DETROIT – Mazda Motor Corp. designers draw inspiration from the “delicacy” of nature and various fashion trends throughout the world.

Seeking these out involves visiting obscure trade shows and fairs, such as “Kaboom,” an annual show that focuses on sustainability through the use of new materials, says Teresa Spafford, lead designer, colors and materials, Mazda North American Operations.

International trends are shared among Mazda designers, helping to create a global perspective. Additionally, Mazda holds an annual conference to discuss the latest color preferences.

“We also like to contemplate new ways to use new materials,” Spafford says at the Ward’s Auto Interiors Show here. “A lot of them come from different industries, like architecture, product design or cosmetic, fashion or furniture design. It’s just a matter of us taking that and translating it to automotive.”

However, adopting a new material is not an easy task when the vehicle is slated for production, as this requires “a lot of other people (to be) involved” beyond the design team, Spafford says. Concept cars offer more freedom to utilize a myriad of materials and draw inspiration from unconventional sources.

This design philosophy has led to a number of memorable concept cars from Mazda, she says, such as the Furai, which bowed at this year’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The vehicle takes its styling cues from the wind.

“We were studying wind and looked at a lot of flags and kites in the wind, especially Japanese kites and (their) ribbons,” Spafford says.

“The Furai is like a storm brewing and changing, so there’s no two mirrored surfaces on this car. Basically, every surface is unique,” although the car’s exterior and interior were designed to flow together.

The Nagare concept, which debuted at the 2006 Los Angeles auto show, was first to bring the “flow” philosophy to Mazda, Spafford says. Designers studied the layering of sand dunes while crafting the car, even borrowing the subtle color differences of sand particles as inspiration for the interior and exterior color palette.

The Nagare also carried an emotional aspect, she says. “The emotional theme for the color was love and lust. We wanted raw tension in the vehicle.”

Unlike other auto makers that push the boundaries on their conceptss but deliver more conservative designs on production vehicles, Mazda tries to be just as daring on vehicles destined for showrooms, Spafford says.

Of course, sometimes those making business decisions don’t always see eye to eye with designers. Such was the case with a special-edition MX-5 Miata proposed by Spafford’s design team that boasted an “icy-blue silvery” exterior and chocolate-brown ragtop and seats.

Management argued the color scheme would create a “chick” car that would hold no appeal to male buyers. After much discussion, Spafford got the go-ahead to build the vehicle, but with a warning from her manager that should it fail an unusual punishment awaited.

“I convinced product planning that it (wasn’t) a chick car,” she says, using a photo of male models decked out in the same color scheme. In return, Spafford was told if the car didn’t sell, “I’d have to shave my head.”

Today, the ice-blue model is outselling silver, which (traditionally) is the Miata’s No.1 color, she says.

Spafford says there are three edicts she follows while designing automobiles: set a goal; create things customers need and love; and be daring. “You have to walk in (to design review) like you own the place, like James Bond,” she says.

bpope@wardsauto.com