HONG KONG MAY have one of the most knowledgeable populations of petrol-heads in the world, but surprisingly few of them know that a leading exterior designer at one of the most iconic sports-car makers in the world is a local boy. Born in the early 1950s, Pinky Lai progressed from drawing telephone-cable installations to penning the lines of Porsche’s Boxter, Cayman and 996 Turbo, by way of art school in Rome, postgraduate study at London’s Royal College of Art, and stints in the studios of Ford of Europe and BMW. Back in his birthplace for the launch of his limitededition book of automobile sketches, Ideation, Lai – who with his greying goatee, neck scarf and combat pants more resembles a jazz musician than a car guy – talked about his remarkable journey, learning from others’ mistakes and why he places drama above emotion.
You were brought up in Hong Kong in the 1950s and ’60s, the era of plastic radios, plastic flowers and plastic everything else. So with that all around you at the time, what was the impetus that made you choose a career in design?
Originally, it wasn’t about design [per se]; let’s just say that interior design was very influential at that stage. In the year-and-ahalf before I left Hong Kong I was with Jens Munk. I’d previously worked for the Hong Kong Telephone Company as a draftsman, drawing cables in architectural plans. I was really lucky because Jens Munk accepted that I was capable of drawing technically so they offered me a job as a trainee. I was learning not only architectural drawing but also perspective, and that was my first step into the area of design. And what really got me addicted to design was imported furniture. This wasn’t just normal furniture, it was ultra-modern and sometimes psychedelic… And then I realised, “Oh Jesus, there’s something happening outside of Hong Kong.” It got me curious and I started looking over the fence. This was at the end of the ’60s and the early ’70s, because in 1972 I was already heading to Rome.
So what made you take that huge jump out of Hong Kong?
I was fed up with Hong Kong, I hated the smog and I hated the crowds. In fact, I’d moved off Hong Kong Island and lived on Lamma. I shared with some buddies – architectural graduates. In the end I was the only one left in the house, but I’d been saving money, and one day I was ready to buy a one-way ticket out. By that time my friends were already in Europe – one in Berlin, one in Rome – so I picked Rome. I ended up staying there for six years.
You studied design there, and I believe when you graduated you then got a scholarship for post-graduate study.
I got a very good degree in product design, but I didn’t like the working mentality in Italy. I did know a bit about the German mentality, so I picked Germany.
Were cars already on your mind at that time?
No, cars were not a vocabulary, cars were things you drove. That’s why when I read an ad in a German car magazine that Ford was looking for a young designer, I thought to myself, “Well, cars are industrial products, aren’t they? Let’s go and try.” So I called up to have an interview. But the minute I walked into the interview room and saw those colour renderings on the wall, in super-perspective, and the big box of Magic Markers on the table, I knew I was in deep trouble. The technique I’d used in Italy was like architectural drawing – the Magic Markers were only for blacking out the background. Car design is totally different: the Magic Markers are for modelling the surfaces.
Was that a challenge you wanted to take?
Yeah it was a challenge, but I knew I wasn’t going to make it. [I thought,] “Let’s just get it over with and finish the interview.” But towards the end I had the courage to ask [the interviewee] a question, because he’d given it to me right away: “You don’t have talent, you don’t have experience, well you do have a bit of talent, but why weren’t you working for Toyota or Honda?” I was thinking, “Excuse me, I was in school all the time,” and so I became upset and aggressive. I said, “Listen, if companies like yours never offer opportunities to young talents to gain experience you’ll never get any talented designers.” The guy was stunned and then he said, “That’s true…OK, we can offer you this and this and this. Go and do the twoyear course in Transport Design at [the Royal College of Art in London] and then we can offer you a designer position,” but I didn’t get the last part because when they said, “No, we want to send you back to school,” I felt awful.
The weekend after the interview a big envelope arrived from Ford. It was a one-way air ticket to London, and all the registration information for the RCA – all I had to do was show up. I was like, “Wow, they offered me something really serious!” So I took the challenge. The first year was really tough. Everybody had been sketching away for a couple of years and it looked as if there was no way I could catch up. But in the second year, I started to pick up, learning the techniques and the dirty tricks, as they called it. Getting very competitive. And then three months before graduation I got a contract.
