Automobiles are a special type of object. The guts of them date back to the industrial age and, in the right car, remain a visceral experience. We may surround ourselves with touch screens, LEDs, and wireless devices with soft touch buttons, but cars are still about gears, gauges, and grease. There’s wind to move through, physics to tame at every contact point, and explosions going on thousands of times per minute in small metal cylinders not far from your right foot (or just behind your head—if you’re in the right sort of car). All that violence comes with its share of beauty. Important cars have been celebrated more recently as art—Ralph Lauren won best of show for his 1938 Bugatti 57SC Atlantic Coupe at the Concorso D’Eleganza Villa d’Este this year because it is near impossible to believe that something so fetching could ever be expected to transport someone.
But 1938 was a long time ago, and the age of the coach-built car seems remote when additive manufacturing, hydroforming, and other technologies are changing the equation of what we can produce and where. Is the art and craft that made the great names of twentieth century design giants still relevant—and more importantly, how does this brand of creativity live on?
This issue features Scott Wilson’s interview with Paolo Pininfarina, whose calling is to steer a design firm with a legacy of Italian sports car glamour in an era when racing is more about supercomputers and sensors than hammers and knockoff wheels. How do you take a creative, family-based business into a global, technology-driven business environment and preserve a brand? Does a design language survive translation over a century, and does it still mean anything?
It does, and two points struck me as I listened. First, Mr. Pininfarina observes that design is in some respects aspirational. The work that brought his firm renown, producing what are widely regarded as some of Ferrari’s finest designs, was not born in an environment of mass production, work-motion studies, and budgets. Elegance first, he said. While this does not grant the rest of us license to ignore the realities of the modern workplace, it suggests that the constraints of volume and efficiency are, at times, something to keep at bay.
Next, his perspective on the role of talent and its fit with his organization is stark: “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.”
While he recognizes top design talent as an asset, there is the notion that the right talent and the right company—combined deliberately—are an underappreciated intersection.