Women Who Go the Distance

Meet Kathy Sirvio, the Traveling Car Designer

by Kathy Sirvio
Africa, Kathy dancing with the Maasai Mara Tribe in southwestern Kenya. All photos courtesy of Kathy Sirvio.

We met Kathy Sirvio, a senior design manager at Chevrolet, on a road trip to Round Top, Texas, and were impressed by the way she thinks about the impact on design on travel and by what a passionate traveler she is. As part of our Great Women in Travel series, she shared her story about designing interiors for General Motors and about the time she spends on the road for work and pleasure.

Tell us about your work and role on the Chevrolet team at General Motors.

I’m based in Detroit, Michigan, where I’m responsible for leading the global Chevrolet color and trim design teams in multiple regions. We design, develop, and execute innovative colors, materials and finishes for Chevrolet products globally. I've worked in Korea, Germany, and the United States and taken many business trips to our other design regions (including China, India, Brazil, Sweden, and Australia), which gives me a unique understanding of the consumer, the differences and similarities in trends, and design innovations in color and materials.

How did you end up at General Motors?

I won’t lie: It was an accident. I was showing artwork at my university gallery when Nancy, the education relations liaison from GM, was in attendance. She bought all my art work at that show. At that time, I was the typical student without much money, eating a lot of ramen noodles. My woven artwork was hung with fancy dress pins fastened to the wall. Nancy called to ask how I would like to have the art framed. As we discussed that, one thing led to another, and she asked if I was interested in interning at the General Motors color studio. Of course, I was. I had to put together a portfolio that night for an interview the next morning. It all happened so fast, it was kind of crazy, and very last minute. It ended up working out, and even though I wasn't born a "car nut" like most of my colleagues, I am crazy about color and texture, which you can see in everything I do.

What did you do before you worked at Chevrolet?

I have worked at General Motors for more than 27 years and have touched every brand and region over my time at the company. I came to GM while I was still attending university, so my work experience was mostly part-time jobs. I worked in art galleries, like Detroit Artist Market and the Coach House Gallery, in home and contract furnishings, and at a jewelry store where I made and repaired pieces.

I like places and people that are not too pretentious.

What was your dream job growing up?

As I mentioned, I am not a car nut. I didn’t even know who or what GM was when I first got the call from Nancy. Funny, growing up in Detroit, right? I wanted to be a veterinarian because I love animals. Somehow, though, I didn’t have the stomach to deal with hurting the animals to make them better – like giving them a vaccine. But now I get to design interiors that are pet-friendly. It is interesting to learn about our customers: many who drive the Equinox have dogs. That is the type of thing we must keep in mind while designing fabrics and materials in the interior. We try to keep the clean-up simple and practical. We even have a test for how many passes of the vacuum we need to meet.

What's a typical day like for you at Chevrolet?

I typically check in with each of the regions to see what is happening on the ground. It is amazing what you learn in trends and culture just hearing about the daily news in each region. I work on the latest Chevrolet programs with my team. We spend a lot of time with our material suppliers and in our shops working on mock-ups. When we have time, we look at Instagram, Pinterest, and the various trend forecast companies we subscribe to. Some days we have a lot of meetings with marketing, purchasing, and engineering (we work cross-functionally and collaboratively a lot). Or we are trying to fix last-minute issues that pop up. Other days we are working on new concepts and ideas we want to bring forward to production. Every day is a bit different. I like that. It keeps you on your toes.

Kathy at work on Chevrolet's color and trim team.
Kathy and the Chevrolet Equinox launch team.

What is most rewarding about your job?

The ability to work with people from all walks of life in all the regions that GM works, sells, and builds in. Traveling to those locations, learning about the people and their lives is fascinating. My team in Detroit is also diverse. We have talented designers from many disciplines — lighting, footwear, jewelry, carpets, and graphic design — who come from all over, including Korea, Poland, Vietnam, and India. This variety gives us a fresh perspective every day. When we get to see a product that we worked really hard on revealed to the public, like the 2019 Chevrolet Blazer, it just makes us stop and smile. I hope that comes out in our work.

How do you design a good car?

I think it is all about sensitivity to materials and being thoughtful and strategic about how and where they are placed. We keep the customer at the center of everything we do. It’s interesting: The more we research different regions, the more we find that we all want the same things. Sometimes a simple self-check is important. If you’re not happy with the design you are working on, you should probably change it. We should always be excited about what we are creating.

What are some of your favorite hotels and restaurants?

I tend to like places and people that are not too pretentious. I never want to feel like I’m out of my depth. Locally, I like Mabel Gray Kitchen in Hazel Park, Michigan. It has a great social scene in an up-and-coming neighborhood. I have dined there several times and am always amazed by chef James Rigatothe’s changing menu. One of the most unique dishes I tried had popcorn mixed with asparagus and a quail egg on top of a chickpea sauce. I would have never thought of either of those combinations, and the popcorn did not trivialize the dish. 

