Motor Maverick

From cars to jets to trailers, Bryan Thompson designs to make any dream come true.

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  • Written by
    Rachel Heller Zaimont

Bryan Thompson still remembers the guidance counselor who unwittingly touched off his career. The Studio City resident was studying architecture at Arizona State University, itching for a chance to pursue his passion for automotive design.

“That’s a pipe dream,” the counselor told him. “Let it go.” Right then and there, Bryan formulated a new goal: to prove him wrong.

Twenty years later, Bryan is an industry veteran with some impressive credits to his name. He has designed cars for Nissan and Peugeot, camping trailers for Airstream, truck interiors for Volvo and executive jets for Brazilian aerospace company Embraer. This past summer, the 40-year-old garnered buzz as the only openly gay contestant on truTV’s reality show Motor City Masters, where his imaginative concepts won second place.

“I love designing micro-spaces—anything that’s really tidy and homey, that takes you somewhere else,” he says. “I love the promise of freedom that travel represents.”

Although Bryan always wanted to design cars, his road to success was rocky. Shortly after the disappointing exchange with his guidance counselor, Bryan dropped out of college and traveled Europe on a shoestring budget, talking his way into every car studio he could. In Italy, Fiat’s design director ultimately gave him the encouragement he needed.

He graduated from Detroit’s College for Creative Studies and clinched a design job with Nissan, where he worked for 10 years. Bryan is now freelance, applying his talents to everything from vehicles to commercial and music video sets. (Katy Perry’s throne in her “Roar” video was a recent project.)

Bryan says he has had to navigate some prejudice in the automotive world. “It’s a strange field, because it’s gasoline and testosterone, but it’s also hyper-artistic and creative,” he explains. “There are a lot of gay car designers who aren’t out; there’s a kind of glass ceiling.”

Next up, Bryan hopes to blast a hole in that ceiling for future generations. He used his Motor City Masters stint to launch a scholarship for LGBT students who want to study car design. The Bryan Thompson Design Scholarship puts promising young artists through design school at one of two top colleges, including his alma mater.

“I created it for the kid who has the story I had, who is being told, ‘You can’t do this,’” Bryan says. “You can.”