Jean-Claude has his own Industrial Design company called JC Design. His main work is designing airplanes for VIPs. During the interview, he shared how he decided to go out on his own; how turning to God has helped him overcome design and relationship challenges he's confronted while working with a very select clientele; how he sees design work as reflection, not creation; how he's learned that there are no limitations; and more.
How did you get involved in industrial design for airplanes?
I got my masters at " l'Ecole superieure nationale des arts decoratifs de Paris" (France), which is similar to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. I met my wife, and we moved to the States. I freelanced a little, then put in two applications and ended up working for the City of Seattle and then for Boeing, for Walter Dorwin Teague, the famous industrial designer, for 7 years. In the beginning, I was a graphic artist; then I moved to the Renton factory near Seattle, doing renderings and perspective drawings of interiors of airplanes using brush and color all by hand --not on the computer. I got into the design department, doing conceptual designs for airplane interiors for the commercial side, which included working on wide body planes, like the Boeing 747 and 737. Then I got into the VIP side of the business, which also included designing the outsides.
How did you decide to work for yourself?
I was doing all the same things at work, had asked to do other things, but still wanted a change. After 9 years in the States, we decided to move back to France. I was in my early 30s. I had a couple of interviews with companies, found a job, and then was laid off a year and a half later. France is highly socialized, so I was financially helped for 6 months. I wasn't fearful. We only had one child at the time. I was looking forward to new things. I let everything go, and I knew I had someone to fall on: God was saying, "I am going to help you." I took classes in how to set up a corporation and how to work in France and Europe. Different state-owned French companies were interested in my portfolio; I began to build a larger client base. So, I designed airplane interiors (and exteriors) while we lived in France for 18-19 years for airlines, VIPs, heads of states. Again, when we came back to the States 7 years ago, I wasn't fearful. I knew I would have customers who would keep coming to me, and they have.
What's involved in working for VIPs?
As a rule, the VIP work is very specialized, which includes small airplanes, Beachcraft, etc. Sometimes there aren't a lot of new ideas to put into the aircrafts because they're so small, so designers just change the material and colors. But the work I do on VIP wide body aircrafts is different: we design absolutely everything from chinaware to showers and beds. I work closely with the customers. It's like being an architect, creating a floor-plan, showing the skin of the airplane and all the things you can put inside, etc. There are very strong codes and restrictions to follow; everything has to be certified; we have to take in account that there are floor areas that are moving, so everything has to be anchored to the floor; etc. Since airplanes expand in the air from 2-3 feet because they're pressurized, there are a lot of complications involved in effective design. When I started, I had to learn the basics. Every single time I have a new project there's something I learn; everyday is a learning process, and I know I am supported by a higher idea than myself.
Who are your VIP clients, and what's it like to work with them?
I'm working for heads of states, Emirs, like the Emir of Kuwait. At times, I meet with the Emirs themselves, or their sons, or dedicated project managers who are close to the final users, and many others involved on the projects, which often takes 2 years. I become friends with them. Sometimes I spend weekends with them. But sometimes the work relationship strains the friendships. Whenever that happens, I go back to the Source, to God, back to the Bible. Very often, I have been able to resolve the problems. I remember when I was in Paris working on a project for an Emir (A310), I felt there was friction between the man involved in engineering and myself. He wanted the drawing to be done at a certain time, but there were things we didn't know yet that were necessary to put into the design. He didn't want to lose face, so he held me responsible for making the drawings late, even though it was not my responsibility. I found ideas in the Bible that helped turn that situation around, ideas that have sustained me throughout my career. I was able to reconcile with him; things were very harmonious. It ended very well, and we're still very good friends.
What are some of the inspiring thoughts that help you overcome the challenges you face?
