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Porsche's prolific pen

Design chief stresses shortcuts hurt style

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After stints with Mercedes-Benz, Smart and Saab -- where he respectively penned the first-generation SLK, Smart Roadster and several Saab concepts -- Michael Mauer was named chief designer at the Porsche Design Studio in 2004.

Responsible for the design and styling of Porsche's automotive and industrial products, he's overseen such groundbreaking models as the Panamera GT and the 918 Spyder plug-in hybrid supercar. Now he's just unveiled the new 2014 Porsche 911 GT3 at this year's Geneva Motor Show, John LeBlanc sat down with Porsche's head pen to find out the changes he's incorporated with the rapidly expanding automaker's design department.

QUESTION: The last time we talked was at the 2009 Shanghai show, at the world première of the Panamera -- essentially the first Porsche you could call your own. What have been the types of changes you've made to Porsche design since then?

ANSWER: When I joined Porsche, we had one big design group, with interior and exterior designers together. But for me, interior design is extremely complex, and you need people with experience and committed 100 per cent to do an interior. So one of the first big changes was splitting up interior and exterior design. The rest of the changes have been mainly managing the growth of the studio.

Q: Although its roots are in central Europe, Porsche now relies on selling cars around the world. When recruiting designers, do you now look for people with more international experience?

A: The design team has always been very international, but we do have more designers with an Asian background. Not because we are designing for those markets, but because design education has made a lot of progress there. And I feel these design students are hungrier to show the world what they can do.

Q: With more Porsche models than ever before -- and more on the way -- are there external pressures to make your creative process more efficient and faster?

A: We certainly have more projects, but we've also grown more as a team. But one different approach than what I've recently seen with other automakers is that we still believe in physical models. You can shorten the process by skipping that phase, only use virtual-reality images. But looking at some of the production cars from our competitors, you can tell they've skipped the modelling part of the process. I see my job as to convincing people that (design models) are very important for a brand like Porsche.

For example, when I was at GM at Saab, it was like working on a design assembly line. It got to a certain point where the designers were no longer involved. We lost ownership. The project left the design department, and then you were sometimes surprised what the final car looked like when it hit the dealers 11/2 years later.

Q: How can you tell when this happens with rivals?

A: To me, it's the quality of the vehicle's surfacing. How the shapes lead in, how much tension they have. There are still things you can't assess and judge standing in front of a VR screen. We spend so much time looking at clay models, turning them and putting them in different lighting environments. And then, when we have the milled model in front of us, and you say, "Wow! How did we miss that detail or quality?" Then we go back into VR and see where we went wrong.

Q: Is there a particular example you can cite?

A: One of my favourite views is to sit in the driver's seat of a 911 Turbo and look out its side mirror. From there I can see the rear fender curve out from the car -- a detail I may not have seen in a VR image. If you take a little bit more time, if you do one more model, if you go to different parts of the world to see the car in different light conditions, then it's the whole package that becomes more mature.

Q: The new 911 GT3 and 911 GT3 Cup that are debuting here in Geneva, it's essentially a street-legal race car. Does the hyper-functionality of that vehicle change your design approach?

A: Even for our road cars at Porsche, functionality plays such an important role -- Cayenne, Panamera -- I mean, they can go as fast as 300 kilometres per hour. However, one difference with the GT3 is that we don't do as many models. It's not one year where you go to the left, and then you go right. It's a very evolutionary process. If you look at details like its rear bumpers or the centre-mounted exhaust pipes, the car remains relatively constant. We also have the experience from the racing department for the car's technical needs.

Q: Do you get more feedback from 911 GT3 customers than, say, 911 Carrera buyers?

A: Porsche is so different in that I have never worked in a company that gets so much feedback from all its customers -- not just the racers. On the GT3, though, it's not the quantity of the feedback, but the quality. These customers can tell you so much more detail on what they like and don't like.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 26, 2013 A1

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