In a typical class of 12 to 15 students at the Art Center, more than half are Asians, and half of those are South Koreans, said Bumsuk Lim, who previously worked at GM and Honda Motor. GM’s Steve Kim said that economic power shifts mean the next wave of designers is likely to emerge from China and Southeast Asia.
A trailblazer for today’s Korean design talent was John Chun, a Korean War veteran who in the late-1960s designed Shelby Cobras, tricked-out performance variants of the Ford Mustang. Chun, who was also a consultant to Hyundai and worked for Tonka Toys, died in July, aged 84.
A couple of decades later, Art Center’s Lim and Bentley’s Lee came of age, paving the way for the current generation of Korean designers, though Bangle, the ex-BMW design chief, said the world is still waiting for South Korea to produce the likes of Japan’s Ken Okuyama, who designed the Ferrari Enzo, and Shiro Nakamura, Nissan Motor’s chief designer.
Beyond an innate design talent, South Koreans’ success owes much to the nation’s famed work ethic and tenacity, Bangle said, recalling how Jay Jongwon Kim, an industrial design student, turned up unannounced at BMW’s Munich studio one day in 2006.
With no appointment, Jay Jongwon Kim paid his own way to Germany armed only with the address of BMW’s headquarters, a portfolio of designs and a hunger to succeed. Once he had located the design studio, he had to beg reluctant receptionists to call a designer whose name he had found on the Internet. The student, who barely spoke English, let alone German, was eventually allowed in and gave the first of half a dozen presentations that day, first at the MINI studio and then at the main BMW studio to Bangle and current BMW design chief Adrian Van Hooydonk.
Six months later, Kim was back at BMW, this time with an appointment, to present to Bangle a scaled-down model of a design he had shown earlier. He gave a dazzling presentation, complete with lights and music, and was offered an internship on the spot. That led to a formal job offer seven months later, which was scuppered by the 2008 global financial crisis. Undeterred, Kim secured a position at Mercedes-Benz’s studio in Yokohama and later moved to GM’s Opel, where his work on the Monza concept hints at the design language for Opel’s next generation of cars.
A key member of GM’s “Korean mafia” in Michigan is Christine Park, who was lead interior designer for the Cadillac XTS full-size sedan launched last year to help revive the storied brand.
Park, now Cadillac’s lead exterior designer, says the success of her compatriots coincides with the rise of South Korea’s fashion and architectural industries as the economy has prospered. She says her parents and grandparents are part of Korea’s lost generation for whom life was a tough slog through Japanese occupation, World War II and the Korean War.
“They had to worry about whether they had enough to eat day to day,” said Park, a South Korean who was educated in California.
Parents wanted their children to become lawyers, doctors or engineers, she added.
“Now, art is very much celebrated,” making car design a more desirable career choice, she said.