LOS ANGELES -- Every two weeks, Christopher Chapman makes the rounds at Hyundai's Irvine, Calif., design center to see what his team has in the "corner stack."
The "stack" is a pile of index card-sized sketches on the corner of every designer's desk. For Chapman, Hyundai's U.S. design boss, it's a way to encourage his designers to keep ideas flowing. So when they're not working on a deadline project, they're sketching Hyundai's future.
"It's a designer's duty to be dreaming," says Chapman, 46, a former BMW stylist. "They've got little thumbnails going on all the time of little tiny cars ... and the power of those tiny little sketches is immense. There's such juicy material in that corner stack that we tap into."
Chapman took charge at Hyundai's U.S. design center in January, filling an 11-month leadership vacuum after Phil Zak returned to General Motors. Chapman says Hyundai's willingness to push the envelope attracted him to the Korean automaker after 18 years at BMW.
"Whether you think it's a good design or not, or whether you think it's attractive or not, the amount of sculpture and the dimensional aspect of the Elantra is undeniable," he says. "All I see is a company that's saying, 'Man, we're going for it.'"
The Irvine studio is responsible for the sheet metal on the current mid-sized Sonata and compact Elantra sedans. Those cars, which account for nearly two-thirds of Hyundai division's U.S. sales in 2012, helped put Hyundai on the design map.
But now that Hyundai has made several bold styling statements, Chapman says the company must consolidate its gains. And that means evolving Hyundai's fluidic sculpture design language.
"The drastic change from model to model isn't sustainable as your reputation grows," he says. "It's important for this company to grow, but it's also important to learn the value of evolving an icon vs. changing it every time a new model comes out. And it's doing that."
The next-generation Sonata, Chapman said, is an example of Hyundai evolving or refining a design, instead of inventing something new. The design for the sedan, due out in 2014, is nearly finished and will be recognizable as a Sonata.
"I believe the current-gen Sonata is an icon," he says. "People know that car. What you want to do is get the reaction when the car drives by of, 'Whoa, that's a Sonata -- and it's a new one.' Then we've done our job."