The chairman of the renowned Italian design house discusses creativity the Italian way, how to extend a luxury brand into new markets, and offers his opinion on his company’s best-ever Ferrari design.
Growing up in 1980s Scotland, I was transfixed weekly by Miami Vice and my hero Sonny Crockett’s bad mullet haircut, suits with rolled-up sleeves, and his beast-on-four-wheels white Ferrari Testarossa. Only later did I discover the creative power behind the car’s glorious pure lines and aggressive swooping curves was Sergio Pininfarina, owner of the Pininfarina automotive design house and venerable Italian coachbuilder that perhaps epitomizes our notion of Italian sports car design today.
By that time, Pininfarina had of course established a long and successful partnership with Ferrari as the firm’s de facto design team. That relationship remains strong today under the aegis of the late Sergio’s son and current Pininfarina chairman, Paolo Pininfarina, who has extended the company’s creative reach—often via Pininfarina Extra, the company’s product design subsidiary—into new luxury markets and industries, while retaining the traditions that brought the brand fame in automobile design. Over a long-reaching discussion on what makes his company tick in terms of innovation and creativity, we explored a variety of topics including the perennial appeal of Italian design, lessons learned extending a company’s core competence into new markets, and how tradition and heritage remain at the center of the company’s design philosophy forged more than 80 years ago when his grandfather, Battista “Pinin” Farina founded the company in Turin, North Italy.
I begin our dialogue by wondering aloud what makes Pininfarina unique in the world of design firms. And has this had any kind of impact on allowing the company to diversify? The chairman pauses before explaining that the decision to compete in new markets was originally taken by his father, Sergio, in the mid-’80s, who saw an opportunity to gradually leverage the strength of the brand’s reputation in the automotive sector into other transport sectors and then eventually into global industrial and consumer design markets.
“My father took the decision to expand the brand because he recognized the potential for development and extraction of the value we had built up in automotive into new markets, beginning with other forms of transport. He was also aware that if we leveraged the brand in other sectors we would reduce the risk of imitation by others in those sectors, so it was also a defensive approach to protect the brand that gradually became quite important and strategic over the years.
“And what makes us unique I think is our history, which is very special. Our firm dates back to the ’30s prewar, and there are not so many design firms today that can say they have more than 80 years’ history. It’s our family heritage which I think makes us unique because there is only one Pininfarina family and one Pininfarina vision on design. My grandfather was special in creating this vision and making sure it lasted, building something that would be around for decades. He was also lucky in a way because his son Sergio, my father, was also very talented, perhaps even better at building the company we are today. He was a great engineer and very committed to improving the company with strong ethical values. But then I would say that he, too, was also lucky in that his sons—myself and my brother (the late Andrea Pininfarina)—were very involved in the business from an early age and also determined to continue the development of the company in the same way. So we are a family business, and it’s a nice story with many good moments but also bad moments, such as the Second World War for my grandfather and then the death of my brother five years ago. But we are very strong, and I think we are also very resilient.”
Does that resiliency translate into the essence of the Pininfarina design vision? Are there other elements that separate Pininfarina design from your competitors’?
“Absolutely, and one of the things that I do every day when I am involved in the design projects is to guarantee the Pininfarina brand. I can see when we have a clear solution to a technical problem in a new car or train or whatever, but it has to be the right solution. Something can be good but if it’s not what I classify as Pininfarina then we don’t implement it. Being one of the experts on the history of the company I often make final judgment on what is and what is not “Pininfarina.”
“…I often make final judgment on what is and what is not “Pininfarina.””
“Much of what can go into that judgment can seem intangible but our design work has to be innovative, it has to be essential, it has to be harmonic, it has to be balanced, and above all it has to be elegant. Elegance is something that is very important, and after all these years I think we can be proud to say that our cars are the most elegant. And this is the result of great consistency in our design approach, year after year, project after project. We have a history of about 800 cars designed and about 500 other design projects outside of automotive we were involved in, so that in itself is a good reference for what we do.”
Would you say there is a specific approach to implementing that design philosophy at Pininfarina?
“I think I can be a little provocative in answering that question when I say that we believe there are two approaches to design. One is very contemporary, an approach based on design by the people, coming from the people… it’s a bottom-up approach. It’s like local fashion getting popular and suddenly becoming global. It starts with the people and goes all the way to the top. And the other approach is what I would call more aristocratic, more of a top-down approach. So for example, design elements of a Ferrari eventually influence design elements of an Alfa Romeo and so on. It’s extending some of the design from the level of grand luxury down to the level of mass-produced products to give that sense of imitation of luxury.
