Given its elegant lines, white, composite plastic case and serrated bulb, one could be forgiven for thinking this item is some kind of concept communications tool. Look closer, however, and the name on its side, Porsche Design, suggests that maybe it is some form of ignition key or a car door handle. It is, in fact, a pipe. That a name like Porsche should produce anything as prosaic as a pipe might at first prompt thoughts of returning your Carrera to the nearest dealer. But this would be a mistake.
This is a significant year in the history of the automobile. It is the year that Stuttgart, home to the Porsche brand, marks 125 years since the very first car took to the streets of what is now the German state of Baden-Württemberg. Porsche too is celebrating its 80th anniversary. While design studios typically remain anonymous, letting the brand that sells the product take the credit, Porsche Design is an exception. It is true that its founder, Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, designed the company’s masterpiece, the 911. But he also established an independent studio that turned its attention to perfecting various items for other companies. Porsche Design’s portfolio includes cranes, trams, dental chairs and, more recently, super-yachts and furniture, and it launched 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, CEO of Porsche Design. ‘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 appreciate a very puristic, form-follows-function design language, for people into technique and materials rather than labels. And we don’t do many curves.’
That rigour is one of the characteristics that makes the brand unusual. Porsche designers do not add pop colours or pretty graphics to make a product stand out. ‘Bold is OK,’ says Gessler, whose industrial design career started out with Mercedes and BMW. ‘It’s just not for us.’ Porsche is also unusual as it will only launch products when its design team feels it has made a genuine improvement on what is already available. This, however, includes many innovations. Porsche luggage features stain-resistant coating and silent-running wheels; pens with flexible barrels are made in materials that do not corrode; spectacles fold almost completely flat. The Porsche mobile phone is milled from a single aluminium block; its desk lamp was among the first to use light-emitting diodes.
Porsche fashion, footwear and watches offer some smart ideas too. As well as the new womenswear and denim lines, recent products have included sunglasses with a lens replacement system, a fountain pen with a nib that can’t dry out and a briefcase designed following research into exactly what typical users might want to carry with them and how. And as for that pipe, the ribbed effect is actually an integrated cooling system akin to that used in motorcycle engines. It ensures the body of the pipe is always comfortable to hold but the optimum temperature for the tobacco is maintained. Such thinking has won the company over 120 prestigious Red Dot and ADI Milan design awards. New luggage lines, as well as small leather goods and additional watches, are currently on the sketchpad.
‘Rather than working on one kind of product all the time our designers jump from one product world to the next and that’s an inspiring way to work,’ explains Gessler. ‘Today it’s a new watch, tomorrow the interior of a business jet. Porsche Design style is a way of thinking, and a timely one. Design is set to play a much more important part in buying decisions for consumers.’
The brand now has some 500 points of sale around the world, as well as 106 stores of its own, including two in Stuttgart. It expects to open a further 150 shops over the next five years. That means more sleek design objects. Are there any product categories to which Porsche Design would not turn its sharpened pencil and CAD software? ‘Laptops,’ says Gessler. ‘Why? Because they have simply been devices, never a means of expressing their user’s personality. But,’ he adds, teasingly, ‘people used 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.