Roots and Wings – A Book Review

The life and work of automotive designer, Peter Schreyer.

Image: Gestalten

Is Roots and Wings a book for the Internet age? The plethora of online information concerning Peter Schreyer borders on the exorbitant, even obsessive, but when the heft and aroma of the paper, quality of the photography and fascinating subject matter combine to such good effect, the pleasure this book provides is sensory as much as intellectual. Engaged with the physicality of this book, one is inclined to take one’s time, allowing the narrative and images time to be absorbed and appreciated for their subtlety and nuance. One is left with the impression that Schreyer took the same time, effort and care over the book that he invested in his automotive designs. Hence, the book is bursting with flavour and added humour, some of which is intentional, some inadvertent.

Roots and Wings steadfastly guides the reader through Schreyer’s life journey; from his upbringing in Bad Reichenhall through his time as an increasingly influential designer for Audi and Volkswagen, his 2006 leap of faith to join Kia as Chief Design Officer, and finally to his elevation in 2018 to the post of President of Design Management for the Hyundai Motor Group. The story covers almost seventy years and is told in over three hundred pages. It is a compelling read for those keen to uncover what makes an automotive designer tick, and what first attracted them to the profession. In Schreyer’s case, the grounding process began early.

It was Schreyer’s grandfather, George Kammel, a craftsman, painter and proprietor of a carpentry business, who first instilled into his grandchild the productive use of the pencil. Regarding that simple but powerful instrument, Schreyer cites a quote from a favourite musician, Frank Zappa: “The computer can’t tell you the emotional story. Perfect for exact mathematical designs, but it misses the eyebrows.” Pencils are ideal for such additions. Another highly influential moment for Schreyer was witnessing the master, Giogetto Giugiaro, scrutinising a plaster model, pencil in hand, adding faint lines here and there. Now, when words won’t do a concept justice, Schreyer reaches only for his mechanical pencil and the nearest piece of paper.

Hendrix, Clapton, Miles Davis and The Rolling Stones are just a handful of favoured musicians who, along with his devotion to the world of visual arts, have helped steer Schreyer’s creative adventure. “Spontaneity is as important as allowing time for ideas to develop,” he contends, referencing Davis’s predilection for impromptu improvisation.

Other designers have, as one would expect, influenced such a creative mind. A Charles and Ray Eames La Chaise resides at home. Examples of Jasper Morrison’s Thinking Man’s Chair live in both his Bavarian residence and Seoul office. Many works from Braun, Dieter Rams (always serious!), and the Bauhaus movement, alongside artists such as Dalí, Cy Twombly, Alexander Calder and David Staretz, have been influential in sculpting the car designer’s process and portfolio. “A degree of kineticism in car design can surprise and delight, a balance with purely functional purpose.” he contends.

Image: gestalten

Roots and Wings takes the reader on a grand tour of Schreyer’s automotive creations. The tour begins in his early days at Audi, where he garnered recognition and plaudits for his 1986 (B3-generation) 80 interior from none other than Ferdinand Piëch. The formidable head of Audi at that time, Piëch described Scheyer’s work as “BMW-plus!” which was indeed a fulsome compliment. Scheyer went on to design a range of handsome Audis including the 1998 TT, a masterclass in Bauhaus restraint and elegant functionalism.

Then to Wolfsburg, where Schreyer penned the seminal 1997 Golf Mk4 and anything-but-seminal New Beetle. The latter prompts another Piëch anecdote: “Who would buy this car?” he asked when the concept was unveiled. The design team nervously held up their hands, anxiously awaiting the great leader’s response. “Me too!” he exclaimed, much to their relief. Schreyer knew then that the Beetle would live again, “bringing back some romance!” to the motoring landscape, as he put it. Mmm…a dubious assertion, I think.

In no particular order, monochromatic images of stillborn concepts and production stars are then enlivened in pleasing detail. These include Audi’s Avantissimo and Steppenwolf concepts and Volkswagen’s Concept R. On then to the fruit of Schreyer’s “other career”, including the Genesis G70 and G90, Kia’s HabaNiro, the gloriously cute Pop (featured on the cover) and ProCeed concepts to name but a few. His prodigious Korean output numbers around thirty production vehicles.

Image: Gestalten

Designs such as the aforementioned TT and Golf are treated to technicolour images of the highest quality and accompanied by exemplary write-ups. So too the Kia Stinger and Sportage, and the Intrado, Kee and Kue concepts. Interspersed within the text are many of Schreyer’s drawings, some tinged brown with coffee stains. Whether these signatures of an intense working environment are genuine or affected is a moot point.

With the Kee concept, Schreyer wanted to create “a frontal element so strong, no Kia badge was needed.” With no intention of entering the GT production sector, his team had fewer constraints, so allowing the marque to move away from its somewhat staid image. The concept’s name alludes to a dual message; the key to unlock future ideas, alongside the vital life force of eastern medicine, qi or chi.

In 2016, Schreyer introduced a design manifesto for both Hyundai and Kia entitled ‘River Stone and Billiard Ball’. He envisioned Hyundai as possessing the essence of water; the natural erosion of stone, never the same but free-flowing, nature in motion. Kia is the billiard ball; man-made precision, whilst having a creative nucleus akin to the snowflake, possessing geometric tropes but maintaining a familial relationship to its sibling marque.