As my work is very difficult and demanding, one idea or statement that helps me quite a bit, especially when I feel a little tense is: "Good morning! This is God. I will be handling all your problems today. I will not need your help. Have a good day." I have it posted on my desk. Questions also come to mind: "How am I going to be able to please my customers? What do I need to be aware of? How can I best serve my clients?" I have what I call my work ethic principles, which I write down. I have a sheet of paper with Bible citations that I carry with me. One of those is: "Do nothing from selfish or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself. Do not merely look out for your own interests, but also for the interest of others" (Phil. 2:3, 4). When clients call me, I focus on how I can best serve them, even if it's a small job, as that small job will bring back work. Another idea from the Bible that is part of my work ethic is: "For whatever a man sows this he will also reap.... And let us not lose heart in doing good. For in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men" (Gal. 6:7, 9, 10). These ideas, which I carry with me in Europe, are a continual help. Sometimes there's a lot of money involved. I'm working on one project right now that's $64 million just for the interior. So when things go wrong, the customers can be very unhappy. Sometimes I have to go back to basics. Sometimes I feel like I'm being pulled apart because there's always a third party involved. Often planes are late because of the certification process or other aspects I'm not involved with; but I have to be very aware of what's happening because I could be held responsible. I pray about protection, and I've been protected many times. Although I have been doing this work for many years, I often feel like I am starting from scratch, as if it were my first job. So I look at my work ethic principles, open the Bible, talk with my wife, or call someone to pray for me and the situation. My wife and I study and pray together. She is the one who helped me understand God. I had been raised in a religion, but really was an atheist until I met her and came to see God in a new way. My wife and I write down ideas from the Bible that correspond to my work. I find that when I pray, ideas come to me: the little voice is telling me what to do for each circumstance.
What lessons have you learned from working in such a high-powered environment?
I've learned that there are no limitations. Time seems to be a big obstacle, but I've learned that there are no limitations on what we can achieve in one week, as often clients need something in 3 days that usually takes 7-10 days. Also, these people have a lot of money, very little time, and often react in ways that make the job very difficult. So when I go to meetings, I know that I'm not going to be the one talking. I let God do the talking. And it's not just words. I've learned to be myself and know that nothing comes directly from me; I'm always supported by God. I've learned to take care of all the problems, no matter what they are -- relationships, time zone differences, etc --through prayer. When I start praying, the little voice always speaks to me. My office is my "closet" (Matt. 6:6) where I read and pray. All those questions I have, I get answered. It's like Moses when he went to talk to Pharaoh to lead his people out of bondage. What I have to do is nothing compared to Moses, but with every step along the way, I listen to the little voice talking to us all day long, which I want to acknowledge and respect. I know it's God talking to me, and it's helped me a great deal. I've also learned that when you start your day with God, ideas come fairly often and quickly.
What do you feel are important qualities or characteristics of being a designer?
The most important one is to know we are not creators. That's the key thing to remember. Nothing is being created. In French, the word for designer is "createur," creator, meaning to invent something. But even if I look at the design process very humanly, it's easy to see that although we do things that seem new, we don't actually create them; we transform things. There's only one creation and that's God's creation. Time after time, I've thought, "It's a good thing I'm not the creator." Whatever I write or find on my piece of paper is a reflection of God. Thinking of design as reflection has really been helpful with my life as a designer. As a result, I think I am able to hear better ideas, or better ideas are given to me. I think it's the same for musicians and other trades. If you understand that God is the creator, you don't have the pressure that comes from thinking that you're doing it all. I'm glad I know this. If I didn't know this, maybe I'd be vain and feel more pressure. To be a better designer, you have to know your relationship to the creator.
Can you share any examples of how you've dealt with design issues that arise?
