Pininfarina: design between invention and repetition

Through a series of rares images and sketches from the Pininfarina archive, Domus celebrates the acclaimed designer, responsible for some of the most beautiful and important automobiles in history.

This week, we celebrate acclaimed automobile designer Sergio Pinifarina , head of historical automobile design firm and coachbuilder Pininfarina , who passed away last 3 July. Born in 1926, he soon joined the family business, spearheaded by his father Battista Farina. In 1961, the family's surname is changed to reflect the company's name, and shortly thereafter, in 1961, Sergio takes control of the business following his father's death. Throughout his long career, he designed some of the most beautiful and important automobiles in history, continuing the firm's high-end research and experimentation process. The article republished today presents rare materials from the Pininfarina archives, which were displayed at the Politecnico di Milano in 1991, to celebrate the launch of a new program in industrial design.

This article was originally published in Domus 729 / July 1991

Pininfarina: design between invention and repetition

For years Angelo Tito Anselmi has been digging meticulously into Pininfarina's archives. The outcome is an exhibition of the firm's method which carefully explores the evolution of industrial products.

One object alone has been able to faithfully represent both the progress of techniques and the myths, dreams, illusions and contradictions of modernity — the automobile. No other artefact, not even the TV-set and the telephone, has so perfectly symbolized "human aggressiveness and the need for wandering isolation ... [embodying] the myth of heroism, of competitiveness and elegance, besides those of efficiency and timeliness". The car has become "the vanguard of that precarious ideology of progress for a social group tied to the conspicuousness of consumption". (V. Gregotti, 1978).
Top: Two-seat <em>Nash-Healey roadster spinster</em>, 1951-52. Above: The <em>Nash-Healey coupé</em>, 1952
Top: Two-seat Nash-Healey roadster spinster , 1951-52. Above: The Nash-Healey coupé , 1952
The car is an innovative technological product and a status symbol all in one, myth and commodity at the same time. So, it is a suitable laboratory for investigating industrial products, the litmus test of design's gradual evolution. We believe, therefore, that the exhibition of Pininfarina's work at the Milan School of Architecture is particularly significant. It also coincides with the announced institution of a degree in industrial design. The show is made even more meaningful by the curator's strategy in preparing it. In fact, while availing himself of the opportunity offered by the company's willingness to let him peruse it archives, Angelo Tito Anselmi chose a path that differed from the run-of-the mill historic survey of beautiful drawings and breathtaking forms. Instead, he broke new ground: a methodological itinerary through the design procedure and its tools.
<em>Hardtop Cadillac Allanté spider</em>, rendering of the final version by Mario Vernacchia, 1982
Hardtop Cadillac Allanté spider , rendering of the final version by Mario Vernacchia, 1982
The drawings, sketches, renderings and models do more than just reveal a taste in the process of consolidation, since they define the bodymaker's reference system, the language used to discuss, check and transmit the design's contents. Thus, the transformations which Pininfarina's drawings have undergone in its fifty years of business testify to the evolution of the design process itself. Initially, they were utilized by craftsmen who bashed out the car body by hand, but gradually these representations were modified to suit the needs and the pace of increasingly mechanized, automated manufacturing. The first thing one notes is that the drawings get progressively more complicated.
<em>Cadillac Allanté</em>, rendering of an unrealized version, 1982
Cadillac Allanté , rendering of an unrealized version, 1982
Until the '50s, very few blueprints were sent to the plant. They consisted in a schematic, though precise, contour diagram in scale 1: 10, plus one or more "realistic" renderings of the car. Also, since the cars usually were custom models or turned out in small batches, the renderings served, above all, to seduce the customer by providing an enticing overall view of his purchase. To reach this objective, no graphic trick or refinement was spared: artfully deformed perspectives, hyperrealistic pastel drawings, and tempera applied with an airbrush to imitate reflections and chrome plating. The rest of the work was done in the plant using mock-ups, small ones at first, then full-size; wood templates were constructed for shaping the sheet metal. All the technical problems that arose were tackled through the mock-up, by means of a constant dialogue between designer and maker that ensured that the results were continuously checked. The interiors and trim were done in the same manner, and every innovative feature immediately and automatically was added to the entire firm's collective heritage.
<em>Nash-Healey coupé</em>, 1952
Nash-Healey coupé , 1952
The gradual introduction of automation into the body works called for many changes. Despite their accuracy, machines cannot accumulate knowledge and experience like a skilled craftsman. Ali the information has to be encapsulated in the drawings. The renderings can no longer rely on false perspectives and the mechanical drawings are increasingly detailed. The transformation is much more radical than the switch to new graphic techniques, such as the use of felt-tip-pens. The language of the design process itself is revolutionized. Each part has to be conceived, evaluated and drawn, thereby increasing the number of drawings and driving the process towards global engineering. The big risk engendered by dizzy whirl necessitated by today's pursuit of production perfection is that one may lose sight of the object itself. When this occurs, the artefact loses its original identity.
Two-seat <em>Nash-Healy roadster spider</em>, presentation drawing. Variation designed by Adriano Rabone, 1951
Two-seat Nash-Healy roadster spider , presentation drawing. Variation designed by Adriano Rabone, 1951
But Pininfarina's design team and workers are closely bound by the constant R&D that is carried out. Giovanni Farina's natural aerodynamic talent at the beginning of the century has been transformed into a sophisticated field of investigation. At first, the approach was empirical, with prototypes and silhouettes being tested during races. Then, beginning in the '50s, the performance of scale models was evaluated in the wind tunnel at the Turin Polytechnic. More recently, in 1972, a new wind tunnel was built next to the plant where full-size mock-ups are tested far from prying eyes. And this is the key factor that allowed the design and the product to maintain their old coherence — the opportunity for them to meet on this common ground. Probably no tool nor working method by themselves can ensure the fruitful cohabitation of creativity and craft.
<em>Nas Healey coupé</em>, 1952. The model was derived from the preceding year's spider model
Nas Healey coupé , 1952. The model was derived from the preceding year's spider model
But the value of this exhibition, which critically analyzes Pininfarina's long and rather extraordinary development, lies in pinpointing once again that only through research is it possible for design quality to wed manufacturing ability. Enrico Morteo
Two-seat <em>Nash-Healy roadster spider</em>, scale 1:10 drawing by Luigi Chicco
Two-seat Nash-Healy roadster spider , scale 1:10 drawing by Luigi Chicco

More recent

Latest on Domus

Read more
China Germany India Mexico, Central America and Caribbean Sri Lanka Korea icon-camera close icon-comments icon-down-sm icon-download icon-facebook icon-heart icon-heart icon-next-sm icon-next icon-pinterest icon-play icon-plus icon-prev-sm icon-prev Search icon-twitter icon-views icon-instagram