PARIS — Peter Horbury has faced three mind-bending design challenges in his career: Injecting style into Volvo starting in the early ’90s, rejuvenating Ford’s moribund North American styling in the mid-2000s, and his current assignment — creating a design team and a design language for China’s Geely.
An added challenge at Geely: His target audience includes buyers in foreign markets such as the United States.
Horbury was named Geely’s head of design in 2011 after Zhejiang Geely acquired Volvo — where the Englishman had returned following his much-praised run as Ford’s North American styling chief.
His first job has been to build a design department from scratch.
"Eighteen months ago there were six of us, and this week we hired our 100th person in our Gothenburg studio," he said. "We have about 90 in a brand new studio in Shanghai, about six in Barcelona and five in California.
He added: "So it's start all over. I'm 65 in January. I run the show, but I’ve hired a brilliant team."
The Gothenburg, Sweden, studio is busy at work on Geely top-hatted versions of cars being developed on a new compact modular architecture shared with Volvo.
With all its international studios, the Chinese company is focused far beyond its home turf. Horbury said the plan is to bring Geely to the U.S., Europe and other foreign markets.
"We are looking to sell outside China," he said. "No doubt we’ll be there eventually. We won’t be covering the entire U.S. in one go with dealerships. Maybe we will bring them over the Pacific and start there. It’s not been decided, but it will be something like that.”
Obviously, Geely’s product lineup will need a level of quality it does not yet possess, both in engineering and design. To sort out the right look, Horbury has hired several former Ford and Volvo colleagues.
“The team is well grounded, well experienced,” he said. “I don’t have all the ideas anymore so I depend on these young hot shots.”
There is a core of young Chinese stylists. “Some of the Chinese guys are really flying now,” Horbury said. “And they’ve got good mentors.”
The new Geely compacts are being engineered in Gothenburg. “We have a studio next to the engineers so the top hats for the Geely cars will be done in Sweden, gathering ideas from other studios,” he said.
“In the Gothenburg cars, we would like to maintain the impression that these are coming, if not from Scandinavia then from Northern Europe. Those cars are very popular in China. In China, there is a more serious air to a German car or a British car or a Scandinavian car.”
But Horbury said Geely also must develop a style that reflects its homeland. “I’m not suggesting we do pagoda roofs, but we have to be careful,” he said. “There is 5,000 years of art, architecture, fashion in China, and if we don’t tap into that I think we’re silly.”