DETROIT – The design distinction that makes clear a Swedish car from a German vehicle is guiding Geely's European-born chief designer to find a Chinese look for the auto maker’s domestic models.

About two years from now, Geely Group will start producing cars whose styling has been tweaked by the Chinese auto maker’s new design studio in Shanghai, run by former Ford and Volvo chief designer Peter Horbury.

In an interview at the North American International Auto Show, Horbury tells WardsAuto he expects the next step to be Geely developing its own Chinese design.

Geely, which is China's only major private auto maker, bought Volvo from Ford in 2010. Last year, it sold 483,483 units, up 24% from 2011.

Horbury believes cars should have a national character.  “At Volvo, Swedish design has to be functional,” he says, recalling how he modernized the Volvo look by putting a sleeker front end on the V70 in 2000. “It was still functional, but was only boxy in the back where it had to be.

“Mercedes was the epitome of everything Germanic. Today, they have lost that. They are more Latin, joyful, and they use decoration in design. But Audi has picked up the Germanic design, and BMW is coming back to it.”

Citroen in the 1950s and 1960s reflected Parisian fashion, Horbury adds. “But they abandoned their French-ness for a global look and lost something. Now they have got it back, and Citroen is doing well.”

Horbury understands how Asian culture has embraced mimickings to learn. “The apprentice learns from the master before he has his own ideas. It is very Confucian,” he says. “The Japanese (auto makers) started out copying the Americans, then the European Guigaro look. Only in the early 1990s did they start with Japanese design.

“I want to take 5,000 years of Chinese culture, arts and architecture and find things that will translate to cars. Not a pagoda roof on top. We've got to do it subtly; we don't want to scare people off.”

Horbury won't change Geely overnight, but he spends about 10 days a month in China overseeing the transformation. His first move, after accepting the role of senior vice president design at Geely Group in November 2011, was to choose 12 of the 50 designers at the auto maker’s studio in Hangzhou and move the studio.

“We set up design in Shanghai, with its creative atmosphere in the city center, where we could attract senior people who could teach our 12,” Horbury says. “We started taking on one program. Now we have 27 people and are growing as we take on more programs.”

Geely has dozens of projects and must depend on outside design studios in Italy, China and Japan to handle the load. Horbury and his studio oversee those projects.

“We set the brief, the design language we are looking for, instead of accepting what (the outside studios) think we need,” he says. The first signs of Geely Design's new role will show up on cars in one or two years that were styled by the studios but tuned up and made “more beautiful” by Geely designers.

Horbury’s design team is starting to win more Geely projects as its reputation inside the company expands. Unlike most international companies, Geely factories have profit/loss responsibility for their products and also are responsible for selling the cars they manufacture. Horbury says that is changing as a new product-planning function, including design, is being integrated into the auto maker's processes.

“What was sufficient for a Chinese car maker is no longer sufficient,” he says. “The Chinese customer recognizes quality and knows what to expect in a car. In joint ventures like SAIC with General Motors and Volkswagen, the partners are helping them modernize. Geely expects to learn from Volvo.”

Horbury would like to take Geely design to the next step, investing substantially in a larger studio with full modeling capability, as Kia and Hyundai did in their early period of international growth. Meanwhile, he works on development of what a Geely Chinese design will be.

One of Horbury's lessons to his designers seeking Chinese design elements is to try drawing with a brush instead of a felt-tip pen.

“A felt-tip pen makes a uniform line, the same thickness and weight,” he says. “I asked our designers to use a brush like a Chinese calligrapher, with its different weights and flourishes. Imagine something like a brushstroke design on the chrome around the side windows. It would be something new, while everyone else has uniform extrusions, like the lines from a felt pen.”