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October 20, 2016

Irina Zavatski's reimagined minivan

Irina Zavatski's reimagined minivan

Irina Zavatski created the concept and led the design of the new Chrysler Pacifica from start to finish.

Fiat Chrysler designer goes for the emotional connection

Long before Irina Zavatski started designing the new Chrysler Pacifica, she was talking to a friend from high school who had young twins. “She told me they had to buy a minivan, and she was crying,” Zavatski remembers. “I thought, I don’t want women to cry when they have to buy a car.”

Zavatski did her best to make good on that years later, when her reimagining of the Pacifica—a replacement for the old Town & Country minivan—was selected in the internal design competition at Fiat Chrysler in Detroit. The 2017 Pacifica debuted in the spring, and critics like it.

“They have come out with something that is really in tune with the needs of families, and they have done a really great job with exterior styling—it looks great on the road,” says Stephanie Brinley, senior analyst for IHS Automotive.

The praise is a nice reward for a project that Zavatski, a 2001 Industrial Design graduate, considers a career hallmark.

“The Pacifica was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience for any designer—to influence a project from nothing to everything,” says Zavatski. Chosen as the lead designer when the project began, she was promoted midway. “There’s not an inch of that vehicle I did not touch.”

Zavatski was 15 when her family moved from Tajikistan to South Euclid, Ohio in 1994. Maybe it was her cultural background, but she admits that as a young car designer, she didn’t really understand why the American minivan carried a stigma. “I had to figure out why,” she says.

So Zavatski, married to fellow CIA alum and designer Jake Joler and the mother of two young children, bought a van herself. The clouds parted. “Not only do you get no respect on the road, but also you become invisible,” she says. “All of a sudden no one noticed you. You kind of disappear.”

The experience parallels what women in general sometimes feel about becoming mothers, and society starts redefining them through that lens. “I think women are proud to be moms, but I feel like they lose something of themselves,” Zavatski says.

“You want to be other things, too.”

When she started designing the Pacifica, she wanted the look to be beautiful—“sculpture on wheels”—and for the car to be more than just a mom wagon. “You drop off your kids at an activity or school in it, and that’s fine,” Zavatski says. “But at the same time, if you go on a date with your husband, you’re proud to valet park it.”

Retired professor Richard Fiorelli isn’t surprised about Zavatski’s success. He remembers a moment during her sophomore year, when she was in his design class, and he found her alone during lunch.

“She was working. No one else in the room. No teacher looking over her shoulder. Working,” Fiorelli says. “This fact alone meant the world to me as a teacher.”

“The coolest part? She was pushing beyond what we had covered in the initial classes,” he adds. “Imagine a Pink Pearl eraser: beveled planes on opposing ends. What I vividly recall is that Irina was attempting to determine how to draw both beveled planes in perspective. Anybody can fake it. Anyone can fudge it. What I recall was that she really wanted to get it.”

Fifteen years down the road, Zavatski has gotten it—both the technical side of car design and the emotional part, which she knows is what drives consumers.

With the Pacifica off the drawing board and on the roads, Zavatski is now onto a new project as exterior design manager for Jeep. In the old days, that might not have seemed like a perfect fit for someone like Zavatski, who considers herself a more sculptural designer.

But Fiat Chrysler has been doing new things with the brand, so “working on Jeep is pretty exciting. I feel like I have my dream job now.”

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