“At Pininfarina we believe in the top-down approach. We think that starting from luxury we can generate progress and innovation because it embodies the logical spirit of curiosity and admiration people have for luxury products. It allows you to have the freedom and budget to explore innovation, and by following the top-down approach you can eventually bring ideas to the mass market. We know this is a different approach to the other way that some may say is more “democratic” rather than “aristocratic,” but I believe that luxury goods are important to enable new designs to emerge. And in that sense I don’t believe luxury goods are an isolated area to the rest of the world; absolutely not.”
“When it comes down to it, great design for me is something that is durable. Durable means something that is evergreen, classic; design that will always last.”
At this point I am reminded of the philosophy of renowned chef and innovator of molecular gastronomy, Ferran Adria, who, while reaching his creative zenith at his landmark restaurant elBulli, attributed much of his success to managing and deploying talent and technology in a harmonious approach to innovation.
How does talent and technology play a role in Pininfarina’s top-down approach to design?
“Talent is very important, of course. We look for people with values like integrity and thinking for the long term, that is, long term for the company and also for the development of their personal careers in the company. We don’t want to have people come here, learn, and then go. We prefer to have people that stay and grow in the company.
“But there are also people who come to our company from outside who we think can produce design work that is in tune with Pininfarina. The world is more complex these days, more competitive, so we need to find the right balance between our tradition of developing our own people to grow with the company and bringing in new people with new ideas who share our values and can help support the growth of the company.”
Are you ever concerned that if too many people come and go at Pininfarina they will take what they have learned there and use it to succeed at other companies?
“No. I actually think that is not a big concern because if someone is talented at Pininfarina I do not think it is inevitable they will be just as talented somewhere else because they will have left the special environment we have at Pininfarina and they will not receive the same support they get here. To be frank, we have lost key people in the past who went to other companies, but I believe they never again expressed the same talent they had while at Pininfarina. What concerns me more is that we lose our time bringing someone in, developing them, and building their career for them to then leave. But that’s life. People come and go, but Pininfarina is always there.
“What we do have to be careful about when bringing people in from outside is on the one hand not ignoring what is going on with more contemporary design and engineering trends. We always have to be curious and knowledgeable about such things. But we cannot be impressed too much, otherwise we risk becoming too contemporary rather than truly innovative. We have to anticipate what the trends are likely to be in the future, but we have to preserve the classical Pininfarina style and also maintain our tradition of innovation.
“When it comes down to it, great design for me is something that is durable. Durable means something that is evergreen, classic; design that will always last. It’s what we are known for, and I think it is good for the industry and has proven to be a good investment for our partners through the years. When you come to Pininfarina you know your product will last, and that’s very important from an economics perspective.”
What about technology? Over the last 30 years there have been huge technology changes in the automotive and design industries, and technology occupies a greater space in our lives. Is this a good thing for design and creativity? Can you still maintain your classical heritage in the face of relentless jumps in technology?
“It’s an interesting question. Craftsmanship and artistic talent was the core 50 years ago, but then technology began to play a bigger and bigger part, as you say. But I think Pininfarina has always been very in tune with technological progress. We have a strong engineering tradition, and you can see that in our designs, which are often expressed via use of new materials or new aerodynamic processes or advances in areas like electric propulsion. We think we are always very involved in the evolution of automotive technology, but what’s also important is to make sure we get the right mix of technology and craftsmanship in what we do.
“A good example of this is the prototypes we make, the concept cars or the limited editions, and one-offs, etc. It’s here that you can see a lot of new technologies, new materials, new solutions combined with the capability to make these pieces in very small quantities. These products are tailor-made, which is at the core of our brand’s heritage of craftsmanship. And I believe this is where our brand has more recognition, in that area of special editions, one-offs, grand luxury projects rather than, say, in mass production. And this is very much in alignment with our redefinition of the Pininfarina vision that we carried out five years ago when we moved away from design for mass production and instead concentrated manufacturing on very select limited editions.
“My father died in July 2012, and we decided to make a car for him, to honor his legacy. We started the process in September that year and … manufactured a complete new car in six months, which was incredible, really. This was all down to using the right technologies to enable fast prototyping and allow us to transform our dream of a gift to my father…”
Would you say, then, that technology has not compromised the artisan creativity that you’ve always been known for?