Further afar, Trattoria Stella in Glen Arbor, Michigan is a former asylum-turned-restaurant that feels like quite the experience. The fried zucchini blossoms, house-made burrata, and perfectly executed octopus were all top-notch. In Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, there is a tapas restaurant called Barcelona. I was never really a fan of paella until I ate there. Set atop a steep hill in old town, the restaurant is known for its paella de mariscos, a mix of the most delicious local fish, shrimp, calamari, scallops, mussels, octopus, and saffron. The portions are huge and keep well for breakfast. Yes, we ate it for breakfast, too. 

For hotels, I really loved my time at Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti, where it is all about location and scenery. From the infinity pool overlooking a watering hole with elephants to open-glass showers with views of giraffes, the place is off the hook. The food, bedding, and amenities were perfect. Hotel El Convento in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, is another favorite. What a delightful light and airy place with old-world charm and furnishings. I truly enjoyed the open spaces, rooms, and concierge. The restaurant was notable, too. The hotel was close to just about everything, including a dive bar where locals pontificated about the art and music scene. They took us into the mix as though we had lived there a decade. It was a hoot.

How would you define good hospitality?

Genuine, down to earth, personable, enjoyable. The last time I really enjoyed good hospitality was at a fabulous little place called The Lighthouse Motel and Cottages in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia. We were road-tripping (in a rented Chevrolet, of course) and it was getting late. We never made reservations, so we were keen to find somewhere nice to stay. Marc, one of the owners, was out and about when we pulled in. Not only did we find excellent accommodations, but spent the evening enjoying Marc’s company with a nice bottle of red wine in front of a picturesque bonfire overlooking the water. Marc was engaging, personable, and made us feel at home. That is good hospitality.

Rice terraces in Bali.
A farmer at work in Bali; a side view of the Batuan Temple in Bali.

What advice would you give a girl or a woman who wants to break into a male-dominated industry?

Someone must go first. Let it be you. When I started at General Motors, there weren’t many female designers. We have come a very long way in my 27 years. I would say, stay focused, be professional, and above all, keep your passion. Always sit at the table and be engaged. Don’t lose your confidence and be persistent. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, so speak up when something needs to be addressed.

How has travel influenced your work?

Interestingly enough, travel has influenced my work and work has influenced my travel. While working on the Chevrolet Cruze, I had an opportunity to travel to India. Many times, the owner will ride in the rear seat and have a hired driver. So we needed to reassess the rear seat comfort, materials, and amenities. Traveling to India, I could understand the customers’ needs and how they differ from those in the United States. I was able to experience the culture firsthand in a more tangible way — to take in the fragrances of the markets, hear the chatter of negotiations surrounding me, feel the textures of the sari fabrics, and taste the fruits of the land. Nothing gives you more design knowledge and inspiration than experiencing the same simple daily activities as those that you are aspiring to reach in the marketplace.

After spending time in Bangalore, I had gained confidence and my curiosity grew. The region is so rich, it overwhelmed my senses and begged me to explore more. I lost my guide at that point, so, being on my own, I decided to take in typical tourist sites. I traveled to New Dheli and Agra to experience the Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort, Amar Singh Gate, and Lotus Temple. There was nothing on this trip that resembled the systematic infrastructure that we call home. A well-choreographed dance of animals, automobiles, bicycles, and people that could not be replicated anywhere else fell before me. India still pulls at my heart strings. I want to return one day and experience more. Perhaps for the Holy Festival.

What's a great place for women to travel?

Everywhere — even at home. I feel we need to get out and explore more. We were driving in a Chevrolet Equinox and headed over to Cranbrook a few weeks ago. We have spent a lot of time there over the years, in the art museum, the library, touring Saarinen House and the Science Center. Occasionally, we have walked some of the grounds, but it wasn’t until this last visit that we walked the pathways to see incredible gardens and architecture. Sometimes a deeper exploration in your own backyard is necessary.

What's a lousy place for women to travel?

I have not experienced a lousy place yet.

Tell us about the first time you traveled alone.

I have two firsts. I was traveling in China for a few weeks, helping open our color and trim studio in Shanghai. I remember thinking to myself, this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip, so I must make the most of it. I worked hard every day, and decided to take a few extra days on the weekend to go north to Xian. Starting in 246 BC, this is where they buried the famous Terracotta Warriors in the ground. I had read about them and wanted to see them in person, so I booked a flight and was off. Unfortunately, it was not that simple. Once at the airport, they made an announcement that they had changed the airport. Not just the terminal — the airport. Not only that — they didn’t say it in English. So I missed the bus that took everyone to the other airport.

