What secret ingredients are there in Peter Schreyer’s European setup? Gregory Guillaume (above), Head of the Kia Design Center in Frankfurt, was appointed 12 years ago, still has the same rôle, and is surrounded by an incredible number of other ten-year-plus colleagues. At Kia they just don’t seem to move around like in other design organizations. And down the road at Hyundai, where Thomas Bürkle got Schreyer as his superior in 2012, it’s exactly the same story.
“It’s because it is still fun,” is Guillaume’s simple explanation. Success and challenges might be other key explanations; new models are introduced at breakneck speed and Kia has now broken through the three per cent market share barrier in Europe.
It would be futile to argue that design does not play a great role here. And yesterday’s presentation of the third generation Picanto gave us the chance to catch up with their current activities.
This car is a confirmation of the studio's stability, but at the same time shows that new talent is welcome. Responsible for exterior design was Seyyed Javad Ghaffarian: “My first complete project. After Pforzheim I have been here for three-and-a-half years. Great team.”
The others – James Moon, interior design, Ralph Kluge, interior manager, and Laurent Boulay – belong to the ‘10 years-plus’-team. Boulay was actually contemporary with Guillaume at Art Center in Vevey – both are from the class of ’91 (“a very good vintage”).
A quick look at the car shows exactly the same external dimensions as the old model. No surprises there, the car belongs to a special tax bracket in South Korea, defined by dimensions, just like the Japanese Kei car.
But a marginally longer wheelbase than before, and moving the optical weight backwards with shorter front and longer rear overhangs, alters the stance. Together with bigger wheels the car looks much more suited to the 100bhp available in the top version.
New, very 3D-looking light clusters in all the corners add to the impression one gets of a bigger car. And young Javad has certainly understood the ‘pure surfacing, minimal character lines’ mantra of Kia design.
“We don’t do things that are flashy or current fashion,” Gregory Guillaume explains. “We are not very interested in decoration, we concentrate on engineering and pure design.”
And on the question of “what’s wrong with toggle switches?” he really comes alive. He talks about his very early Austin Healey (“no bumpers, hardly any screen, very pure”) and then the switches in his Series One Jaguar E-Type: “there you really know if the switch is on or off. I for one don’t want to tear down the motorway at 200kph having to wave at some sensor to increase the air conditioning level or look down to a screen to be able to change a setting. A lot of these things we see in the interiors now are there because they might be interesting to talk about, not because they fulfil any serious purpose. To me it seems that people are adding gadgets because they can – not necessarily because it is a very sensible solution.”
But even he has to admit to a certain pressure from product planners or customers – the new Picanto does have a screen in the IP.
He is also refreshingly candid about the conception of ‘premium’. “What, actually, is premium? I don’t believe Aston Martin originally set out to be a manufacturer of premium cars. I think they just wanted to make a good car. I certainly don’t want to make a premium car. I want quality, both real in the construction, and real when it comes to the material, and if that is in place we do not have to think about ‘perceived’ quality. But our level of quality does not spell ‘premium’, whatever that might be. What I am saying is that premium does not necessarily mean quality, but real quality is a tangible thing that I strongly believe in”.
He might have some trouble with this distinction in the future. At Geneva the production Stinger will be presented alongside the Picanto, and there will certainly be people calling that ‘premium’. “You know,” he says, “that car and the new Picanto were developed simultaneously in the same studio on the same floor and, to a large degree, by exactly the same people”.
In addition to the new upmarket Kia he will soon have another set of colleagues at European Genesis (“We have some great plans for that, even if we haven’t established a proper studio for the brand yet, we are just hiring,” Peter Schreyer told us from deep in the background of the Picanto introduction). But all signals indicate that it will be hard to separate ‘premium’ from the Genesis brand.
Even with Guillaume’s 12 years of faithful Kia service, we can pretty nearly agree that this year we can celebrate 10 years of Kia’s European design revolution.“When I was hired we had to start from scratch. The Cee’d was in the pipeline – without the ‘tiger nose’ – but that was it. There were many challenges but the management was very clear about the way ahead.”
The rest of us did not really realize what was happening. Peter Schreyer was hired a year after Guillaume, but he needed time to settle down, so nothing really happened until 2007. Guillaume’s team presented a concept at Geneva in 2007; just a Cee’d variant. Then came the move from the Rüsselsheim studio to their own in the centre of Frankfurt (“What a privilege, the only drawback is that we cannot have an open air viewing site”), and at the same time, the amazing Kee concept at Frankfurt really opened the eyes of observers.
All of this happened 10 years ago. And the rest is history, as they say. But Gregory Guillaume adds some more history too. He was in the middle of the Erwin Himmel-induced Volkswagen storm in 1999, where people were sacked and moved in all directions – we both agree that if a book ever gets written about that, it will introduce a totally new dimension to some of the boring car design literature that exists.
“But the real hero, and nobody talks much about him, was Hartmut Warkuss who managed to not only keep this dysfunctional organization together, but also succeeded in getting some very good work out of it.”
Is that a common trait here, then? Low profile, dedication and a talent for keeping a group together..? The new Picanto feels like a small but apt tribute to stability and continuing fun.