THE R&D CAMPUS outside Seoul feels much like the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank, California. Employees of Hyundai Motor Group’s three divisions—Hyundai, Kia, and Genesis—bustle about on this lovely Friday morning. Over at yonder intersection a forklift truck hoists a disguised prototype off the pavement before proceeding to a testing cell. On another street some people on our bus spot the next Hyundai Veloster, a contract player in B productions, scuttling by in camouflage wrap. Alas, the security staff put strips of “Do Not Detach” tape over our camera lenses.
Over at the new design center, top executives are introducing the 2019 Genesis G70, the latest sedan from HMG’s two-year-old luxury division. Genesis head Manfred Fitzgerald welcomes us and turns the show over to Luc Donckerwolke, senior vice president and head of Genesis design. Clad in black, Donckerwolke looks ready to break into a rendition of “Folsom Prison Blues.” He was serious to the point of graveness when introducing Sang Yup Lee, vice president of styling and a key member of the international cohort of Genesis designers. Lee made a big mark in Detroit with the C6 Corvette and fifth-gen Camaro before going to England and contributing to the new Bentley Continental GT.
Donckerwolke and cool-hand Lee undrape the two G70s on stage and take more than 200 reporters through the high points, laying out the goals of making their 3 Series battler “emotional, athletic, and sexy.” The G70 evinces a vivid execution of conventional themes, but its grille and flaring nostrils outside it are a surprise after the sober G90 and somber G80, the papa and uncle models of Genesis. Surprising as well are the fender chevron and swoopy roofline, an arching cat’s back. These examples of the new car look alive in blue and red.
It’s a fine result from Donckerwolke’s dream team, especially considering his stumbling block. “I never wanted to be a boss,” he tells me after the presentation, speaking with elegant traces of his native Flemish tongue. Not only is he in charge of creating the Genesis brand DNA, but he also seeks the right chemistry among his cast of characters.
“We see our designers more than our family,” he says, “so it has to become a family. And we are making sure we really enjoy working together.” He names designers who are present or have remained in the studios. “When we work, there’s no such thing as a hierarchy. I’m not the boss. We are all at eye level, we are enjoying, we are contributing.”
He summons Bozhena Lalova, the Mercedes-Benz veteran who is head of color and trim. Her theme during the presentation was how the G70 isn’t just sporty outside, which explains the aluminum trim. She’s wearing a caped blue dress that lends a special salience to her presence. Taking my cue from this, I ask if there was ever an idea to use exotic materials, go a little crazy.
“This car is cool,” she says, with overwhelming graciousness. “It’s young, it’s cool. That’s why we focus on the aluminum. Of course, ‘crazy’ materials are something we are considering and developing. And this is going to be the future for the next G80.”
I thank Lalova, and before I take two steps, Donckerwolke smears caviar on the toast. With our session about to end he introduces Sasha, a bearded man, mid-30s, wearing a Metallica T-shirt. Alexander “Sasha” Selipanov presents his card: chief designer, Genesis Advanced Design. “Sasha designed the Bugatti Chiron,” Donckerwolke says. Like Lee, Selipanov is yet another product of ARTCENTER College of Design. Although he was born in Tblisi, Georgia, he sounds American and looks moshed-out Californian.
The patently irresistible opportunity to create a new brand drew Selipanov last December to the Genesis advanced studio in Russelsheim, Germany. But was there something else? What about that guy with the director’s bullhorn? “Luc has a unique blend of car passion, creativity, and ability to think outside the box,” Selipanov wrote later in an email. “He is very knowledgeable, however, he is always ready to look at things from an unconventional and unbiased perspective. It is not just the professional side of Luc that is inspiring. It’s also the human, social, and even humorous sides, as well.”
After lunch on that Friday, hopes of touring the styling studios and seeing the digital design process were dashed.
We were dragged away to Anechoic Chamber Building 2 for a tutorial on how to create warning chimes. (Industry secret: two guys and a keyboard.) In another test cell, two more guys described subjecting a prototype to electromagnetic interference. Then we got back on the bus and left Namyang, but not before security checked those “Do Not Detach” strips.
The next day, Donckerwolke flew to California. He flies often, visiting the studios in Irvine, California, and Russelsheim. Rare opportunities aside, his achievement in luring young designers to Genesis and to Korea is not to be underestimated. Seoul is neither beautiful nor ugly, cars are everywhere yet there’s no evidence of car culture, and Koreans aren’t exactly known for achieving a favorable life-work balance. Nor is the task of creating more than a generic brand to be underestimated.
Although it’s yet another well-realized vehicle, there’s no distinctly indigenous aspect to the G70, though the hot-rod GV80 crossover revealed last spring in New York shows promise. Donckerwolke appears cognizant of the need to create more of a Korean identity for the brand. “This international team we’re gathering is also there to make sure that we create products based on the Korean culture in terms of feeling. We have in Korea what we call “beauty of emptiness.” [It] is not to overload, not to stress the driver or the user with a lot of contradicting elements. So it’s about making an element and making a statement and letting it be. This is why the interior is not overpowering you.”
We await more beauty of emptiness. Meanwhile, Donckerwolke, who is also head of design for Kia, had taken up a different preoccupation. After his visit to California, he flew to India in order to research the market. And he was appalled. Cars there have terrible proportions: narrow for mazelike streets but tall for turbans. Upon returning to Namyang he could rummage through the props room, find a magician’s hat to figure out a solution, and use his director’s bullhorn to announce it. AM
Within established norms, the G70 is precise, crisp, and well-contoured. For Donckerwolke, starting with a low hoodline is key. If the G70 evokes snickers in Munich, there will be smiles in U.S. showrooms.