HKUST 25th Anniversary

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Porsche designer Pinky Lai says China will be a force in design

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 January, 2016, 11:56am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 February, 2016, 11:04am

Hong Kong-born Pinky Lai designed the legendary Porsche 911 Carrera, as well as the exterior of the Porsche Boxster 987, and the exterior of the first generation of the Porsche Cayman. But Lai, who grew up in Quarry Bay in the 1960s, and spent his teenage years as a free-spirited, slightly hippieish skateboarder, embarked on his remarkable journey through design without a great deal of planning, he told an audience at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) recently.

Lai, whose achievements have won him accolades in the car industry, advised students to challenge the norm and keep pushing the parameters of design. “Nothing is permanent, and there is always room for improvement,” he said at the latest edition of the HKUST 25th Anniversary Distinguished Speakers Series.

Lai reminded students that although they should be humble, they should also be fearless in their pursuit of professional achievements. “Keep asking why not, and never just why,” suggested Lai, who was awarded the Design for Asia Lifetime Achievement Award by the Hong Kong Design Centre in December.

Lai described to students, faculty members, and guests of HKUST how his career journey took him from Hong Kong to Italy, where he worked in a shipyard, and as a welder, a metalworker, a woodworker and a draughtsman, before joining the car industry.  His adventure began in 1972, when he decided that more interesting opportunities existed overseas than at home, and travelled to Italy on a one-way ticket. Despite speaking no Italian, he enrolled in the Istituto Superiore per le Industrie Artistiche (ISIA).

Four years later, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in industrial design. Lai said he found the experience a challenge, and felt very homesick at times. His design talent was spotted by Ford Germany, who offered him a full post-graduate scholarship to study transportation design at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London. He remembered he was disappointed by the offer, as he felt he was ready to start work and earn a salary. “I was dejected because I wanted to start work,’’ he recalls. “I worked seven days a week at art school for the first three months, and things started to fall in place in the second year.”

Following his graduation from RCA in 1980, Lai began his design career with Ford Germany.  He designed the Escort, Fiesta, Scorpio and Sierra models.  After four years at Ford, he joined BMW AG, where he was put in charge of the BMW “3” series exterior design program, and was also involved in the design development of the “1”, “7” and “8” series.  He began his long-term tenure with Porsche AG, which he described as like a family, in 1989. Lai began as chief designer for the Porsche 911, and later worked as Chief designer of Global Customer Projects and Special Car Projects.  Operating during a deep economic recession, the launch of the 911, the first radical departure from Ferdinand Porsche’s original 1963 design, is credited with saving Porsche from bankruptcy or being sold to a Japanese car maker.

Lai remembers the launch of the 911 for another reason. When more than 1,500 international journalists congregated in St Tropez, France, to witness the launch of the car, Lai was asked what his role was at Porsche. “It was a jaw-dropping moment for many of the journalists when I told them it was me, a designer from Hong Kong, who had designed the iconic sports car which is the pride of the German automobile industry,” said Lai.

Lai choose the Distinguished Speakers event to make an important announcement.  In a one-on-one discussion in front of the audience with HKUST president Tony Chan, Lai, who lives in Germany but makes frequent visits to Hong Kong, elaborated on his ambition to develop a global Chinese electric car brand.  “We expect to make an announcement in about 10 months, and when we do, our electric vehicle will make a wide global impact, and will beat a lot of world records,” he said. Lai added that the new car would go beyond premium electric carmaker Tesla’s models, which have been awarded numerous accolades, including Car of the Year, by the automotive press.

In an interview with Education Post ahead of his presentation, Lai offered some of his thoughts on design in general, and talked about the Hong Kong and mainland design environment. He said product design had become more important than ever, because it’s design that differentiates between things with similar functions, something which is referred to in the design world as “creating emotion”. “Emotion is a term that’s overused by designers, so I prefer to use the description ‘dramatic value’ as the design differentiator,” says Lai. 

Lai noted that the Hong Kong design community, although relatively young, is growing fast. “The Hong Kong Design Centre, and Hong Kong Design Institute, are at the forefront of promoting the concept of design through training, and making connections with the global design industry,” said Lai.  He believes the mainland has the potential to become a design powerhouse, too. “China has a growing pool of talented designers, and this creates challenges and opportunities to fulfil consumers’ appetite for good design,” said Lai. He also divulged his name Pinky comes from a combination of his Chinese names Ping and Lai, and was given to him by his mother.