In today’s auto industry, where famed Japanese quality and durability are increasingly a given, design is king and, among designers, South Koreans are hot property.
From General Motors’ (GM) bold Chevrolet Camaro to the quintessential British gentlemen’s Bentley, more top models carry the flair and signature of a group of designers from South Korea, which some have dubbed “Asia’s Italy” for its impact on car design, fashion and aesthetics.
As competition in the industry becomes ever more cutthroat, partly as gaps in quality and technology narrow, automakers need bolder, edgier designs to differentiate. From a global talent pool, South Koreans stand out.
Designers, including Sangyup Lee, Jinwon Kim and Jay Jongwon Kim, are gaining influence at automakers in the US and Europe, and even at Toyota Motor, as well as, of course, at Hyundai Motor and Kia Motors.
Theories for this South Korean wave vary: from Hyundai’s rise and the nation’s work ethic, to a societal emphasis on external beauty — South Korea has a thriving cosmetic surgery industry — and the impact of a 1990s comic book and TV series called Asphalt Man, which starred local heartthrob Lee Byung-hun as a young car designer.
The aspiring fictional designer inspired “a lot of kids, including me, at the time,” said Sangyup Lee, who is in charge of exterior design and advanced design at Bentley’s main studio in Crewe in northwest England.
Four years ago, Sangyup Lee led a South Korean-Russian-Brazilian team that redesigned the new Camaro for launch by GM in 2009. He later moved to Volkswagen and then to the German group’s Bentley unit. Another member of the Camaro team was Steve Kim, a South Korean who is a director at GM’s design studio in Seoul. The two used to work in the basement of Sangyup Lee’s house in a Detroit suburb, often late into the night tossing around ideas and filling up sketchpads to conjure up the new Camaro.
At GM, the Detroit automaker that bought failed Daewoo Motors in 2002, close to three dozen South Koreans are among several hundred professionals working at the main US studio in Warren, Michigan — and are dubbed the “Korean mafia” or “K-team.”
Tim Lee, GM’s global manufacturing chief and China unit chairman, says most global brands are now equally capable on quality and technology.
“What sets us apart? Great design and [economies of] scale,” he said, adding that a successful automaker has to offer more car for the customer at affordable prices.
At Toyota, Jinwon Kim led the design of the FJ-Cruiser, an edgy sport utility vehicle. Mercedes-Benz designer Hubert Lee, US-born but who grew up in Seoul, masterminded the styling of the CLS luxury coupe, and Jay Jongwon Kim is a rising talent at Opel, one of the design brains behind the Monza concept car that won plaudits at this year’s Frankfurt auto show.
“Koreans are extremely good designers, well trained and disciplined,” said Chris Bangle, a former BMW design chief who now runs a design consultancy in Italy.
Bumsuk Lim, a South Korean professor of car design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California — widely regarded as the Harvard of auto design — says the rise of South Korean designers is a result of a turn in the global industry.
“In most mature markets people have moved on and cars are generally nothing more than a means of transportation,” he said. “In [South] Korea and, increasingly, China, people still dream of owning cars and they’re considered a status symbol,” making car design a desirable profession.