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  • Dec 20, 2014
  • Updated: 8:37pm

XXIV Twenty-Four 2013

XXIV magazine brings together 24 of the region's most celebrated and influential names to discuss their concept of time.

Working to strict timeframes helps, says automotive designer Pinky Lai

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 November, 2013, 8:48pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 July, 2014, 10:34pm

Change over time is inevitable, but if one truly develops and improves, this change becomes something entirely more purposeful - an evolution.

Pinky Lai left Hong Kong for Europe over four decades ago, taking the first step of his evolutionary journey. From his first days as a trainee interior designer in Hong Kong to design school in Italy and London, and on to work with some of the world's most recognisable automotive brands, Lai's aesthetic, work ethic and outlook have developed in ways that not even he could have foreseen.

"Looking back, when I was travelling through [my] timeline, I wasn't aware of the changes," he says. "It's only when you look back that you can recognise the journey. It's a lot of luck, a lot of hard work, obviously, and a lot of hard-headedness. You get a bloody nose a lot of the time."

Lai first entered automotive design as a graduate student - an interview with Ford led to a scholarship to study in London. He then spent four years in Germany working for the American car giant before moving to BMW and, ultimately, Porsche, the company with which he is most closely associated.

He says his tenure at BMW was the first time he felt a sense of loyalty to a company, but when the offer came to work for Porsche, he received some advice that sealed the deal for him.

"I was told, 'Anything you do with any other company, it's just a new model. Anything you do with Porsche, it's part of car history'." Lai, who worked on the Boxster exterior concept and was the lead exterior designer for the new 911 models, is now general manager of design for global clients and special projects. For the award-winning designer, a keen sense of time is critical. Car designers, Lai says, need an "invisible crystal ball" to be able to predict trends and aesthetics several years down the line.

"If you're doing a programme that will be released maybe five years later, you have a mindset that is a projection through a certain time tunnel looking ahead. After a while, when you see cars on the road, you think they're all old-school," he explains.

"In the studio, the new models, the ones that haven't been shown to the media - these are the contemporary ones, three or four years away. Car designers are very extreme - they can't look at current models, they have to imagine [the future] model in their mind."

Working to strict timeframes helps, Lai says. The former long-distance runner feels energised by the need for deadlines.

"I'm sure there's something biochemical," he says. "If you don't feel stress, you don't have endorphins released, and that affects creativity."

Despite his successes - soon to be showcased in a book, international exhibitions of his sketches, and perhaps even profiled on television - Lai doesn't consider himself an icon of the design or automotive world.

"I'm not really a born designer - I'm sure I'm not really in the leading rank of designers," he says. "Maybe I just have a different cultural background or have a different life story to tell." 

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