“Technology helps, but you must not become a slave of technology. It only helps if you select the right technology for you. But it can definitely help. I’ll give you a simple example: My father died in July 2012, and we decided to make a car for him, to honor his legacy. We started the process in September that year and presented the Sergio Ferrari concept car at the Geneva motor show in late February. So we actually designed, engineered, and manufactured a complete new car in six months, which was incredible, really. This was all down to using the right technologies to enable fast prototyping and allow us to transform our dream of a gift to my father of this beautiful car in just six months.
“But let me say something very Italian. What made the difference in this instance was passion. Passion and the commitment of our people to give 110 percent because we all wanted to produce the best of the best—a car with the name of our chairman.”
That must have been a very emotional project for you. Are there any lessons learned that you can apply to other projects?
“Yes. To be able to turn something like that around in six months is quite remarkable. It was a very special project, but probably the lesson is that sometimes if you compromise too much and get too many suggestions from your team or from outside then you end up wasting too much time. In the end we said, OK, we want to be fast, we want to make a Ferrari, a Ferrari inspired by the chairman. And we agreed, and we started. We did not need too many checks or the need for confirmation. So everything was done fast, and in the future I hope we will be able to learn from what we did there.”
You mentioned before that you sometimes have outsiders come into the company and help grow the brand, but you also have many high-profile partnerships with other luxury brands, and I read that your father, who was also an Italian statesman, was very keen on being able to partner with international companies as a mechanism for growth into new markets beyond Italy.
“As far as Pininfarina is concerned I would say that we are Italian first, of course, but we are very much international. We don’t want to be perceived as only an Italian brand. We have an ambition to be active globally, and yes, that has always been something Pininfarina has tried to do with partners. My grandfather used to say ‘I want to have a partner in every country’ and we certainly had partners in Italy such as Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Fiat, and so on, but from an early age the company also had partners in France with Peugeot, we had British Leyland in the UK, and we had General Motors in the USA. This was in the ’50s and ’60s, and then we partnered with Nissan, then came Honda and Mitsubishi, and afterwards we did a lot of work with Ford, then Volvo. So we have definitely tried to continue this strategy as a means of growing our business globally, and this has paid off for us. About 90 percent of Pininfarina turnover goes outside of Italy now, and the majority of the remaining 10 percent is for Ferrari, and that too goes mainly outside of Italy.
“This is something we think is good for us because being more international opens your mind to different markets, attitudes, customers, and technologies. It’s good for innovation. And also I find that being an Italian business helps with becoming more international because I find a tremendous enthusiasm for Italy whenever I travel for business. It doesn’t matter if I am in Singapore or San Francisco, or like last week when I was in Sao Paolo, I find this fantastic enthusiasm about Italy, which allows us to be much more positive and optimistic about working internationally.”
Has partnering with these international companies ever influenced your design process?
“Yes and no. Not so much the design, which is our core competency, but certainly in the areas of process engineering and manufacturing, for sure. Partnering with the Japanese was very helpful when we redesigned our factory 20 years ago because of course they were very strong in process engineering, and we learned from them. But as we extend the company internationally, we will always keep the conceptual, creative design phase in Italy because that was my father’s mission; that’s what gives us our Italian style, our Italian flavor.”
Do you have strict criteria for who gets to partner with you?
“It all depends on the type of partnership because it may be a design partnership or an engineering service or some limited edition manufacturing. Each partnership can be different according to the brand or the end customer, so selection of partners can often be quite complicated. However, we always abide by our own partnership principles of making sure we never disturb our partners in the markets they serve. So let’s say we are doing a car with Ferrari—we will never do something else that would directly compete with our partner Ferrari. That is true in all the sectors we partner in. For us, it is very important that we can build trust with our partners, to be very clear with each other, to be very transparent in the way we do business.”
You mentioned that you have plans to push the Pininfarina brand into other grand luxury sectors that are far removed from the automotive industry. How easy is it to do something like that when your brand is so strongly associated with automobiles? Isn’t there a risk that moving into more consumer products markets and even getting into sectors such as the hotel industry (the company designed the Keating Hotel in San Diego, which opened in 2007 to critical acclaim) where you have no previous expertise could be damaging to your core automotive brand?
