By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jun 03, 2008 at 5:31 AM

Richard Gresens is a Milwaukee boy. He grew up on the West Side in the shadow of a firehouse and a George Webb. He loved to draw and he had an eye for design.

So, perhaps it's little surprise that Gresens, now 45, is a designer by profession. What might be more eye-opening is that Gresens is the chief designer of the new Ford Flex, a seven-person "crossover SUV," due to hit the market this year.

That the car is a blend of classic transportation design and modern lines is also no shock, considering Gresens love for the great locomotives of the middle 20th century and the futuristic vacuum cleaner designs (Gresens collects classic vacs) of the same era.

Gresens' grandfather worked for the Milwaukee Road and that only served to fuel the youngster's passion.

After trips to the train station, Gresens says, "I'd go home and draw like a little maniac. I had my favorites including the Burlington Zephyr and Hiawatha. Little did I know then that these trains would later be influential in my vehicle designs."

Gresens -- who earned his BFA from Detroit's College for Creative Studies in 1986 -- now lives in Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich., near Ford's Dearborn Headquarters but spends a lot of time traveling. We talked to him from Miami to learn more about his roots in Milwaukee's Lenox Heights neighborhood and how he got to design a car. Cool, right?

OMC: Tell us about your Milwaukee experience. Where did you grow up and go to school?

RG: I grew up on 62nd and Burleigh and went school at Emmaus Lutheran down on North 23rd Street, where my dad taught and played organ. We had a fire station at the end of our block where I would love to hang out and check out the trucks. At the other end was a George Webb. For a kid, it doesn't get any better than fire engines and burgers!

OMC: Did Milwaukee -- home of Brooks Stevens and Wisconsin's Frank Lloyd Wright -- influence you to move into design work? How did you get interested in that?

RG: I always admired both of them. I'm a big fan of trains and remember seeing some of the drawings Stevens did for the Milwaukee Road Hiawatha Skytop Lounge car. The drawings themselves made you want to be a passenger in the car; very dramatic. Frank Lloyd Wright seemed to be so ahead of his time and was a master at blending architecture with nature in a striking way.

As a kid I gained an interest to draw from my uncle and grandfather, who were both were very artistic. I also loved things in motion and would always be drawing buses, planes, cars; whatever moved. My dad and I would spend hours at the train station Downtown and when we got back home, I'd be drawing that diesel locomotive we just watched.

OMC: Can you tell us a bit about the route you took to your current position?

RG: I guess I did not get to it by the standard career path. My career began in Germany working for VW as an exterior designer. After that, I dabbled in freelance design work for electric cars and also sold cars for awhile. Moving back to Detroit, I worked for an exhibit design company and then a consulting firm where we specialized in agricultural equipment design as well as showcars. I joined Ford in 2000.

OMC: Could you have imagined when you were first starting out that you'd be chief designer on an automobile program?

RG: I think it's a position, as a kid out of school, you always aspire to attain although it seems so far away at the time. It seemed especially far for me after finishing my first production piece; the exhaust tip for the six cylinder Passat.

OMC: What inspired the design for the Flex?

RG: Our inspiration really came from trying to do something different and evoke a reaction. We wanted a design that stood out in the crowd, a "segment buster." You can also see with the lines on the Flex, the thought to give a sense of motion, in a way similar to what the streamliners of the ‘30s and ‘40s did, like with the Hiawatha.

OMC: Is designing a car a wildly complex thing?

RG: It can be a little more complex than it used to be with all the regulations and parameters that we need to meet or keep. The actual shape, inside and out, is more or less a piece of sculpture. Some forms are more complicated than others, although the more simple forms require a real sensitivity to line to make them sing.

OMC: What's an example of something that no one ever thinks about when pondering how cars are designed?

RG: I'm sure most people cannot believe to what exacting detail we go through to get a surface or line correct on a car. Highlighting -- adjustment of surface to set how light (and) reflection hits a car -- can get into the microns. Sometimes we haggle over moving a line less than 0.5 mm!

OMC: Do you get back to Milwaukee much?

RG: Not as much as I would like to, especially during the Packers season.

OMC: What do you think about how the city has changed over the years?

RG: I think Milwaukee has adjusted better than some other areas to the changing economy. It has a heartbeat and still has many of things that make it special like the food and architecture. I really enjoy the Third Ward part of the city.

OMC: Now that you've designed a car, what's next? What's your next goal?

RG: I just finished working on a seven-passenger vehicle ... it sure would be nice to do a sports car.


Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.