So you went to Ford, which also took you to Mazda and Ghia. What were the significant projects you worked on?
I did all the programmes, small cars like the Fiesta, also the Escort and Sierra, all the way up to the Scorpio. At that time they didn’t really have that many models.
After Ford, you were asked to join BMW, and from there the same thing happened with Porsche. How does a designer bring his personality and ideas into brands that already have a very strong identity and values?
At Ford it was very liberal in the sense that they were looking for a breakthrough anyway. With a new-generation model or life cycle, it’s allowed to let the design graduates to design freely – you cannot stop them or channel them into one single direction. So the design directions are open: you can go short, you can go boxy, hard-edged, organic, or whatever you name it. But not at BMW, you have to show your kidney [front grille] – you can draw your own kidney but always a kidney. I introduced the short nose. I was a fan of the [Porsche] 928, the pioneer of the short nose and short ass, which were in PU [polyurethane], the soft PU that just returns to its original shape after an impact. It was the only car on the market without a metal bumper. I said, “Hey BMW, as long as you have the bumper bar sticking out” – I called it the diving board, just to provoke the directors – “as long as you have a diving board you cannot be called modern.” So I introduced the short nose in body-coloured plastic. That was the 3 Series, that was my baby. And then one day, my boss called me into the office during lunch break. He said, “Hey, look at this, I got an offer from Porsche. But I’m only going there on one condition: that you join me.”
That sounds like an offer you couldn’t refuse.
Yeah, but I was just starting to feel loyal to the brand. I was really happy at BMW, I had my cabriolet and so on, nice cars to drive, it was a very good status, you know. Everywhere you go, the shops, the baker, they’ll treat you almost like a god. I was starting to feel loyal to the brand, and then here’s somebody trying to get me away from them. And then I had a second conversation and that’s when I made up my mind: “Let’s do it.”
Just to go away from the brands, is combining a need for beauty with a need for practicality and functionality a challenge for a designer?
Not really. That’s the difference between car design and product design. With product design, it has to function as perfectly as possible, but a car functions anyway.
So there’s more room for emotion, things like that.
A lot more than that. It’s like, if you design a piece of furniture, a fridge, a TV or a phone, there are, let’s say, 10 safety rules that forbid you from doing this or that. But with a car there are 1,000 safety regulations, so the function is always there, but the engineer will take care of it. So the designer doesn’t need to worry about it, he just has to play the game, be creative, be emotional, drama. Everybody’s talking about how you need emotion, but it’s nothing if you don’t have drama. Emotion, what’s emotion? If you just soften it up it’s also emotion, but drama on surfaces, drama on the corner, how you treat the corner with some “drama” values, I think Porsche is doing that very well. But drama might happen in a negative way if you’re not careful. Look at the new BMW, it’s drama in a different way, in a negative way, and people stay away from it. They’re going to be in deep trouble, I tell you. But let them fall down, then we pick up more sales. We enjoy looking at the competitors, at the mistakes they’re making. We don’t go to car shows to be inspired, we go to look at the others’ mistakes.
Which car designs have given you the most inspiration?
And of all the cars you’ve designed, which gave you the most satisfaction?
The Cayman, and the 996 Turbo. Not only the emotional aspects and the drama, but also the fun. The relationship, the way on the first drive it just connects. The feedback we get from the steering, it’s like, “Wow, it’s the best in the world.” You know, the Cayman is only 240 horses, but it’s not only about the acceleration or speed, it’s the feedback. It’s like the car is taking care of you, even if you’re just cruising through bends or enjoying the sun. But that kind of security transfers back to you…all the information is there. If you get into a Mercedes or a BMW, you don’t get that kind of contact, you just have to blindly trust the car. But not on a Porsche: whether it has 250 or 450 horsepower, even on the first contact you’ve got everything you need to know.