With its elegant lines, white, composite plastic case and serrated bulb, one would be forgiven for thinking that it was some kind of concept communications tool. Look closer, however, and the name on its side, Porsche Design, suggests that maybe this is some form of ignition key, or a car door handle. It is, in fact, a pipe.
That a name like Porsche – all speed and sex – should produce anything as prosaic, sedentary and old-mannish as a pipe might at first prompt thoughts of returning your Carrera to the nearest dealer. This would be a mistake.
While design studios typically remain anonymous, letting the brand selling the product take the credit, Porsche Design is an exception – part back-room creators, part status name, it is true that its founder, Ferdinand Alexander Porsche designed the car company’s masterpiece, the 911. But then, coming up to 40 years ago, he went on to establish an independent studio that would turn its attention to the perfecting not only of cranes, trams and even dental chairs for othercompanies – more recently a super-yacht for Royal Falcon and furniture for Poltrona Frau – but would launch the cream of its design thinking under its own name.
“Of course, the first part of our name creates a certain awareness,” says Juergen Gessler, the CEO of Porsche Design, based in Zell Am See in Austria.
“But there has to be design integrity and quality to convince anyone to buy one of our products and we’re selling mostly to people who do not own a Porsche. They’re people who appreciate a very modern, very puristic design language – it is a classic ‘form follows function’ approach.” It is also, Gessler concedes, an especially masculine style – austere, minimalistic, with lots of black and white, like the contents of a dream bachelor pad.
“Or at least it’s masculine if you define the curved form as being feminine,” he jokes. “We don’t do many curves. But really it’s a look that appeals to a certain type of person who tends to have a knowledge of design and places a lot of importance in it. They are into the technique and materials of a design rather than the brand on it.” That rigor is one of the characteristics that makes the brand unusual – an unwillingness to add pop colours or pretty graphics to make a product stand out, preferring understatement that is almost monastic.
“Bold is OK,” says Gessler, whose industrial design career started out with Mercedes and BMW.
“It’s just not for us.” The second is its readiness to launch only those products where the design team feels it has made a genuine improvement on what is already available. And, not exactly a compliment to the wider design community, the third is the diversity of products in which it has found improvements to make. Luggage comes with stain-resistant coating and silent-running wheels; pens come in anti-corrode materials and with flexible barrels; its spectacles fold almost completely flat; its mobile phone is milled from a single aluminium block; its desk lamp was among the first to use LED lighting. Fashion, footwear and watches offer some smart ideas too. Recent products have included sunglasses with a unique lens replacement system (swap the lenses according to the ideal light conditions for the activity at hand), a fountain pen with a system that prevents the nib from drying out and a briefcase designed following research to understand exactly what typical users might want to carry with them and how, rather than providing a design with endless compartments, none of them the right size for good use. And as for that pipe... The ribbed effect is actually an integrated cooling system – akin to that used in motorcycle engines – to ensure the body is always comfortable to hold but the optimum temperature for the tobacco is maintained...
Such thinking has won the company more than 120 prestigious Red Dot and ADI Milan design awards. New luggage lines, as well as small leather goods and additional watches are on the sketchpad. Indeed, Gessler argues that it is precisely because Porsche Design’s designers are not specialists in any one field, but are ready to cross-fertilise ideas from other design disciplines, that its products are innovative.
“(That way of working) has a very inspiring effect,” he says. “Rather than working on one kind of product all the time our designers jump from one product world to the next. Today it’s a new watch, tomorrow the interior of a business jet.
‘Porsche Design style’ is more a way of thinking. And a timely one – design is set to play a much more important part in buying decisions for consumers.” It is certainly a thinking that has appeal – Porsche AG, the car company that shares the name, finally recognised a good thing in 2003 when it joined with Porsche Design to create the Porsche Design Group, launched to maximise the car brand’s potential beyond the auto industry.
Gessler’s Porsche Design, meanwhile, has some 500 points-of-salearound the world, as well as 106 of of its own stores, and expects to open a further 150 or so shops over the next five years – essential, Gessler suggests, to allow consumers to experience what he calls the Porsche Design world.
“There is certainly scope for more design studios to become brands in their own right, although that was never Ferdinand Porsche’s intention,” he adds.
“Most of our design work is still anonymous for third party companies and that remains important in terms of generating ideas.
But the fact is that there is power in creating your own products too...” Are there, in fact, any product categories to which Porsche Design would not turn its sharpened pencil and CAD software? There is one it has considered repeatedly, Gessler admits, although never quite committed to – laptops. Why? Because laptops have never been regarded as means of expressing their user’s personality.
“They have simply been devices,” says Gessler. “But, people use to say that about mobile phones and they are now important status items. And the laptop market seems to be going that way too. So maybe...” Watch out Apple.