Two years ago, I started working on the new jumbo jet Airbus A380, a project for Air France. I had worked for Air France before, and they kept me on as a designer when I started my own company, though I'm not as involved on as many projects. I bid on the projects and work on different things for them -- storage, staircases, first class bars, etc. Because I've been doing this for a long time, I know what will work well for the different planes, such as the A380. On this one project, I had many difficulties. A lot of younger people who didn't have a lot of experience wanted futuristic things. I wanted to listen to what they had to say, but I also knew that some things wouldn't work. They weren't the users, and the people who actually used the bar or the storage area wouldn't be able to use them. There were lots of things to consider -- image, a certain magnificence, and workability. I became fearful of being able to make my point and show them why the simple designs I had would be better. I had to know that God would show me the way. I listened, and God told me, "I'm doing the work; you're not. So enjoy it." Usually what comes to me is very simple. I don't have to intellectualize it. I stay very simple at the roots. It took humility on my part and on their part, and it was resolved through prayer. I also think about the gifts I've been given and how I should use them. Jesus says, "For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath" (Matt. 13:12). To me, this means that I have to be aware of what I have and use it. Also, I can ask for more and receive whatever I need to accomplish whatever I need to do.
You mentioned protection earlier. How have you been protected?
On the road, at the airports, in airplanes during storms. Once a month, I'm out on long airplane trips to Europe, Hong Kong, Japan, etc. So I turn to the Bible a lot to help me feel safe when traveling back and forth. It helps knowing that we are protected -- not only on trips but also in work. I've been in very difficult positions. One time the project manager for a certain project came to see me in Seattle when he was visiting his mother in Venezuela, but we never talked about work. When I went to his place of business, he was upset because I didn't have the drawings he expected me to have. Days were wasting away, and I felt responsible. So I had to see that I wasn't the one responsible for getting everything done; God was. I knew that this was going to be solved. I was able to deal with my fears and found the answers to the questions.
What do you like about your work?
I like the people I meet. Even though they're very different, we find commonalities; we speak in English and talk about things we know best. It also helps a lot to know that everyone is important -- the people doing the smallest things, like those in charge of cleaning parts, sheet metal workers and other things I can't do. It's good to know that there are no boundaries; everything is possible when you talk to the right people. When we work together and find compromises, we end up finding solutions that are better than the best solutions we could find on our own. I'm also grateful that work has come in due time, that it has been very harmonious, and that I've been able to overcome challenges by turning to God.
Any last ideas to share with our readers?
I have asked myself, "What is the ultimate goal of my work, my life?" The answer is to do what Jesus told us: "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven" (Matt. 5:16). I'm just trying to let my light shine. Being a designer is about reflection, not creation. That's what I'd like to emphasize.
About Jean-Claude Estevenin
I graduated in Fine Arts from Beaux Arts (Avignon, France) (BA) in 1967 and Interior Design and Mural Art (MA) in 1971 from " l'Ecole superieure nationale des arts decoratifs de Paris" (France)
I moved to Santa Clara, CA in 1971, was married, and worked as a freelance graphic designer in the Bay Area until 1972.
We moved to the Northwest, Seattle, at the end of 1972, and I was hired for eight months by the city of Seattle to be part of a team involved with the study of public right-of-ways (experimental project).
I was then hired by Walter Dorwin Teague (Boeing in-house design firm), in May 1973 until 1980. I started as a graphic artist, illustrator, and was later involved in designing commercial interiors and VIP airplanes.
My wife, Courtney, and I moved to France in 1980 with our son Perry (18 months). I was hired by a French company based near Paris where I was involved in Airplane interior designs but was laid off after 18 months.
I then started my own design office in 1982 designing commercial interiors for several airlines and VIP airplanes for Heads-of-State in the Middle East. Those included an A310 for the Emir of Kuwait, A340 for the Emir of Qatar, a 747 for the Emir of ABU Dhabi, etc., and commercial interiors for Air France, Kuwait Airways, Cathay Pacific Airways, US Airways, etc., several fabric designs, seat designs, and furniture for aircrafts.
In 1998 we moved back to Seattle with our family. Since then, I have been involved with similar projects. Our son, Perry, and daughter, Lauren, have also worked with me on various projects.