Top Porsche designer tells it as it is
Pinky Lai has quite an eclectic resume. From working as an apprentice in the ship building industry, to attending naval architecture class, and then becoming a trainee as an interior designer, he has lent his creative talents to various professional fields.
The Hong Kong-born Lai has spent the last three decades working in the automotive industry as a designer for Ford, BMW, and currently, Porsche. To his credit, he has worked on such ground-breaking projects as the Boxster, the Cayman and the revolutionary 996.
But it wasn’t always smooth driving on the road to becoming chief designer in the German automaker’s R&D department. A rare opportunity presented itself to sit down, one-on-one, and chat with Lai about his work history, what it means to be a chief designer and what are the pressures with the role.
As he recounts the early days in his career, Lai does so with a big smile on his face. After graduating from industrial design school in Italy – he attended the Istituto Superiore per le Industrie Artistiche (Higher Institute for Artistic Industries) – he recalls, “I thought car design was like industrial design, so I ended up answering an ad from Ford in Germany when they were looking for young car designers.”
He packed up his “old, beatup Beetle,” that was given to him by his friends in Italy, and drove to Germany. “I ended up at the interview in Germany, and they said ‘No.’ I was so disappointed driving home,” Lai says. And things would get worse before they got better! As he was driving back to Italy, Lai said, “I got stopped by the police on the way.”
The tattered condition of his transportation caught the eye of local authorities who wanted to give him a fine, but the officer had sympathy for the disheartened Lai and told him, “I’ll let you go this time and then make sure you drive this car straight into a junkyard and scrap it!”
As fate would have it, a couple of weeks later, Lai remembers, there was a “special delivery, a large envelope from Ford. And with all the entry information for the Royal College of Art in London, there was a one-way ticket.” Instead of employment, Ford had offered him a two-year scholarship to study transportation design in England. So he packed his bags and went to school again.
During the rigorous program in which he trudged through seven-day work weeks on minimal amounts of sleep, Lai recalls, “It was really a tough time but a really good time.” After completing the program, he went to work as a designer at Ford in Germany.
His career path then took him to work as a senior designer at BMW, and then he was invited to join the Porsche design team in 1989.
“My first Porsche project was the 996 and it was really a competition. You have to ‘win’ the model, win the program. Someone has to pick your design,” said Lai. And a very successful project it would turn out to be.
Along the way, there came an amazing opportunity for Lai as he continued to prove that his design capabilities were top notch. He was appointed to work on the 911 Turbo project. “A Turbo project is always like a hot cookie! Everybody wants the first cookie. They don’t want to do the Boxster, they want to do the Turbo. I was given the project without competition.”
With that, not everyone was as excited for Lai’s new project as he was. “Socially, I was in trouble. I was put into a deep, deep mess. Everybody was like, ‘How come he got the job and I didn’t’ But I didn’t really have time to worry about it.”
Egos and jealousy aside, Lai focused on what was important: his work. To make sure he had the data ready for the modelers and his teammates, he notes, “I was the one who turned off the light, and I was also the one the next morning who turned on the light in the whole studio. I went home at half-past one in the morning and would show up at 6 o’clock.”
Lai’s work on the 911 Turbo earned him the German Design Award from the German Design Council in 2002, among other accolades.
Asked if his anxiety between the completion of a project and the launch of a vehicle eases with time, Lai comments pensively, “Believe it or not. Nothing has changed. It’s like the first day. But maybe you’re a little bit wiser because you have learned from your mistakes.”
Perhaps Lai’s greatest sense of satisfaction is not only when he feels he has done great work or when the public responds positively to his designs, “but also when the CEO says a vehicle is really nice.”
For more information on Mr. Lai’s work history and awards, visit www.designnstyling.com