Sangyup Lee has an impressive CV. Having worked for GM and Volkswagen, he started his career with internships at Pininfarina and Porsche AG while still a student at Art Center College of Design in California. In 1999 he became the lead designer on the C6 Corvette, his first job at GM.
Since then he’s has extensive experience at both the American automaker and at VW Group. He was responsible for the design of the Camaro and worked on the Stingray, Buick Velite and Cadillac Sixteen concepts. And while he wasn’t responsible for a specific concept and production car while chief designer at Volkswagen’s California-based design center, he contributed a number of ideas for six brands under the Volkswagen umbrella, namely Volkswagen, Audi, Skoda, Porsche, Lamborghini and Bentley.
All of this prepared him for his most recent move, to head the exterior design at Bentley in Crewe, a role he entered into on February 1, 2013. In his new role, he reports directly to Luc Donckerwolke, Director of Design at Bentley, who was appointed to the role in September last year.
We sat down with Lee for a candid interview on his goals, the changes he’s got in store, and what he foresees as challenges at the Volkswagen Group’s ultra luxury subsidiary.
How did you find the last two and a half years working at Volkswagen Advanced in California?
“The Volkswagen Group is so big, the Design Center California is more of an internal design consulting company. We have eight brands and we have two design studios besides our own: one is Italdesign, and the other is in Potsdam, near Berlin. These three studios are responsible for eight brands; Volkswagen/Audi, even brands like Skoda, if they need some outside influence. If they want some shake up they get us involved. They give us a job consulting. So we do consulting more for each brand and specific projects for Walter de’Silva [head of design for VW Group] directly.”
Working at Bentley is likely to be significantly different than working in a small satellite studio on the West Coast.
“Exactly, and that’s the exciting part. My personal view is that if you don’t take the risk, you can’t reap the reward. And as a designer, working for a passionate brand like Bentley is a fantastic experience. I have a deep respect for the brand itself but at the same time I really believe my global design experience from American cars to the Volkswagen Group will give fresh blood to the team in Bentley with respect to the brand.
“Even in GM, I moved around quite a bit globally. I started in Detroit but I moved to Japan for a year and a half; I moved to Italy developing projects with Bertone and I moved to Holden in Australia to develop the production version of the Camaro. At Volkswagen Group we travel a lot to each of the design centers. I really believe that this global perspective on design will be very beneficial for the team at Bentley.”
What do you think will be your biggest challenge in your new role?
“There will be quite a lot of challenges. Bentley has a very different customer profile. Freshness in design comes from many different perspectives. It’s not like GM or some Japanese brands or other brands. Perfection has to come first. From the most beautiful proportions and simplicity in design, freshness can be added on top of that through technology.
“It’s quite a different approach at Bentley. The brand has a big vision for the future with more products. I can’t tell you all the details, but there is a very ambitious vision for Bentley in the super luxury category.
“Process-wise, design has to become more efficient and at the same time inspire the designers take it to the next level in the history of Bentley design. I truly believe that the design team knows Bentley [values] 100 percent. Talking this to the next level will be my biggest challenge.”
Is that why did you choose to take the job at Bentley?
“Well for me as a career surprise it’s fantastic and a great learning experience. I started my career at GM, where car styling was first born, and for me it was the best place to learn about car design. From there I went to the Volkswagen/Audi Group where I started learning all of design’s precision execution, which is a very important part of car design, especially these days. And now my move to Bentley here will be really beneficial to combine the experience of my career with a super luxury brand.”
How many people are you responsible for?
“There is some restructuring happening in the design studio so the number we have at the moment is not the number of people we’ll end up with at the end of the year. I would say 15, but this is just ballparking. We’ll know more by the end of the year because at the moment we’re in the process of reshuffling.”
What are you working on now?
“We are working on a whole portfolio revamp [Flying Spur, Continental, Mulsanne] as well as the SUV project. That’s my main focus at the moment. We are planning new models for this and next year.”
Design at Bentley’s historically been very analogue. Will you continue this practice?
“No. We want to have our design processes to be more efficient, a lot more of a streamlined process. So the design process has to change.”
So are you going to be moving more towards digital, using more CAD design?
“There will be a lot of digital process, but the challenge is always to develop with the right amount. As a super luxury car maker you have to have that master craftsmanship, but at the same time the digital process allows you to design a lot faster than traditional car design process. So I need to make a good balance of the digital and this master craftsmanship by combining them. This is my challenge in terms of the design process.”
So the process behind the scenes is going to become more digital, but at the same time the cars will still be put together by hand. When you’re talking about moving to digital for a company like Bentley — with craftspeople working on intricate details — it seems like that’s quite a shift.
“Finding the right balance is the key element. Historically coachbuilt cars were all hand built and hand-picked, but it is far more beneficial to create some parts using a digital process along with this master craftsmanship, to make that perfect balance. So I’m trying, together with my team, to find the right balance for the brand, but I definitely want a more efficient process so we can design faster.”
So you’re tasked with revising every model in the line-up — from the Continental to the Mulsanne — and launching new cars like the SUV. When is that slated to come out?
“I can’t tell you that! Stay tuned, there will be more to come out. Luc [Donckerwolke] has a great vision for the brand and my opinion for design and his vision for design align perfectly.”
You’re joining Bentley as head of exterior design, but Bugatti is a subsidiary of Bentley. Will you be working on design for Bugatti as well?
“There might be some chance to work on Bugatti design in the future, but right now I’ve been specifically assigned to Bentley exteriors, advanced and production.”
What can you tell me about the Flying Spur that was created under van Braekel?
“That was created before [the new design management team arrived]. It’s a big step up from the previous car for sure. It has all the presence of Bentley and the prestige of the first and second generation, but for me the second generation is more focused on sportiness. It is longer, with more stretch in the bonnet and the rear wing shows Bentley’s design themes — it has a lot of torque; the front is very strong and the whole theme has a muscular presence.”
What is the working structure at Bentley now that the design team has changed?
“Luc Donckerwolke moved to Bentley from Volkswagen advanced design center in September of last year. He is head of design and I report to him directly. We’ve worked together before, when I was in California and we have a good relationship. He has a very global perspective in design, he was chief at SEAT and at Lamborghini and Audi, all very different brands.
“The challenge is to create a whole new era at Bentley including the design management — the CEO of the company changed last year and Luc was appointed a few months ago. It’s a new synergy with a fresh team that will work with all the Bentley masters in our design studio. We will work together as a very strong design team. It’s got to be fresh but respecting the past.”
What markets are you concentrating on appealing to?
“The US market is very important for Bentley and China is catching up to it. The Chinese market is huge, and it is getting bigger. But at the same time we have to remain Bentley to sell globally. If we compromise our design for US-specific or Chinese specific then we will lose the brand values and the Bentley DNA of the brand.
“Being global is not about adopting different cultures. It’s about developing a strong DNA to sell Bentley globally. Bentley is a brand that has a strong global reach from the UK. I’m looking forward to create [the next phase]. It’s a great opportunity for Bentley to have a bolder statement for the future.”