Pinky Lai revolutionized one of the most iconic sports-car makers
The interest in luxury cars transcends all demographics and personality types, the need for speed is simply human nature ― a concept that auto designer PINKY LAI believes in strongly.
Throughout 36 years of design experience in the world renowned German automotive industry, the Lai has left his mark on countries and luxury companies all over the world like Ford, BMW, and Porsche, to name a few. Thru it all, he’s innovated designs that revolutionized the iconic companies he’s worked for including the Cayman and the Porsche 996. His atypical approach to creating cutting-edge car designs focuses on treating the interior and exterior as one, and his visual cohesion speaks for itself.
Scroll down for a chat with Pinky Lai on everything from his core design philosophies to industry critiques and plans for the future.
You have decades of successful experience in the auto industry ― through all these years, what are the main principles you have applied to your designs?
That’s a pretty tricky question that not many people ask me. If you start up in any new profession, I guess you have to get rid of your existing principles ― you just wanna grab whatever chance you can to get into the game. Maybe once in a while you’ll remember "Oh I have a certain principle in this, and that", but once you find yourself in the game, then you have to forget about the old philosophies you had. Initially, I was just overwhelmed with curiosity about how they do this, how they do that. Mostly what really captured my attention is how all these colleagues or classmates do the things they do, how are they so good? How come I'm not as good as them? That was my day and night question, and it took me quite a while to find the answer.
So, in terms of any principle, I cannot answer that question. Of course, I have to be very interested in design in general, in creating things, not necessarily about cars specifically. Even today, compared to other car designers, I am the most un-car guy ― because even after so many decades of doing car design, I'm still not quite interested in the technology or the technical engineering behind it. I'm just interested in the appearance, the appeal of a product. But, I was forced to be interested in the intersection of technology and engineering, and I was forced to pick up many technology arguments and vocabulary, so that's all I can say to you.
The first thing that sparked your passion for design was actually furniture, right?
Exactly! That was my first opportunity to get in touch with the word ‘creativity.’ In fact, the first creative vocabulary I learned was not about design, it was more about architecture. The furniture pieces I got to touch were mostly from Italy, and back in the late 60s or early 70s, Italy didn’t have the vocabulary around the concept of "design". They only had terms like "creato", or they’d call all the designers "architetto". So, the terminology of design or styling is American, it started with the bottle design of Coca-Cola, and all the streamlined locomotives ― that's how they started the word "styling", and somewhere down the line, the word "design" came up. Design is a very new term.
So, at that time, when I had the chance to work in interior decoration or interior furnishing shops, they’d have a lot of imported furniture from Italy and each piece would have a sticker, or a little booklet attached that would describe who designed it. In fact, it wasn’t "designed by this and that", but in fact "created by architetto this and that". So, my first idea of how to become a creator started with Italy and architecture. That was my drive to save money and get myself a one-way ticket to Italy, without even thinking "Hey! you won’t survive speaking English in Italy!". I had no idea, I was just naïve, young and dumb.
What would you say is behind the universal connection between humans and cars?
I think it's in the nature of the matter ― it always goes back to desire, the basic nature of human beings, starting at the beginning of history. Walking, running, and hunting, and then at some point humans started riding horses, and then in horse coaches, and then moving on to four-wheel vehicles, it's all about the desire for mobility, which I think is in the gene of human beings. Whatever can move you the fastest is what you’ll be interested in, subconsciously you will go for that, instead of saying, "Oh, forget about bicycle, let's walk!" If you have a long distance to cover, would you prefer walking or biking, it’s as simple as that, right?
How should the interiors of luxury cars reflect the context of the exterior design, and why is it important to create this cohesion between the interior and the exterior?
It is quite a huge topic, there are factors as to why a certain interior has to reflect the product value, and the same applies to the exterior. There are a lot of parameters that dictate the exterior, and a lot of time they have to deal with the corporate philosophy or the corporate tradition. You cannot expect a Mercedes S-Class to have the kind of Smart styling, right? So, that's just to differentiate between the corporate philosophy and the corporate value policy. From a designer perspective, I think today it's still true, the process is always that the interior follows the exterior. The exterior design will be created and approved first, and then the interior will jump in full force. Exteriors always lead the way.
That is one of the reasons that technology is still at the beginner level for interiors, it’s similar to how it was 100 years ago, you know? The interior design team has to follow the exterior design team because it's like building houses. If you have a house project, you always start from the exterior, finishing the raw body of the house first, then you deal with the interior, the furnishing, the fitting, the electricity, the technology, all based on the body. The same goes for the car business. That's why I call car design basically like architecture, but on wheels, there is something really true about it. You cannot start a car project with finishing an interior and then building the exterior on top of that, because in the car industry we have something very fundamental, we call it the package ― the package of a car is all the given components necessary for a car to run: motor, electricity, gearbox, tires, suspension, seating, ergonomics, control, driver control, passenger comfort. Before the design department gets a job for the new car, there is a so-called package department, laying out all of the vehicle specs automatically. So, by the time you finish the car, especially the door, the door will dictate the interior. It’s like when you compare the interior volume of a Smart to the interior volume of a Rolls Royce, that would give you a picture of how the package influences your car including the interior.
Apart from that, a lot of considerations put into the package are invisible and determine the category of the vehicle, whether or not it’s a super luxury vehicle, or super sporty, or super cheap. It's all influenced, all these invisible package elements, they would influence the interior and the exterior of the car. I've been thinking lately about reversing the process, starting with the interior and then doing the exterior over it. That would be a really surprising, weird process.
In regard to the relationship between design and humans, a lot of things are wrong in design. I have to speak up, because I've been observing this for a long time. Even companies I’ve worked for in the past aren’t always correct, a lot of time it's not correct. I’ve come to realize that the interior and the exterior should not be separated, they should be coming from the same brain. Mark my words, one day you will understand, because I'm the living proof that "Hey, you guys have been doing it wrong in the car industry. You may have a successful model, you may make a six figure profit ― but, do it my way, and you will be in the Museum of Modern Art, permanently."
Normally in my current position, I don't do design anymore, which is crazy because I live for design. For me design is not work, it shouldn’t be separate from my private life, which is why some designers charge a very high price for their design. The same applies to the coherences of interior design, exterior design ― because the tradition is to have an interior studio and then an exterior studio, with two separate teams. A lot of the time they are contradicting, but they don't talk about it for political correctness reasons. These two teams never raise their voices, they try to be polite, but it's wrong. I think it should be done under the same brain, it shouldn't be separated into different teams. A lot of the time interior designers specialize in interior design, they wouldn't know how to draw a car exterior, they only know how to draw interiors, and vice versa for exterior designers. There may be exceptions, like Pinky Lai, he can do both. In my current role, I just need to put my feet up and talk about design, but that is not me, because I enjoy doing design so much. Anyway, I cannot tell you more than that, because you have to wait and see my project, and then you'll understand. You might have to see it in the Museum of Modern Art, because at the same time it is going straight there. Apart from that, I cannot say anything about the coherence problem of interior and exterior design. People comment all the time on why our interior design looks so different to the exterior design, this whole century is like that, questioning why the exterior design, so-called design DNA doesn't reflect in the interior. It's like two different animals, but it's always been like that.
When it comes to luxury interiors, on what level do materials like leather give that extra boost to achieve high standards?
"IF YOU DON'T OFFER LEATHER IN A LUXURY INTERIOR, YOU CANNOT CALL IT LUXURY."
That is standard. This is like a piece of paper. You can get into a luxury interior with your eyes closed and identify it as luxury, because of the smell. I think some car companies have tried to introduce smell design, where they don't include leather in the interior, but they attempt to generate the smell. You’d smell leather everywhere, but not see it. I find it very dishonest to try to trick people and sell illusions, which I think is wrong. But luxury interiors shouldn't stop at leather, it is just one particular standard material you need to include. And further still, among leather there are different levels of leather. The high-end fashion area could be repeating the use of leather, but they have different treatments, different ways to present the new collection. Same material, but new collection, new appearance and new feel, maybe new even textile. But it shouldn't be limited to leather, there are a lot of open materials to be explored.
You mentioned classic models like the 99, the Cayman and the Boxster. What do you think are the main aspects of these designs that allow them to transcend time?
This is another turning point in the sense that they were so unusual, so untypical as car projects. Especially when you talk about the Porsche Cayman, it’s such a great car in terms of design and overall. You have to admit, even if you were not so convinced in the beginning, the minute you stop at the gas station and a group of Harley-Davidson riders pull up and walk around your car with approval, that means you must have done something right. And then right after that, a little Audi pulls up, and there’s an old conservative gentleman who turns their head to look at your car ― you can't really get any better of a compliment than that from different focus groups.
That was another turning point for me, after driving the 911, air-cooled, water-cooled for so many years, it was very difficult to get an excitement blackout while driving, you literally blackout. This is really a harmless way to describe it, but it’s the feeling of just before you go unconscious, at the speed, the recoil, at the g-force. I hadn’t had that feeling in years, but the first time I took a Cayman out and went through my favorite bahn, the s-curve, I had that feeling. I had to leave the gas pedal because it was still accelerating into the bahn, full speed, really pedal to the metal. I got the first blackout and thought, "Wow, it's a Cayman! A blackout?!". I really had to leave my gas pedal and be careful, but it was handling so well, better than a 911 at a high-speed curve.
There was another little thing about the Cayman which was atypical about the project, because we were given a very small budget. It was like 10% of the usual budget to start a design project. I was creating 3D models right before Christmas, thinking that 2D models wouldn’t be good enough to convince the management to do a Cayman. I told myself it would have to be 3D, as close to reality as possible. It's a see-through model that looks like it's a real car from a distance, even when you walk close to it you still think it's a real car, you can see through the glass and interior. But with 10% of the normal budget, it was really challenging. It was unusual because the choice was coming from the marketing department, and normally marketing doesn't have a say at the beginning of a new project. But that time was different, because there was an argument about the selling curve of the Boxster starting to die. So, they needed something to boost it up again, and normally they would come up with a facelift or something to bring up the curve again. But a facelift could bring you maybe only 6 months of an upward curve, you need something more. I said it would have to be a brand new type of product, or at least look very new ― even with that kind of budget I was still hopeful to get it through.
If you want a see-through model, you need a smart and fearless coachbuilder, so I made a few calls to my Italian connections around Christmas time and contacted several coachbuilders in Italy. Only one dared to answer my calls and stay on the phone, and he finally said "Okay, Pinky. I'll do that for you. But you have to give me 3D data right after the New Year." The two see-through models had to be delivered to Porsche before Easter, so there were three months total to send us two see-through models. At the time, the project had no name because it was so secret, only me, the marketing guy and the head of R&D knew. So we ordered two models and then we organized another ― the whole time operating so top secret that even my colleagues didn’t know what the hell was going on with Pinky Lai. The head of R&D flew down to Italy with me a couple of times, and he was so excited, he would start drawing on the car! It was one of the big bosses at Porsche designing a car with me side by side and we were hiding the presentation to all the rest of the company. We organized a special presentation inviting all the world importers of Porsche to a secret spot, to present the two see-through models.
This is one of those very proud projects, I didn’t think it was possible, but I said let’s give it a try and that’s how I found the coachbuilder. If that particular coachbuilder didn't see it that way, then we wouldn't have the Cayman today! Can you imagine? Another thing that made me proud was attending one of those Porsche club meetings that included Porsche owners from around the world. There were these two owners who didn’t know each other from California, and each already owned a 996 Turbo.Just by coincidence, they both bought my Cayman, and both agreed it was a better ride than the 996 Turbo. Voilà!
The need for sustainability has grown with time ― after the boom in electric car production, how else do you see the automotive industry evolving towards a greener reality?
I compare it to the transition from lead petrol to when they started introducing other energy catalysts and motors, combined with the introduction of airbags and safety belts. The transition has started already and it’s just a matter of time, whether you are into it or not. I think it has little to do with whether the individual is environmentally friendly or not, that is just secondary, or maybe the consumer just thinks it’s something nice to have. There is still a cost issue, everything has a cost and environmental friendly production is not really as cheap as people would like to think. Still, it's just a matter of time, it's not a matter of "if", it's gonna happen one way or the other.
Here’s to thinking big, especially when it comes to the future’s luxury cars.
If you’re in the mood to keep your joyride going, find part two of our interview with Pinky Lai here or book it to our wheels content.