“Well to begin with I think expanding our brand into new sectors will always be a very gradual process. We are very curious to see how we can leverage the strength of our brand in new industries. With the Pininfarina-designed hotel in San Diego, that was really our very first experiment in this sector. But I would be interested in seeing what we could do with another Pininfarina hotel in New York or Paris or Rome and eventually throughout Italy. I am sure there will be some others in the future. To me this is following the logical process of innovation, and while it should be gradual we should not fear innovation.
“Regarding risks to the core brand, we do spend a lot of time selecting and working with consumer panels. We are very conscious of the dangers of over-inflating the brand, but at the same time we don’t want to lose opportunities to explore new sectors that could help grow the company. Like everything, it has to be a balance. You cannot always say yes to new opportunities, but it is also correct not to always say no because then we would never be able to explore the potential of our brand. Also, we have confidence in our brand being quite solid after more than 80 years. I think people around the world now understand that Pininfarina is not just about automotive. And that makes me quite comfortable about exploring other sectors but always being mindful to respect our core values of elegance, durability, and never being considered too fashionable. I think there are many opportunities where our automotive heritage will give credibility and value, and we will focus on those in the future.”
Do you take what you learn in these new areas of business back into the automotive design process? Any learning experiences in designing hotels or consumer products that can be used in the core business, or is it the other way around?
“When we collaborate on design we always try to go through the experience of our partner while always trying to give our own input. We do that to try and make something that is in line with the brand of our partner but is also expressing the values of Pininfarina. For example, we made a dispenser for Coca-Cola, which is definitely in line with their brand because it expresses their colors and the friendly values of Coca-Cola. But it also expresses the values of the Pininfarina identity formed in automotive when you consider things like materials, graphics, colors, technologies, et cetera.
“I wrote a book with a journalist about eight years ago, and we did an analysis of about 20 Pininfarina projects outside of automotive, examining any connections back to automotive in the designs, exploring where the automobile was in the process. And we actually found there was always a more or less subliminal connection with automotive in every project we do because it’s in our hearts. So it somehow always comes out in every project.”
As our time together draws to a close, I bring our conversation back to the subject of Italy and the notion of Italian flair in design. I ask the chairman why he thinks Italy leads the world in many areas of design. Does he believe there are cultural reasons to this?
“I think it’s a mix of reasons that are mainly historical and geographical. The latter because we are in the middle of the Mediterranean, the middle of Europe, and at various points in history Italy was divided into many small states and monarchies with influence over neighboring countries such as Germany, France, Spain going right back to the time when the popes had great influence. This meant the history of Italy was also fragmented and allowed a lot of different artistic standards to emerge. So if you see a church in Sicily it’s different from a church in Milan or Torino, but they all have strong artistic values. And of course this meant we had many different styles of craftsmanship and artisan skills, a lot of which were established when the fragmented states were at war with each other. And then of course we had the Renaissance period, and Italy was known for having great sculptors, painters, engineers, the era of Michelangelo and Raphael creating this fantastic tradition of art and craftsmanship that you can still see today expressed in modern brands such as Ferrari, Gucci, and all the others that are at highest levels of quality. In these brands you can always find that tradition of handmade artisanship, skill, and elegance that comes from the past. I think this is the secret to the enduring Italian style.”
What’s next for Pininfarina, what are the plans for growth, and how will you achieve them?
“I see a lot of international growth as we explore new markets where our brand has strong recognition. Every country is different of course, and not all markets will have the same reaction to Pininfarina. So every market has to be explored and studied, and if we think there is potential we will gradually build partnerships there. For example, I see great potential in Brazil, and every time I go, there is one more partnership starting. It’s a country that we previously had no business in, so I feel very positive about our opportunities there.
“So growth geographically, but also growth in new services that will not only be in automotive but also industrial and environmental and eventually doing more in the area of architecture and buildings where we think Pininfarina can be a good fit. In automotive I think the growth for Pininfarina is back to our roots, to go back to doing more of the limited edition work because that is an area that could be explored more than we have done recently. One example of that is of course the Sergio car we discussed, and we could eventually do more than one. We could also explore doing similar projects with other automotive brands if we can find the right opportunity to express co-branding in the best way.”
A final question and I can’t resist: In your opinion what is the most beautiful car your firm has ever made?
“That we ever made? I’ll tell you the same I told Italian television: the Sergio Ferrari. It’s the car I made for my father, and it’s my favorite. It was a real challenge to do something at that level of excellence, but I think we succeeded, and that is my favorite.”