Schreyer with his design manifesto. Image: Stylepark

In South Korea, Hyundai Motor Group is known as a Chaebol, one of a number of large, family-owned corporations that were traditionally paternalistic and conservative. Schreyer’s mission has been to initiate and lead a journey from innate conservatism and caution to a place where the company is now challenging perceived norms and even taking the lead in automotive design. South Korea’s growing self-confidence and prosperity has provided a fertile environment for such a transformation, and also the people to deliver it: the country produces over 25,000 graduates in design-related degrees every year.

Whilst a creative nation at heart, Korea was ruled by the oppressive  Japanese Empire from 1910 to 1945. It was then partitioned before South Korea suffered its own civil war between 1950 and 1953. In comparison with Europe and America’s century and more of automotive design history, Hyundai and Kia started with a blank page. They were often accused with some justification of producing copycat designs. That is no longer the case and, with the 2021 Hyundai Ioniq 5 and Kia EV6, the company really has come of age.

Hyundai Ioniq 5. Image: Hyundai Media

There is plenty more to glean from Roots and Wings, from the young Schreyer making cheesecake or careering the ice slopes on a skeleton bob, on his way to becoming a highly respected automotive designer.

Fittingly, the book is itself an object of some physical quality and heft, measuring 28cms x 22cms x 7cms and weighing in at 1.968kgs. The chosen typeface is unusually welcoming: TWK Everett, which was invented by Nolaan Paparelli, “Strong typographic details add a high tension while keeping a reading comfort, finding the right balance between a font that is graphic yet fluid.” Perhaps there is a degree of hyperbole in that description, but it does assist the flow.

Whilst Schreyer may not be considered an out-of-the-blue creator, his enduring strengths have been his energy, prodigiousness and consistency.  We will end with a quote from the man himself: “You need a certain amount of luck, but also to recognise opportunities. That’s been the story of my career.”

Data Sources: ‘Roots and Wings’ Peter Schreyer: Designer, Artist and Visionary, published by Gestalten.

Typeface information from http://www.weltkern.com

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

19 thoughts on “Roots and Wings – A Book Review”

  1. Good morning, Andrew and what a good read you brought the DTW community this morning. I listen to a different kind of music then mr. Schreyer, I prefer Poul Kjærholm over Charles and Ray Eames, but Schreyer sure has an impressive legacy. The book seems good value too at only € 45.

    Now where can I pick up my VW Concept R? 😉

    1. Good morning Freerk. This is as close as you’re going to get to the Concept R, I’m afraid:

      I prefer the later Bluesport, however:

      Lovely!

    2. I prefer the Bluesport too, but I think that’s better known. I had totally forgotten about the Concept R, but the Bluesport had a place in my automotive part of the brain ever since it was launched.

    3. 1. side note: Concept R’s exterior was the début of Max Missoni, future wing man of Thomas Ingenlath’s, exterior designer of the VW XL1 and current Polestar chief designer.

      2. side note: VAG was sufficiently serious about a range of mid-engined, compact sports cars that in addition to the publicly unveiled VW Bluesport and Audi E-tron, a life-size Porsche version was created (not at Weissach, intriguingly, but within VAG design, overseen by Walter de’ Silva):

    4. Thanks for sharing, Christopher. I like the 550 One concept, but it probably needs a bit more curves.

      I also wonder what Zuffenhausen had to say about it, since it was not their design.

  2. Excellent review, thank you Andrew. If I recall correctly, Schreyer’s first production design for Kia was the Mk3 Sportage:

    It was quite a transformation after its predecessor, this dumpy umpa-lumpa:

    It was indeed a leap of faith for Schreyer, but an inspired decision for both him and Kia.

    1. +1 from me. A very well written review that makes me want to find out more.

  3. My favorite Kia designed under Schreyer is the Soul. Here’s Schreyer’s proposal for a similarly configured VW.

    But the design which went into production, credited to Mike Torpey in Kia’s California studio has a more defined personality and attitude. I think it speaks to Schreyer’s management skills in the field of design that the production version turned out much better than the initial concept. This was often the case in the distant past when designers were less constrained by regulation, whether for legal or cost management reasons, but it seems rare in contemporary vehicles.

    1. The Soul (full disclosure: we own a first-generation version, silver, as pictured) is one of the few vehicles I can think of in which I actually prefer the later versions (third generation pictured).

    2. Fascinating to see all these concepts. I’ve always loved the Bluesport and the Porsche one looks good, too. I’ve never seen that ‘Volkswagen Soul’ – it reminds me a bit of a Škoda.

    3. The Gen 2 Soul is an improvement, but not sure about Gen 3 – the “C”-pillar treatment is a bit hackneyed…

    4. I like the first Soul, but I could never take to that peculiar step in the headlamps, where the lower part is recessed. It just looks a bit overstyled for my taste. The Mk2 is my favourite:

  4. When Schreyer arrived at Kia in early 2013, the second gen Soul had already been signed off by Byung-Kyu Park, and it wasn’t until the 2017 facelift when Schreyer was able to reshape it. Having said that, I do like what he’s done at Kia, especially K5 (4th gen). A side note: I doubt Schreyer would’ve gone as far as he did in Korea without the great Albert Biermann.

  5. Schreyer went on to design the original Audi TT?
    While there are a few claimants to the title, I thought the consensus is that Freeman Thomas was responsible for the external design of this iconic car. Schreyer I believe was head of design at Audi at that time.

    1. Good morning William. I would imagine that, if you’re Head of Design at the time when such an iconic car was produced, you’re going to claim credit for overseeing it, irrespective of who wielded the pens (or computer mouse).

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