One of the foremost American automobile stylists in the years following the end of the Second World War, Exner is most widely known for his extravagant ‘idea cars’ and sculptural essays in ‘space age’ tail fin designs for the Chrysler Corporation. He attended art classes at the University of Notre Dame briefly in 1926–7 before taking up a job working on advertisements for the Studebaker Company. Having come to the attention of Harley Earl at General Motors, he was hired to work in the Pontiac design studio. Later, in 1938, he worked for Raymond Loewy's consultancy on the design of Studebaker cars, including the 1947 Starlight coupé, for which most of the critical acclaim has gone to Loewy. In 1949 he became head of the Advanced Styling Studio at Chrysler and worked on a number of ‘idea cars’ such as the K‐310, the Dodge Firearrow, the DeSoto Adventurer, and the Plymouth XNR, all of which were crafted by the Ghia coachbuilders in Italy. In fact Exner transformed the appearance of Chrysler cars from boxlike structures to long, low, elegant machines, shifting the company's design policy away from one that was dominated by body engineers. Exner's aesthetic was characterized by the use of elongated tail fins, an overall aesthetic that he called the ‘Forward Look’. This, combined with a number of technological innovations, led to a significant increase in Chrysler's market share and his election to the post of vice‐president of styling in 1957, the same year in which he and his design team received a Gold Medal award from the Industrial Designers' Institute. One of the reasons for the strongly ‘sculpted’ feel of many of these designs resulted from Exner's tight control of the clay modelling studio and insistence on the final say in the approval of die models. Exner himself felt that his major contribution at Chrysler was not so much in his designs for the corporation but in the ways in which he transformed the styling organization at Chrysler. He left Chrysler in 1962, setting up his own industrial design consultancy in Michigan. He worked on a variety of projects including pleasure boats for the Buehler Corporation, plans for a revival of classic Duesenberg cars, and designs for Stutz, Packard & Mercer.
Subjects: Industrial and Commercial Art.