCS: If not for College for Creative Studies…
Gilles: I would likely be a chassis dynamics engineer or a meteorologist.
Behind the Wheel With Ralph
CCS: Where do you go for inspiration?
Gilles: I like to visit museums and technology shows. I travel a lot for personal and professional reasons and I love long walks in new cities. Travelling allows me to view new architecture and what mobility solutions are implemented.
CCS: What type of design work do you appreciate the most?
Gilles: I love new and vintage cameras. I also have a soft spot for mid-century modern American and Italian furniture.
CCS: Did you try anything new during the pandemic?
Gilles: I got to spend some time in a new, sophisticated racing simulator. It’s a very sustainable way to enjoy my other passion for racing cars. I also picked up a new Wacom tablet and started to draw more.
CCS: We of course have to ask, what is your favorite car?
Gilles: The 1968 Alfa Romeo GT Junior.
CCS: And what was your first car?
Gilles: A Volkswagen Scirocco S.
CCS: You mentioned that you like to travel. What are your favorite destinations?
Gilles: Italy and Japan without a doubt.
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