LOS ANGELES — Luc Donckerwolke considers himself a global citizen.
Hyundai Motor Group's design chief is a Belgian who was born in Peru. He has lived in 19 countries on several continents and has built up a design portfolio over his 25-year career that is just as diverse.
Before joining Hyundai, Donckerwolke crafted designs for Audi, Bentley, Lamborghini and Seat. His design list includes speedsters such as the Audi R8 Le Mans, Lamborghini Murcielago and Lamborghini Gallardo, as well as the Hyundai Palisade, the family-hauling fortress that arrives next year.
He spoke with Staff Reporter Vince Bond Jr. during the Los Angeles Auto Show about how his global perspective shaped his design philosophy and the different workplace cultures he's experienced over the years.
Q: You were born in Peru and you've lived around the world. How has that global perspective shaped how you design cars?
A: Basically, I'm European from my parents. Even if I'm Belgian, I've never lived in Belgium. I'm a bit of a global citizen. I don't feel at home in Belgium at all.
Korea is my 19th country where I've lived. It's allowing me to turn the page and move on by having different phases in my life. Mainly South America and Africa in my youth, and then Europe for 22 years and now Asia. Having those four continents is interesting because you perceive things in a different way and you understand how people might perceive what you create.If you are in a meeting in Germany defending your design, you have to mark your territory and try to be louder than anybody else. In Korea, you have to be analyzing. You have to be the last one who speaks before the vice chairman. It's about understanding and reacting to the environment, which is important.
I enjoy catering the way I think of my designs to different markets. We are not a group of global manufacturers selling the same product all over the world. We tailor to the specific markets. That allows us to get closer to the expectations of each customer. That is fascinating. I like to understand the needs of the Indian customer, to tailor a car for them, to understand the Chinese customer, the American customer, the European customer. That was my big shock when I joined the group three years ago, to understand there was not a single system.
It's a new beginning for me to be, for the first time after a 25-year career, on the Asian continent. I've been designing cars for Asia, but not really from an Asian perspective. I can't claim to have a universal solution. I just like to learn every day.
Which culture do you like working in better: the louder, more aggressive German style or the more laid-back Korean style?
I like the refinement and humility I found in Korea. I've designed cars for Italian super sports car makers. Every design presentation is a big show. Everybody is speaking, there's chaos and you really don't understand what has been decided. You go to Germany and it's extremely clear. There's no room left for interpretation. There's only one way to go.
In Korea, you have to develop a sixth sense, a feeling for what is not being said, but is meant. That's what I like. I like to perceive. I like to have this depth of communication. When I'm talking to one of my Korean designers, it's about learning from him and understanding what he's trying to communicate
You've been promoted recently to handle Kia as well. What are your plans for that brand?
I'm basically overseeing the design group. I'm not designing Kias myself, but I'm designing through my chief designers. My goal is to reinforce the group by identifying the main assets and strengths of each brand. My second-most important goal is to ensure strategic differentiation of each brand, to make sure we have no overlap, and all models are complementary. We should not compete against each other. We should have different fields of territory for each brand.
During your time at the Hyundai group, which vehicles have you had the most influence over?
The ones that will be launched on the market from now on. You need two-and-a-half to three years to bring a car to market. The main cars that I've designed from the first sketch to the end with my team are the ones coming now like the Palisade. Creating the design language, which we call sensuous sportiness, which will be applied in all the vehicles from now on. In 2019, there are going to be quite a lot of cars coming that apply this philosophy.