When one thinks of GMC, images of rugged, American luxury likely filter through appropriately. It’s a North American brand with very little presence elsewhere in the world. But, how did a British woman end up with the job of leading its design?
Helen Emsley seems like the antithesis of what most people would imagine a GMC design leader to look like, but she earned her way in, no doubt. After being plucked by Opel in the early 1990’s, she followed then lead Opel designer Wayne Cherry to Warren, Michigan to run GM’s color and trim studio.
From there, she noticed an alarming lack of communication between GM design departments between color and trim. She found 11 different variations of white paint hues among GM’s brands across U.S. dealerships. Startled, she brought the news to a familiar face: the recently retired Ed Welburn.
Welburn admired her results, moving her to lead the global color and trim department in 2006, where she united each department to solve overlap.
Emsley, in a recent interview with Autocar, revealed that Welburn gave her the courage to make the leap from color and trim to full-blown exterior and interior designer.
“I haven’t heard of anyone else [in my position] who started in color and trim. You worry people think you’re not a car designer,” she says. “Ed took a risk on it.”
When Welburn tasked her with designing the C7 Corvette‘s interior, she was typically blunt.
“I said: ‘You’ve got to be joking’. I can see the headlines now: ‘British woman kills Corvette,” she stated in the interview.
Now, she leads GMC and its even more premium Denali sub-brand. But, she let it slip she will also be named head of design for a second GM brand shortly. Judging from her most recent designs, Emsley knows a thing or two about how to capture the essence of a brand, no matter her upbringing and background.