HWASEONG, South Korea -- Steeped in Confucian conformity, Korean culture can be stultifying. Oh Suk-geun had worked in Hyundai Motor Co.'s styling studios for five years, but it wasn't until he was sent to design school in California that he learned how true that can be.
The man who now leads Hyundai's global design division says one of his first assignments at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena was to draw a small car meant to attract young people.
An unimpressed instructor gazed at his sketches posted on a wall and asked: "What's new?"
"I didn't realize at the time how humiliating the comment was," Oh says. "I didn't understand why we should do something new. Korean designers hesitate to show their own ideas, styles."
From that moment on, Oh was determined to break the mold -- Asian mores be damned.
His ambition has culminated in a new look for Hyundai that dares to be different, with swoopy designs, sharp creases, sculpted front ends and high beltlines. Hyundai is making flair a priority, and it shows. From the Tucson SUV to the redesigned Sonata sedan and Elantra compact, Hyundai's lineup is being praised as grand, instead of bland.
"We didn't want something basic. We wanted something talkative," says Oh, 51, who became global design chief in 2007. "We needed to create a Hyundai-original design."