I spent yesterday evening at a place I never knew existed. The Italian Cultural Institute, in Belgrave Square, is just a stone’s thrown from the Queen’s back garden. It’s been here since 1949, when the Duke of Westminster gave this smart townhouse to the then-Italian Ambassador Duke Gallarati Scotti.
Last night, it was playing host to legendary design house Pininfarina. The ‘Pininfarina in London’ exhibition is intended to coincide with the run up to the Olympics, and is a small exhibition of the company’s handiwork. It is a surprise to see the sheer breadth of the company’s output. It included the world debut - in modest 1:18 scale form - of the new personal rapid transit system Pininfarina has designed in collaboration with Korean company Vectus.
Also on display was a selection of the Italian company’s non-automotive work, including aftershave, an exercise bike, suitcases, a toothbrush, kitchen and even the torch for the 2006 Turin winter Olympics. Company boss Paolo Pininfarina makes much of the fact that the company is a family enterprise, founded 80 years ago by his grandfather, a point emphasised by a picture at the exhibition showing him as a baby on the knee of his grandfather.
I managed to corner him for long enough to ask about the future of his company in the automotive industry. He said that Pininfarina’s work was split 60/40 in favour of automotive projects, but he regretted that most mainstream carmakers had ‘built up’ their own design departments and no longer farmed so much work out to specialist contractors. ‘I think some of the carmakers who used to work with us are now not doing so well. I think it is a great shame we don’t work with Peugeot any more, but that is the way the industry works, things go in cycles’ he told me.
Pininfarina’s first Peugeot design was back in 1955 and the design house’s distinctively elegant work made the French brand’s models stand out. Sadly, the association ended with the radical, but unsuccessful, sliding-door 1007 city car.
While the company is still responsible for Ferrari design work, Pininfarina has a more modest dream. ‘I would also really like to do a new Fiat Spider, but it wouldn’t be like the old car.’ I suggest that old-school Italian design - such as the stunning Pininfarina-designed Lancia HF2000 parked outside on the street - has never been more in vogue. Surely, it is time for the Italian car industry to embrace a little retro? ‘We will never do a retrospective car’ he declares with force.
Pininfarina tells me that his company is now moving into other areas: more product design work and more exploitation of the Pininfarina brand. He says that collectors’ models have been an unexpected sales success and more branded accessories are on the way.
While I’m talking to Paolo Pininfarina, an Indian businessman walks up, proffering his business card. ‘I have 900 acres. What about opening a Pininfarina design school in India?’ he asks. Pininfarina raises his eyebrows, takes the card and disappears back into the crowd. And it’s just that sort of brand extension that will keep Pininfarina rolling whether or not the main-stream carmakers decide to come back in force for design inspiration.