From Designing Spaceships to Designing Cars: Hunter Erdman’s Career Journey
“I didn’t even know that was a job!” That’s the usual reaction when I tell people I’m a car designer.
Being a born-and-raised Michigander, I have always been obsessed with mechanized transportation – not just cars, but boats, motorcycles, planes, and off-roaders. I’ve also been drawing since I could hold a pencil, and I knew I had to do something with all those years of drawing on desks in class and sketching on the back of homework. Until a community college art professor told me about Detroit’s College for Creative Studies (CCS), I had no idea I could combine my love of drawing with my passion for motorized transportation.
After one tour of the college campus, I knew CCS was the place for me. There, I learned the traditional skills of a car designer: clay modeling, digital modeling, hand-drawn sketching, and scale mockup building. I also learned firsthand about the re-birth of Detroit – its history and hidden gems – and after a few years of exploring, I began to feel like I was part of the city.
I loved being surrounded by the art and culture in the city and embraced it. I took drawing classes in the shadow of the Detroit Institute of Arts, learned to draw cars in the same exact studio where Harley Earl pioneered modern car design, and more! Every week, there also seemed to be a handful of newly opened bars and restaurants to try.
Four years, many sleepless nights, and 10,000 drawings later, I graduated with a degree in transportation design, and I was ready and eager to take a job at one of the big three auto companies.
CAR DESIGN – SPACESHIP DESIGN
Fast forward six months, I’d applied to every single job opening that had even a mention of design in it. The few callbacks or interviews I managed to snag only demoralized me further when the “we regret to inform you…” emails kept rolling in. I was becoming despondent. Had I wasted the last four years of my life and gotten into college loan debt for nothing?
My part-time job as a valet paid my bills (barely) through college, but I knew I needed to get into a resume-building first job as soon as possible. My senior thesis was a design for an interplanetary space cruise ship, which was a very un-car design. At the time, I felt that was the most true-to-self decision because it allowed me to flex all of my newly developed skills in one exciting project. As it turned out, it was also one of the best career decisions I could have made.
One of my regular valet guests was the owner of an aerospace tooling company called Models & Tools in Shelby Township, Michigan. After a few years of building a relationship with him and his family, he surprised me and said he might be able to utilize my design skills at his company. After a quick interview with his team, I was hired to assist in visualizing and designing tools for the space industry.
Detroit might be the Motor City, but Shelby Township is home to the second-largest concentration of aerospace and automation manufacturing companies in the United States. It was not exactly the original career plan I set out with, but I loved anything and everything space-related, so it worked out. I was able to learn a great deal in just a short amount of time, thanks to the incredible engineers and fabricators at Models & Tools. Working on projects for Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Sierra Space, I learned the entire manufacturing process from concept to production of final components. They were using engineering tolerances and standards far beyond what even the auto industry utilizes. I’ll be forever grateful for the opportunity and knowledge I gained there.
One day, a friend sent me a news article about a startup car company out of New York that had just announced its move from the Catskills to Detroit in search of automotive talent. I checked out its website and saw that it was not hiring designers, but I was blown away by this fresh new vehicle – it was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. Square, bold, and minimal, the truck looked simultaneously old school and modern, and I couldn’t get enough.
I researched everything I could about the truck, the company, and the employees. The truck was the brainchild of Robert Bollinger and his small team, developed in a converted service station in the mountains of upstate New York. Bollinger is an Industrial Designer and entrepreneur who was unsatisfied with his truck options for use around his cattle farm. He knew the future was electric and decided if he couldn’t find the truck he needed, he’d just make it. I loved this philosophy and was willing to sweep the floors and take out the trash if that’s all I could do for them; I just wanted to be a part of this new adventure with like-minded people.
I decided I’d reach out with my portfolio and resume on the off-chance that they would be hiring designers soon. Since I had done the research, I knew who the key people were, and I figured they were such a small company that their emails would be pretty easy to guess. So, I compiled the email with a link to my portfolio and hit send. I was not expecting any response, especially since I completely guessed the email addresses, but a few days later, Bollinger himself emailed me back, saying he’d love to chat. A quick phone call and a subsequent lunch meeting with him at Mercury Bar in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood was all it took. He asked when I could start and said he would send an offer letter shortly.
I was astounded to hear Bollinger loved my portfolio and sketching style, particularly because I wasn’t known in school for my sketching abilities. In one of the best design schools in the world, I was a big fish in a big pond full of even bigger fish. I knew where I stood as a jack of all trades in the automotive design community, but it was nice to hear that I was now being considered for a potential dream job based on my developed skills. Bollinger would later tell me that he loved my spaceship project and that it was refreshingly unique in a sea of same-looking car design portfolios.
I started working at Bollinger Motors when just five employees worked in a rented loft in Eastern Market, Detroit. As I write this nearly five years later, we have more than 55 employees and are making huge strides toward producing our first commercial electric trucks. I have been fortunate in my brief career to find my dream job before age 30. I know some people can go their whole life without finding this, and I’ll never take that for granted. Every day is a new adventure; no two days are the same. I’ve had drinks with famous actors, had in-depth conversations with billionaires, traveled the country for work, and I can confidently say I have the coolest job. Not bad for guessing a couple of email addresses.