Peter Schreyer: The Visionary Aesthete

Peter Schreyer’s decision in 2006 to leave Volkswagen for Kia left many scratching their heads. People wondered why someone would descend from the heights of car design to join a relatively faceless brand on the other side of the planet. But he couldn’t have done anything better. Because Peter Schreyer is a visionary. And he recognizes an opportunity when he sees one.
Text Bernd Haase
Photo Gestalten

There’s this saying in German: “You haven’t got a chance. So use it!” What that means is that you have to recognize non-existent opportunities as such in order to seize them. It’s 1975. Peter Schreyer, a young man from Bad Reichenhall, has just been turned down by the art academy in Munich and is wondering if perhaps he should help out in the family business, a farm with a successful inn, after all. He will do that on the side anyway, but for now Peter Schreyer wanders aimlessly through Munich’s university district when he comes across a poster advertising a course of study in industrial design at the Munich University of Applied Sciences. Peter Schreyer doesn’t have a clear idea of what industrial design is all about, nor does he see it as a career opportunity. But he thinks, “Why not?”

Some thirty years later, Peter Schreyer is driving through Austria to St. Moritz in Switzerland for a presentation when his phone rings. This time, he immediately recognizes the opportunity that presents itself. By now, the young man in search of his way in life has become a recognized car designer. After studying industrial design in Munich and transportation design at the Royal College of Art in London, he spent over twenty-­five years in various positions working for Audi and the Volkswagen Group. He was responsible for the VW Golf IV as well as the New Beetle, the Audi A2 and the Audi TT. The name Peter Schreyer has a good reputation in the industry. As Volkswagen Group’s head of design, he is in charge of the automaker’s full range of design activities. It really doesn’t get much better than that. Nevertheless, Peter Schreyer accepts the offer presented to him that day in 2006 and becomes chief design officer of Kia.

To put it in perspective: At the time, the Korean brand has a reputation for – let’s say – conventional economy cars, while the Volkswagen Group is home to brands like Lamborghini, Bentley, Bugatti and Porsche. More than a few people shake their heads in disbelief.

Peter Schreyer loves rebelling against conventions. He likes Frank Zappa’s absurd lyrics and Cy Twombly’s wandering abstractions. So what is his recipe for success? Generosity. Equanimity. Strength.

To cut a long story short: Ever since Schreyer has been in charge of the Korean company’s design, sales figures have almost tripled and the automotive group rose to become one of the world’s top five automotive companies – thanks in part to Schreyer’s work, as countless design awards attest. Today Schreyer is not only head of design at Kia, he is also president and head of design management at Hyundai Motor Group with its three brands Hyundai, Kia and Genesis. He is the first non-European on the board. His name is renowned even beyond the automotive world, and he has even established himself as an artist – though that is actually what he has always been.

Perhaps as early as June 15, 1958, when five-year-old Peter, sitting in his parents’ inn, grabs a pencil and a waiter’s pad and begins to draw. A tractor. A loader. A bulldozer. Vehicles with four wheels, the kind he sees in his immediate surroundings. Peter Schreyer grows up on a farm. He often spends Sundays with his grandparents. His grandfather is a carpenter, but also paints watercolors. The small workshop where he often takes his grandson is a source of inspiration for Peter Schreyer to this day. There, with the smell of wood, glue and oil paints, the boy learns how to give shape to his imagination. Toys and model airplanes are built, pictures are painted. “Your origins are a treasure that you can draw on for a lifetime,” says the now sixty-eight-year-old Schreyer, who has remained wonderfully modest throughout the years.

When Peter Schreyer arrives at Kia, he finds a large, white canvas in front of him. Like any good artist, he starts with the face.

A project of love. Work on the Kia Stinger (right) began with the Kia GT Concept (left) in 2011. With its transaxle drive concept and fastback design, it was a very atypical promise from the Korean brand that was finally delivered in 2017.

Cars also play an important role here in this most southeastern corner of Germany. It is the time of the popular hill climbing races. The international Gaisberg Hill Climb in neighboring Salzburg is a regional highlight until 1969. And then there are the airplanes. Directly behind Gasthof Obermühle, his parents’ inn, is the Reichenhall-Mayerhof airfield. There Schreyer sees the propeller-driven Klemms and Pipers take off and land, and the pilots stop off at his parents’ inn after completing their flight. At the age of thirty, Peter Schreyer himself will acquire a pilot’s license and experience this indescribable feeling of freedom.

Pushing the limits. This is also what fascinates the adolescent about artists like Salvador Dalí and Giorgio de Chirico. He begins to imitate their style in his own drawings and paintings. Later, he comes across the abstract expressionist Cy Twombly. In Twombly’s raw, seemingly random paintings, Schreyer recognizes a great technical skill, but above all: “Twombly consistently went his own way without thinking about what critics had to say about it.” That Peter Schreyer discovers and is fascinated by Frank Zappa in the early seventies seems only logical. A quote of the avant-garde musician has burned itself into the designer’s memory: “Without deviation, progress is not possible.”

Which brings us back to Kia. And to ramp #56 "All in good time" - because in this issue you'll find the full story of Peter Schreyer.

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