On his 10th year with Kia, the influential design chief tells us about the surprising origins of the cars’ “Tiger Nose” grille, and why he only ever wears black…
SINGAPORE — To fans of Kia, or of car design in general, Peter Schreyer needs little introduction. The German designer made his mark at Volkswagen — and the wider car world — by creating the first Audi TT and then following it up with another icon, VW’s New Beetle. Both have become modern classics whose lines and precision forms are still greatly admired today.
His next move seemed unlikely: it involved crossing over to Kia Motors in 2006 to take up a position as its Chief Design Officer. But the fit turned out to be a good one, with the Korean carmaker correctly identifying design strength as a way to accelerate its growth, and Schreyer as a man who, as it turns out, relishes a challenge.
It was a good move commercially, too. In the decade that Schreyer has headed design at Kia (and now the entire Hyundai-Kia group), the brand’s sales have grown from 1.1 million cars a year to 3.05 million.
CarBuyer spoke to Schreyer on the phone from Kia’s design studio in Frankfurt for nearly an hour. Here are the highlights…
Is it true you only wear black?
Yes. I’m wearing it this moment! Many artists, architects do this. I think the reason maybe is that you are next to your product or to your artwork or whatever, you don’t want to shine more than the piece and you want to be kind of in the background.
There’s also a very practical reason: because I’m traveling so much, and if i would have to think every time I leave the house or I leave the hotel in the morning I say, ‘OK, this tie goes with that shirt, and the shirt only goes with the suit.’ But I have the other suit, and then the socks and this and that… Black is a bit like a uniform. I always joke with my wife when I go on a business trip. She says, ‘Which suit would you want to bring?’ and I’ll say, ‘I think I’ll take the black one’.
Korea influences young Singaporeans greatly, with hairstyles, fashion and so on. Do you pick up ideas from there?
Of course. What is very interesting to me in Korea is the special culture, the art scene, the architecture, craftsmanship, their ceramics and all kinds of things.
And also, the modern culture, how fast they are, how eager to learn, how innovative the young generation is, all the electronic stuff. Somehow, this reflects in the development of our cars, and I think this is a great asset to us because other companies don’t have that.
What was it like when you first started at Kia?
I think at that time they had some good cars. The Sorento, design-wise, was actually quite good. It was a car that always kind of caught my eye when I saw them on the street.
But altogether if you look at the product range at that time, it was kind of neutral, and the cars did not have an identity. And this is where I think I started to have an influence, by trying to give the cars and also the brand a character and an identity.
You created the tiger nose grille for the Kee, your first concept car for Kia. How did that come about?
We didn’t have at that time a front face for Kia. I was struggling a long time, you know, by myself, and also discussing with my team, what can we do? What I wanted to do was to make something that has a strong graphic impact. If you look at BMW as an example, it’s such a strong graphic symbol, the kidney grille, that you recognise it immediately. I wanted something that is as strong as that.
I was just playing around, and then one day I just came to the idea. I wanted to centre the car, to have something that gives it a kind of an expression, and so I came up with those two tabs that slim the grille in the centre from the top and from the bottom. This makes a very strong graphic piece, so strong that you can put the badge on top of it.
The character of the grille is so strong, that it’s very variable — you can make it higher, you can make it lighter, no matter what type of headlamp shape you have, it always works. And then we put it on the Kee show car and that was the first time that the tiger nose appeared. In the design studio I said, ‘Please think of an expression of an animal like a tiger. Look at the tiger’s face, how three-dimensional the nose is, and the gaze of a tiger, the way it looks at you and how alert it is.’ And this is how we came to the naming of it… let’s call it the tiger nose grille. The name came after the fact.
You mentioned BMW, which has a lot of heritage. It is a design handicap to have less of that, or is it better without baggage from the past?
I try to look at things in an optimistic way. For me, I don’t really want to waste too much energy saying, ‘We don’t have a history, what shall we do?’ When I was at Audi, even there we did not have that much history either, but when you work for a German company like say BMW, Mercedes or the Volkswagen Group, you have a very, very, long tradition. Of course you make use of that, it’s natural, it fits very well. For us, it’s a bit the other way around. We’re a newcomer, but we have the advantage of freshness. Let’s call it innocence. We don’t have the burden of history.
Schreyer’s favourite design? The GT Concept from 2011
“You know when you have more than one kid; you can never say which your favourite is. You love them all. I also do, with all the cars I’ve designed, but there is one that stands out a little bit, I must admit. The GT Concept was a dream project for me and our designers because we got the chance to make a real GT, a car where you can travel in style.”
Engineers can measure their success by stopwatch. How does a designer like you define success?
Of course when a car is selling very well, first of all, that is the most important way. But, I think if we get a lot of attention, and we know that people are proud and happy about their car, this is the rewarding thing about our job.
Can I ask you something personal? Is it true you once competed at skeleton sledding?
Yes, it’s true. I’m not actively doing it anymore but I did it on a competition basis. It’s something maybe very exotic for people in Singapore because you don’t have snow. I grew up in the alps and I always dreamt of being a competition skier or something. I always the admired the skeleton riders also, I thought that was so cool. And then I did it, and it was really fun. I had the honour to take part in some European championships, german championships and things like that, but that’s like 30 years ago. It’s quite exciting because you’re doing up to more than 100 kilometres per hour, some tracks up to 120, with your nose maybe three centimetres above the ice, and it’s a quite interesting perspective.
You must be very brave…
I read a quote once that was painted on a World War II fighter plane that said, ‘No guts, no glory.’ I think that’s right. The biggest risk is not to take a risk. That’s a constant in design, you know.If you never dare to do anything, you always stay average and you only follow.