Even though I knew what to expect, it still seemed unusual to call a Korean car company and hear a heavy German accent. But for Peter Schreyer, borders mean little in his quest for global vision in automotive design.
As president of Kia and Hyundai — the first non-Korean to hold the position — he oversees its design centres in Seoul, California, and in Frankfurt, Germany, where he’s based.
“I manage three studios to a single vision by travelling a lot and talking a lot so they can follow that idea,” Schreyer says. “It’s useful to have a studio in the home country and in the main lead markets, to get an understanding for the customers and what demands they have, what are their expectations, and to get a variety of proposals from our designers to find good direction.”
Like many auto designers, Schreyer found his interest at a young age. “I always liked artistic things, and I liked cars and aeroplanes, and so it came together and I thought to study design,” he says. Beginning in 1975, he attended the Industrial Design School of Applied Arts in Munich, and then the Royal College of Art in London, where he did an internship with Audi.
That automaker gave him his first job, and he rose spectacularly to become head of design at Audi from 1994 to 2002. From there, he became the design chief at Volkswagen, where his projects included the New Beetle. But in 2006, he took a completely different turn and accepted the position of chief designer officer at Kia Motors.
“I wanted the challenge,” he says. “The cars were not that spectacular, and they approached me. I wanted to see how I could shake the brand.”
One of his first tasks was to give the models a cohesive look, which he did with the distinctive “tiger nose” grille now used across the board, but with slight variances designed for each vehicle. Beyond that, though, his design parameters remain fluid. “I want things that are clean and logical, and not too fancy,” he says. “Our design should not be for its own sake, but for the sake of a good product and satisfaction for the customer.
“I try to make good proportions and perfect stance. The interior has a feeling that you are in command of the car, things are easy to reach, and there is a nice, high-quality atmosphere. I don’t have a trademark in the sense that I always make five-spoke wheels or something like that. It depends on the project.”
In 2012, he was named head of design to both Kia and Hyundai, which certainly upped the challenge. Although Hyundai has owned Kia since 1998, and the companies share a joint technical centre in Michigan, they are also fierce competitors and operate as separate entities.
In the past, they also shared models that often had relatively few differences other than trim. Schreyer has to walk a fine line: he must streamline the processes between the two companies for efficiency, but also take common platforms and produce unique vehicles for each. “It’s important that each of these brands have their own ideas and directions,” he says. “There is a big difference between these two and I want to find their differences and make them stronger in those points, so each has its own strong direction.”
He oversees some 600 people in his studios. That may sound like a lot, but it’s really not enough, he says. “It’s not that one designer makes one car. You need a team to work on many projects at the same time, and we work on concept cars, new developments, new details, so you need a lot of people.”
Schreyer and his teams have collected numerous design awards over the years, including the prestigious Red Dot award in Europe for the Kia Optima and Sportage. But while some designers love to soar with futuristic sketches that can only exist as concepts, Schreyer actually prefers to work within the confines of creating a car that has to meet the demands of the assembly line.
“You always need to think of production,” he says. “You need to be in contact with the engineering and cost people to develop something that works. It’s like when you’re a slalom skier. You need the posts; otherwise, you can’t do a slalom.
“These are the borderlines you need to have. Otherwise, we’d be artists, and not designers.”
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