It is the company responsible for some of the most beautiful and charismatic pieces of machinery ever to grace the world’s freeways. For the best part of a century, the cars of the Italian design and engineering firm Pininfarina have become some of popular culture’s most enduring icons. Think of the white Ferarri Testarossa coaxed into super-speed by Miami Vice’s Don Johnson in his bleak battle against the city’s drug lords. Or the Alfa Romeo Spider piloted by The Graduate’s Dustin Hoffman as he tries, in the film’s climax, to make a girl change her mind, only to run disconsolately out of gas and hope.
There was no mistaking a Pininfarina car: uncompromising in its sleek elegance and full of masculine-feminine Italianate swagger. The company, which was founded as a coachmaker in 1930 by Turin-born Battista “Pinin” Farina (who later changed his surname to Pininfarina), achieved fame for its work for the Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Lancia and Maserati brands, before establishing a partnership with Ferrari, the greatest super-car manufacturer of them all.
Pininfarina was an exemplar of the small, highly focused, artisanal family firm that helped turn Italy into an industrial powerhouse in the middle of the last century. But the world is a more complicated place now, and Pininfarina has had to diversify to survive. The company was controlled in its halcyon years by Battista’s son Sergio, who died in July, and is now in the hands of its third generation.
Paolo Pininfarina, 54, is the company’s chairman and was recently in London promoting a very different kind of partnership. In place of the throaty engines that served as a soundtrack to the company’s rise to global prominence, there is instead the cheering and mellow sound of liquid poured gently into a glass. Pininfarina has collaborated with the high-end whisky manufacturer Chivas Regal to produce a series of limited edition bottles, glasses and packaging for one of the brand’s luxury products, its 18-year-old blend.
Pininfarina’s design for the bottle and its outer case is based on what it calls “the drop”: freeze-frame the motion of a drop of the whisky falling from the lip of a bottle, and you will see the kind of natural, elongated lines that might have come straight from the design company’s drawing board. It is a visual cue that gives instant logic to the collaboration.
There is further common ground, says Pininfarina. “Each company has a mutual tradition of excellence and quality. And then the way the senses are captured, visually there is the drop, and then the smell, these are what arouse the passions. And of course wood – it is part of the common ground in itself, the oak barrels of the whisky and the wood of the mascherone.”
Pininfarina is referring to an oak drinks cabinet, the “Chivas 18 Mascherone”, which is clad in aluminium and is being produced as an initial edition of five but is also available “on request”. The cabinet’s title is a reference to the mascherone, or wooden frame, that was used as a model for car design until 1970.
“Cars back then were made in the shop, and my grandfather was a master in the shop. He would make refinements to the wood, and then the mascherone would be disassembled and used as a basis for the final product. He couldn’t make the final product himself – he could only guess from the wood how it would look.”
I ask if it is difficult, balancing the imperatives of cutting-edge technology and brand heritage. “Yes, but everything is a balancing act – Pininfarina is Italian and international; luxury and affordable; Ferraris and sustainability. If you start from your roots you find ways to innovate.”
The difficult existential decision to expand Pininfarina away from its automotive origins was taken in the mid 1980s as the company prepared for stock market flotation. “We needed to explore the value of the brand. We were a symbol of design. We designed some boats and trains in the early 1980s but the potential was very big.” A new company, Pininfarina Extra, was formed in 1987, specialising in industrial, furnishing, architectural, nautical and aeronautical design, with Paolo Pininfarina appointed chairman and chief executive.
I ask what the first non-automotive design was that the company was truly proud of, and he replies: “The Snaidero Ola kitchen, which we developed in 1989 … It was the first time we were able to do something iconic at the level of a Ferrari, or the Cisitalia [train].” The soft curves and striking colours of the Ola are Top Gear meets Nigellissima, everything the speed freak needs to avoid resorting to fast food.
Other designs he cites include the torch for the 2006 Winter Olympics, and the interiors of the new Juventus football stadium in the Piedmontese city. The stadium it replaced was a design disaster, constructed to welcome the World Cup to the city in 1990, and demolished, unloved, in 2009. It was, says Pininfarina, “a good demonstration of how out of touch with people’s real desires Italian design had become in the 1980s. You couldn’t see the match!”
In 2006 Pininfarina downsized, deciding to abandon contract vehicle manufacturing. “We were being asked by manufacturers to make investments without having control of the marketing or sales,” says Pininfarina. Two years later the company needed to be bailed out by the banks in the wake of the worldwide financial crisis. “But out of this perfect storm, we have been able to find a new vision.”
Following the success of the Juventus stadium, the company is pursuing “similar projects” in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Florida. It has also recently designed its first religious building, an improbably streamlined private chapel in Riardo, Italy. In the meantime, it continues to design highly desirable concept cars such as the Cambiano, an electric-powered luxury model that was acclaimed at this year’s Geneva motor show. “It can best be described as a work of art,” purred one reviewer, proof that the classic, widely loved marque is still in touch with its roots.
Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer