Porsche’s Michael Mauer dishes on car design.
Porsche is dominating the global markets with record-high achievements and enjoying a golden age. Its original target was to sell at least 200,000 cars by 2018, but its excellent performance so far—surely influenced by the Macan success—will most likely exceed this objective by the year 2016. It is a remarkable result even if, according to Porsche, the volume of cars produced needs to be lower than actual demand. Thus, according to estimates by the Group’s managers—in the next few years—the contribution of Porsche to the financial standing of VW-Audi might be even more decisive. The main markets involved in this upward trend for Porsche are the United States (+7.6%, 22,919), China (+8%, 19,785 units) and Europe (+13.9%, 29,837) with Germany in the lead with (+7.5%, 12,283).
In a phase of economic stagnation and alarming unemployment figures, Porsche has announced a significant increase in staff. Since 2010, Porsche AG has created 8,400 new jobs and now has a total of 21,300 employees. In the automotive world, however, there is a certain amount of concern over the operations of the brand. There are those who think that Porsche should invest in technological leadership rather than continue expanding its range of models to meet untapped niches. The Porsche Macan, for example, has already become a mainstream product in such markets as London, breaking away from its exclusive luxury criteria.
One thing is certain: Porsche continues to be synonymous with exclusive posh sportiness because of its special sound, technical excellence and design that makes it stand out among other cars. Its unique and special style is undoubtedly one of the key factors to its success. That’s why we interviewed Michael Mauer, Chief Designer of the Stuttgart brand since 2004. The fifty-two year old German was a car-design enfant prodigy. It is not surprising then to find him working for Mercedes as early as 1986, Saab in 2000 and finally in Stuttgart. “My first involvement was with the 997 GT2. I designed the Panamera, and I did a facelift to the Cayenne. Now, I have designed the 911 and when you do such things, it means you are working at the core of the business,” Mauer explains. He has little doubt. “The strength of a brand is its individuality and identity”. It is for this reason that “we designers have two goals in mind: to create cars that are clearly identifiable with the brand, and to give each product a specificity that fits in well with the DNA of the brand.”
The key words of Mauer’s modus operandi are three, and represent a sort of golden formula: Proportion—Style—Details. “When we work on a new car, my principal aim from the very outset is always to discuss its proportions with the engineers, marketing and technical people. It is only then that we start considering its style and begin adjusting smaller details. However, this has to be carried out as a team, a kind of cohesive body, otherwise at the end of the construction process you risk wasting time adjusting minor aspects when it is already too late, and when details might turn out to be different and out-of-step with the logic of the whole structure”. Thus, the end result could be flawed and may need to be scrapped. With this consideration in mind, an interesting initiative by Porsche in the last few months (until January 11) has been the exhibition of a few secret prototypes from the past, models that never reached the production line, consisting of record-breaking experimental cars, sixteen unique models never seen before by the public, all branded, of course, with the Stuttgart horse trademark.
Signing up for a Porsche brand is a privilege, and it is somewhat difficult to understand how Mauer has been able to bear the pressure of working on the design of such a unique brand for many years. “To be honest,” he says, “I do not feel the anxiety so much. It is part of my job and I have been doing it for over 30 years. I know what is expected of me, but of course, I am also aware that working for this company is an absolute privilege. If anything, I would say that rather than the pressure and performance anxiety, it is the additional skill required by my job that has become an important factor because it is no longer sufficient to create an exceptional design; you must also know how to communicate with the marketing people, technicians, engineers, and especially, to be able to put across your vision of things”.
Michael Mauer is fully immersed in his profession, as is the case with other top people who are involved in large-scale projects. “How much time do I dedicate to my company? Well, apart from the time allocated to sleep and my sport activity (he is fond of heli-skiing on trips to Canada), I would say the rest of the time. When you do your work with great passion, time just flies. It is at the end of the day, in fact, when I leave the office building in my black Panamera and get into traffic that it becomes even clearer to me that I am driving something very unique, and that I am living a beautiful experience.” Is it passion or an obsession for cars? “Porsche is my last thought of the day, and often the subject of my dreams”. Yes, let’s call it an obsession.
