[ Note from Design Mom: I had such a fantastic time at the Toyota design center last year (I heart design-behind-the-scenes) that I jumped at the chance to go again this year. But the dates of the event were exactly the same as Baby June’s due date. Bummer. So I asked gorgeous Karey of Mackin Ink to attend the event in my place. Her excellent report follows. ]

When Gabby asked me to represent Design Mom at a Toyota event in California, my heart nearly jumped out of my chest. California? How exciting! But those who know me even a smidge know that I’d never gush over a car. Especially – gasp! – a minivan. Shoes? Yes. Turquoise? Check. Chubba-lubba new baby faces? For sure. Minivans? Not in a million.

Yet there I drooled in Newport Beach last week at Calty Design Research, Toyota’s North American design studio, as I and a bunch of other bloggers were treated to an in-depth peek at the 2011 Sienna.

The President of Calty described the design process behind the Sienna with so much enthusiasm it was like it was his first day on the job. He calls cars freedom machines. He embraces and encourages the napkin stage of design. Imagine that: scribbles taken seriously. It was incredibly infectious.

This mood grew all day as we were shown the roots of the Sienna by those who’d planted them. We met the team who engineered the exterior, dreaming up a minivan where everything ugly is hidden and everything how did I ever live without that is made stunning. Like the windshield wipers tucked into a secret slot, which looks amazing but also protects them from freezing in colder climates.

The Sienna’s interior just about sent me to the sun twice, especially when I spied the little spot for our giant It bags. The designer was simply sick of his wife’s feet surrounded by totes and baskets full of odds and ends. He made room for everything there’d never been room for before. Brilliant.

The Toyota design team is inspired by mood boards, too. They combine colors and forecast trends and say things like “Isn’t that genius?” and cut and paste and publish just like we do. In fact, one of the designers who chose the Sienna’s colors and fabrics used to be a kitchen and bath designer once upon a time. She had a killer aesthetic. I bet she’d design a most excellent blog.

There’s one part of the design process that I just couldn’t understand: the clay model. Briefly, any design concept doesn’t – and shouldn’t – move forward until a true-to-size clay replica of the vehicle is created, which seems almost prehistoric. Clay? Still? There’s nothing newer and better and slicker?

But then I met the clay artistes, and they most definitely do require that additional e. These old-school artisans even made their own tools so that they’re truly extensions of their hands.  We were told we could look at these tools, but DO. NOT. TOUCH. Those boys were quite proprietary. I tried. I begged and pleaded with no success until I pointed out to one of them that our hands were almost the same size.

It worked like a charm, and I finally had the one tool I needed to mold my own ground-breaking clay minivan model. With a fully convertible roof.

Toyota also organized a charity scavenger hunt for us. We were able to test-drive the new Sienna while gathering up art supplies for our team’s charity, Art & Creativity for Healing, which facilitates fine art classes and workshops for those who’ve endured abuse, illness, grief, or stress. It made me love the Sienna even more. Thanks for that, Toyota.

Thank you, too, to little June Blair for jumping into the world at exactly the right moment to occupy her mom’s May. One of the sweetest compliments I caught was “Are you Gabby’s sister?” I may have said yes. Twice.

Be sure to participate in the freshly launched Small Talk contest sponsored by Toyota Sienna and hosted by Ryan Seacrest. All you need to do is visit http://www.youtube.com/smalltalk and upload a video of your child answering one or more questions from the list featured on the Small Talk channel. The top entries will be featured online and the YouTube community will vote for their favorite. And that favorite wins $10,000.

One more thing. How many times have you and your babes watched this?