Oh, I was beside myself. There were so many lessons learned on that trip. The one thing to keep in mind is that it always works out. I have not been lost to peril and have always seen what I intended to see. In fact, at the time I was able to meet one of the original farmers who found the first warrior head while digging a well in the mid-1970s. I even got his signature in the book I bought. It was a great exploration, not only to see the warriors, but also to see a mosque that opened to foreigners and women for the day, a labyrinth of street markets and food stands, palaces, and people. I will never forget how brave I felt after returning from that journey. I certainly found new roads (to echo our Chevrolet tagline...) on that excursion. 

My second first was a bit later in life. I rode on the back of my husband’s motorcycle for a number of years. We traveled a lot that way, especially when we were younger and saving money. We rode from Michigan to Taos, New Mexico, on one trip. We were fearless and wanted to see everything we could. After a while, I thought to myself, "why am I riding on the back?" I took a motorcycle safety course and got my endorsement for riding. I then got a motorcycle and started a few years of horse trading until I got one I really liked. Then I decided it was time: My first solo trip went from Michigan to North Carolina via the Blue Ridge Parkway. My husband had me safety-pin a note inside my jacket that listed him as my emergency contact. I felt like I was a little kid going out to ride my bike for the first time. It was an adventure that I will never forget. I did make it there and back in one piece.

Members of the Maasai Mara Tribe in southwestern Kenya.
Shopping for hand-beaded jewelry in the Serengeti area of Tanzania.

Where do you find travel inspiration?

It seems to be everywhere around me: television, Instagram, work, reading, other travelers, bloggers, meeting people while traveling and sharing stories. It is just serendipitous. There is no prescribed method: ;It just happens. And there is no shortage on the bucket list either. I have to keep running lists because I can’t remember all of the places that I would love to see.

Speed Round of Favorites: The Fathom Questionnaire

Favorite destinations: Mongolia, Cambodia, and Langkawi in Malaysia.

Mongolia for adventure because we never knew where the day would take us and we never sat down. We rode horses and camels; we hiked deserts and iced valleys. We watched goats come into this world and saw the remains of animals in an unforgiving, vast countryside. We met nomadic people and saw how they lived in the middle of nowhere. We didn't just see Mongolia: We felt it in our core being.

Cambodia was a mixture of adventure and relaxation, not so much by choice but by our ability. The days were thick and hot; the sun scorched the stone temples of Angkor Wat. We were only able to bear the heat in the morning hours. Once noon came, we would find our way back to the hotel and soak in the pool, enjoying the swim-up bar and hospitality of the staff and services at Hotel Somadevi Angkor Resort & Spa. Langkawi is an incredible place, with so much to see and explore, but we were overdue for much-needed R&R. The Andaman Islands were just the ticket. Calm blue waters, sugar-white sand beaches, little crabs digging at the shoreline, and a forever-lingering sun warming us as we sat and read books.

Dying to visit: Petra and Wadi Rum. I am so excited because it's our next trip.

Bizarre travel rituals: I try on all of my clothing before I pack, even if I wore an item during that week and know exactly what it looks like and how it fits.

In-flight relaxation regimen: I catch up on guilty-pleasure TV shows and movies.

Always in carry-on: A jacket. Nothing worse than freezing on a plane.

Concierge or DIY? DIY, with help from the internet and great people who love travel and sharing.

See it all or take it easy? See it all. There is plenty of time for rest when that final dirt nap comes.

Drive or be driven? Drive everywhere. I feel like I experience more.

Travel hero: I don’t follow just one, but these people have influenced my travel philosophy: Anthony Bourdain, Charles Darwin, Paul Nicklen, and Suzanne Miranda.

Incredible detail at one of the many palaces Kathy visited in India.
Shopping for sarees in Bangalore, India; fabric options.

Weirdest thing seen on travels: I don’t really know how to choose. This is a cultural/religious thing, but I found it really strange that menstruating women were not allowed on temple grounds in Bali. 

My favorite hotel is Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti because you are up close and personal with the animals while relaxing.

I dream about my meal at The Lark in West Bloomfield, Michigan. I almost cried when this restaurant closed in 2015. It was and still is my favorite restaurant. It was an old school-style European inn that served craft cocktails (before they became popular) and had a local garden (before farm-to-table made a revival). The Lark family knew how to treat people and create an amazing dining experience. 

Best hotel amenity: I don’t remember which hotel it was, but there was a little book of bedside stories on the nightstand. I loved that little book for a long time. I imagine it didn’t cost the hotel much, but it was something for my imagination to behold. That beat out any welcome cocktail, bar of soap, or toothbrush kit.

Favorite childhood travel memory: There are so many good ones. There are simple pleasures such as fishing up north with my family or going to a wild game reserve to see the animals, but the best one that brings back all the senses to full tilt is Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. We would rent a little house where my parents would go crabbing and we would eat crabs on newspaper until we were stuffed. The beaches were fantastic and the boardwalk was my favorite. We walked and ate cotton candy and bought hermit crabs and played games at old carnival-style places with lights and the sounds of bells and whistles. It is a sensory overload of childhood fun.

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