We often ask ourselves how important talent is in all of this, and what part is played by experience, such as that of Mauer. “I will try and explain it with numbers. From 1 to 10: 8 is made up of work and 2, or even less, by talent. Surely, inspiration, attitude and ideas play an important part and are somewhat decisive, but the rest is made up of hard work, and nothing else but hard work. However, what I have really learnt in recent years is that after giving birth to a brilliant idea, it is necessary to know how to get it across to people, to sell it and influence those around you. To achieve this you need to develop communicative skills. So, I would say that today, 75% of my time and energy is spent on convincing my collaborators about new ideas—still a necessity, but which is no longer sufficient these days”. Speaking of communication, it is rather curious to hear that Porsche has embarked on a new form of communication to give greater appeal to its brand. In the trendy neighbourhood of Manhattan, the Meatpacking District, it has set up an exclusive pop up store: “The Sound of Porsche: Stories of the Brand”. It is a brand-new and completely interactive experience that debuted in New York and then moved over to London and Shanghai. The basic idea is to involve younger people and visitors to use the exhibition space, which includes three areas with a sound lab, multimedia stations and a design corner, revolving around the 911 cult car.
Porsche communicates this idea of luxury by sponsoring a luxurious ‘music machine’. This is Gewandhaus Orchestra, the oldest orchestra in the world, operating in Leipzig, a city where Porsche assembles the Panamera and the Cayenne. Porsche has been a member of the Gewandhaus Sponsor’s Club as Global Partner since the season 2011/2012 with an annual amount of at least EUR 350,000. Matthias Müller, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Porsche AG, explained that, “With the Gewandhaus Orchestra, Porsche has won a truly superlative ambassador for itself as well as for its pivotal location, Leipzig. This partnership could barely be more fitting: tradition, emotion, and not least, the sonic experience form the shared quintessence of our respective operations and respective brands. With this engagement, Porsche is not only fulfilling its social responsibility but is also making an unmistakable proclamation of its identity and commitment to the city and the region. Over the past decade, Leipzig has become of increasing importance to our concern. Here is where we manufacture the Cayenne SUV and the Gran Turismo Panamera. The Porsche plant is currently undergoing major expansion in order to cater to the production of our fifth model, the compact SUV Macan. I shall certainly endeavour to attend the Gewandhaus Orchestra concerts whenever my work takes me to Leipzig. I am very much looking forward to a close, trusting and creative partnership with the Orchestra and Directorate of the Gewandhaus”.
The German automobile industry ranks among the best in the world. Its secret? “It is attained by means of an efficient operating system, respect for its history, and a tangible step into the future. It has a high level of innovation and all these features are reflected in Porsche cars, where the degree of identification with the brand is exceptionally high. Motivation is also an important element, and the final result is inevitably the creation of a very special product,” Mauer says. Which other carmaker is developing such interesting designs? “I must say, not because Audi is part of the Volkswagen group, that the Audi brand is now achieving amazing results. Decades ago, things were different, but a look at its growth is proof that the brand is extraordinary, and that its success is due to both technical innovation and design.” Mauer is a visionary, just like Bob Lutz, the Swiss-American former General Motors executive, one of Mauer‘s idols. Just over a year ago, Lutz wrote a book with the emblematic title: ‘Icons and idiots. Straight Talk on Leadership’. “The most successful leaders are mentally and emotionally askew, and it is precisely because they are impatient, stubborn, opinionated, unsatisfied, and domineering that they are so successful,” Lutz wrote. Mauer is surely a leader.
Do you recognize yourself in this description?
“I do think you have to be stubborn and if you are convinced of an idea you have to fight and defend it to the very end. It is difficult to be fully satisfied, though, because you are aware that there is always a better solution. But it is also true that if you work for a major company, dissatisfaction could turn into contagious pessimism, so you have to be able to quell it and admit that obviously the product can be improved—but that there and then, it has to be accepted as it is. As for Lutz, when I first met him, I was impressed from the very first moment. When he speaks, he is pleasant, he manages to combine humour with deep feeling. We come from similar geographic regions. I was born in Germany, but not far from Switzerland, so we speak a Swiss German that many others do not understand. When he was leader he had a pronounced sense of design, and in that sense he was a visionary. I feel fortunate to have Matthias Muller as CEO, a man who believes that design plays an important role in the process, a rather obscure concept if you consider that in many companies a designer is nothing more than a company artist.”
Article by Piera Anna Franini