LOS ANGELES -- Two born-and-raised Detroit guys steeped in the design culture of hometown General Motors are now point men for one of the auto industry's most interesting challenges: turning Korea's Hyundai and Kia into global styling leaders.
The two, Joel Piaskowski at Hyundai America and Tom Kearns at Kia America, quit GM to develop break-the-mold vehicles for two brands heavy with Honda and Toyota look-alikes.
With no long history or design culture to draw on - Hyundai didn't build its first car until 1967 - the Korean company has borrowed styling influences from other automakers for each new vehicle. The result has been a dated, patchwork look across its model lineup.
But that will change.
Hyundai Group Chairman Chung Mong Koo has decreed that his two brands develop proprietary looks and start turning out sexier, head-turning cars and trucks. As a key part of the push, the automaker has invested nearly $50 million to build separate design studios for the two brands in Irvine, Calif.
The U.S. centers report to central styling in Namyang, Korea, but have been given broad autonomy to develop vehicles and to influence the design of global products.
Park Jong-Suh, who retired last year as the group's executive vice president for design and head of the main studio in Korea, has acknowledged that Hyundai is a company "that's still into experimenting with different ideas" from different sources.
"This is partly to do with Hyundai's short history and with Korea's relatively young car culture," he said in a 2003 interview. "But we now have the critical mass to usher in an era of originality."
Kearns and Piaskowski will play key roles in determining how that new era unfolds.
"We're creating our history," the 36-year-old Piaskowski says. "At more mature companies, the influential designs were happening 20 and 30 years into their history. I think that's where we are now."