Insight: Work ethic, comic hero make Koreans hot shots in car design

Mon Nov 18, 2013 4:19pm EST
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By Norihiko Shirouzu and Hyunjoo Jin

(Reuters) - 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' 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 cut-throat, 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 United States and Europe, and even at Toyota Motor, as well as, of course, at Hyundai Motor and Kia Motors.

Theories for this Korean wave vary: from Hyundai's rise and the nation's work ethic, to a societal emphasis on external beauty - 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, Lee led a 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 Korean native, who is a director at GM's design studio in Seoul. The two used to work in the basement of 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 Koreans are among several hundred professionals working at the main U.S. studio in Warren, Michigan - and are dubbed the "Korean mafia" or "K-team".   Continued...

Junghan Kim, 22, from South Korea, works on a clay design for a 2023 Lamborghini during a Transportation Design class at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California November 8, 2013. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson