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Icons & Innovators: Pininfarina: Extra Dimensions

Sheila Gibson Stoodley

Hype suffuses the hospitality business, but the Keating hotel in San Diego is indeed—as its promoters claim—unique. The 35-room property, housed in an 1890 Romanesque Revival building in the city’s Gaslamp Quarter, is the first hotel conceived by Pininfarina Extra, the Pininfarina Group company that designs just about everything except cars. The hotel is a showcase for the firm’s products: The rooms have Lavazza espresso machines; four of the suites feature egg-shaped Jacuzzi Morphosis Alpha tubs; a 2006 Olympic torch will be displayed (probably in the lobby); and the hotel’s circular bar recalls the Acropolis kitchen that the firm made for the Italian company Snaidero in 2002. In addition to the bar, Pininfarina Extra created many fittings, furnishings, and amenities especially for the Keating, which will open officially in late February. (It began hosting guests shortly after Thanksgiving.)


“[Pininfarina] designed everything in the hotel. Everything. Every little thing. The spoons, the coffee machines, everything,” says Paolo Pininfarina, the 48-year-old president and CEO of Pininfarina Extra, which began working on the Keating project in 2003. “We [Paolo and the hotel’s owner, Edward Kaen] discussed how the outside has to be traditional and the inside has to be a surprise. The final result is quite close to what we wanted. It delivers an Italian experience, but you always remember that you are in San Diego. This is the Pininfarina interpretation of San Diego.”

Kaen says that when he hired Pininfarina Extra he “wasn’t looking for anything specific, I was just trying to find a way to differentiate the hotel.” He learned of the company in a roundabout but logical way: He says he was shopping for a hotel at the same time he was shopping for a Ferrari, and the auto-related errand prompted him to research Pininfarina, which in turn led him to the design firm. Coincidentally, Paolo had been seeking a chance to work on a hotel, and he considered the Keating, a small, independently owned property, an ideal opportunity. “It took a long time, but it was our first hotel,” Paolo says. “We knew what we wanted to do, but we had to do it to understand it.” He expects that the Keating will not be the last such endeavor for Pininfarina Extra. “We want to do another in New York or Chicago,” Paolo says. “If this is a single opportunity, that’s not a rational way to do the project. Our team of people has been working for almost three years on it. This is hotel number one.”

 

The Keating is the latest high-profile project for Pininfarina Extra. The hotel’s opening comes a year after the Winter Olympics, which were held in Pininfarina’s hometown of Turin, Italy, and featured a torch and cauldron that the firm designed. Last year also marked the 20th anniversary of Pininfarina Extra, which—according to Paolo, who has been with the company from the beginning—was established essentially to nullify a use-it-or-lose-it situation and to soothe shareholders. When Pininfarina S.p.A., the holding company that contains the automotive design firm, went public on the Italian stock exchange in 1986, shareholders expressed concern that another company could begin designing non-automotive products under the name Pininfarina. Thus Pininfarina begat Pininfarina Extra.

Paolo’s grandfather, Battista “Pinin” Farina, founded the Pininfarina car design company in 1930. As the second-youngest of 11 children (all sons), Battista had been dubbed “Pinin,” or “Kid,” by his family, and working in his older brother Giovanni’s body shop at age 11, in 1904, likely cemented Battista’s nickname. He legally changed his surname to Pininfarina in 1961, five years before his death.

Initially a coachbuilding company that concentrated on specialty cars, Pininfarina did not make a lasting impact on the automotive world until the sporty Cisitalia 202 GT debuted in 1947. Pininfarina first collaborated with Ferrari in 1952, forming a partnership that has yielded such legendary cars as the 250 GT Berlinetta Lusso (1963), the Dino 246 GT (1969), and the Testarossa (1985). The firm also designed remarkable machines for Lancia and Alfa Romeo in its early decades.
Battista’s son Sergio, who became chairman of Pininfarina in 1966, advanced the company’s aerodynamic research in 1972 by building Italy’s first wind tunnel. The business evolved into the Pininfarina Group in 1979, with Pininfarina S.p.A. as its holding company. Pininfarina continued to design splendid automobiles for Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Jaguar, Fiat, and Peugeot, and in the mid-1980s, it shaped the Allanté for Cadillac.

 

Paolo and his older brother Andrea, who has been CEO of the Pininfarina Group since 2001, joined the family business in the early 1980s. (Paolo became president and CEO of Pininfarina Extra in 1987, and he was elected deputy chairman of the Pininfarina Group last May.) Pininfarina has since designed the Ferrari Enzo, the Maserati Birdcage, and the Ferrari F50. In 2003, Andrea established the Special Projects Division, giving Pininfarina’s custom coachbuilding service a formal home (see “Special Request,” page 202). Today, the Pininfarina Group companies employ 3,500 workers in facilities in Sweden, France, Morocco, Germany, China, and Italy, the last of which is host to Pininfarina Extra.

Since its inception, Pininfarina Extra has rendered a staggering variety of designs, projects, and products that include furniture, sunglasses, dental office equipment, golf clubs, video projectors, phones, kitchens, vases, attachés, ski boots, tubs, wine bottles, air purifiers, luggage, motorboats, bowling alley equipment, the aforementioned torch and cauldron for the Winter Olympics, and now the Keating hotel. When discussing the aims of the firm and the numerous challenges it has tackled, Paolo often resorts to the phrase, “It’s not so easy.” (He is fluent in English.) A key to Pininfarina Extra’s success is its practice of nurturing long-term partnerships, just as Pininfarina proper has done. “If we produce coffee machines for Lavazza, we work only for Lavazza. We don’t waste energy working for other coffee companies,” Paolo says. “Sometimes, it results in a cost. If competitors want us to design, we have to say no. But partnership loyalty is an important factor.”

Also vital to Pininfarina Extra’s success is the influence of Paolo himself. He ensures that the firm’s designs reflect the Pininfarina aesthetic by choosing the firm’s partners carefully and by standing ready to terminate agreements and stop production to protect the brand. Paolo seldom deems such action necessary, but he did so five years ago with an Italian partner that he declines to name. Pininfarina Extra had created a well-received mountain bicycle for this company, but, Paolo says, the company later drastically altered the plans for a second bicycle intended for urban riders. “They modified our design so much, I didn’t recognize it anymore,” he says. “I wasn’t comfortable with it being on the market, so I stopped it. It will never be made.”
 

It also falls to Paolo, who has a degree in mechanical engineering from the Polytechnic University in Turin, to decide which of his firm’s proposed designs best captures the spirit of Pininfarina. “I’ll evaluate four or five design solutions, and I’ll like two. Which is the more Pininfarina of the two? I say this one is more Pininfarina than the other,” he says. “The fact that I decide helps preserve the quality of the brand."

 

Paolo made many of the decisions concerning the Keating, as its owner can attest. “When I met with the company, I met with Paolo Pininfarina,” Kaen says, speaking of the numerous conferences and brainstorming sessions that he attended in Italy during the course of the Keating project. “He did not hand me off to a junior staffer. He was intimately involved in the design [of the hotel]. It was more like a relationship than ‘Hey, go design this place for me.’ Paolo did it because he thought it was the right project for them.”

Paolo says that he looks for four qualities in a Pininfarina Extra design: innovation, personality, essentiality, and elegance. He explains that the third of those four refers to the rationale behind the item’s appearance—that it is “not Baroque, not decorative.” Innovation, by his reckoning, means that a design “must be more than contemporary because that’s reductive, [merely] up-to-date. It must be ahead. We try to establish a new trend.” The Acropolis kitchen that the company designed for Snaidero exemplifies Pininfarina Extra innovation. Paolo says his penchant for playing the drums influenced the kitchen’s unorthodox circular shape. While sitting at his drum set, he was struck by the convenience of its layout, which places everything he needs within reach.

 

Paolo and the Pininfarina Extra team did not design the Morphosis tubs for Jacuzzi as isolated pieces; he intends them to be part of a larger Jacuzzi set of bathroom fixtures and furnishings that his firm eventually will design. “When we approached Jacuzzi [in 2002], we said we would like to do in the bathroom what we’ve done for the kitchen—design it as a whole,” Paolo says, referring to the five kitchens that Pininfarina Extra has designed for Snaidero. He says that Jacuzzi officials told him then that they were not ready yet for such a comprehensive project, but they encouraged Pininfarina Extra to apply its talents to whirlpool baths and allow things to proceed from there. Since the release of the Morphosis tubs in 2004, Pininfarina Extra and Jacuzzi have unveiled a shower, named Omega, which should be produced in 2007. “Now we’re talking about possible furniture for the bath,” Paolo says. “We’ll get to the concept for the bathroom, but not immediately.”

Pininfarina extra’s highest-profile works are neither tubs nor kitchens, but the torch and the cauldron that it designed for the 2006 Winter Olympics. The task of creating the Olympic torch is daunting: It must weigh no more than four pounds; its flame must look good on television; and that flame must remain ablaze regardless of weather conditions. Paolo says he welcomed the challenge. “I wanted to demonstrate that Italian products are strong and reliable. That’s the story that I wanted to promote,” he says.

He and his 25-member Pininfarina Extra team designed a 30-inch-tall, four-pound, metallic blue, aluminum alloy–bodied torch that they tested in Pininfarina’s wind tunnel and manufactured on its assembly line. Workers produced 2,000 torches per month for six consecutive months to meet the quota of 12,000. (Ten thousand were used by Italian torchbearers who carried them on a two-month tour of the country, and the runners were offered the chance to buy their torches as keepsakes.) “The shape is automotive, but it is also the shape of a ski pole,” Paolo explains. “I was happy to see that not one torch had problems. There were no breakdowns.”

The cauldron was not part of the original order, as Paolo tells it. He says that Turin city officials, impressed with Pininfarina Extra’s work on the torch, called him in August 2005—the 11th hour, from an Olympic standpoint—to ask the firm to supply a cauldron. “It was built in four months because there was another project that was rejected by the city because it was not safe,” Paolo says. “I told them it was impossible to begin in September and have it for February of next year, and the official said, ‘I know it is impossible, but you are the expert at impossible things.’”

Paolo and his team created a stunning structure of coiling steel tubes that stood 187 feet tall and emanated a 13-foot plume of fire. “The cauldron is not a cauldron in the traditional sense, in that it is not a plate that looks up. It is five fires in one, inspired by the Olympic logo,” he says, explaining that the ends of each of the five curving tubes blaze alongside a sixth, straight tube that provides the main flame.

Although the cauldron had performed perfectly in three separate nighttime test firings held before the games, Paolo admits to having had a brief but searing attack of stage fright. “I remember sitting there in the stadium with my girlfriend one week before the opening ceremony and thinking, ‘What if the cauldron doesn’t light? Two billion people are watching,’ ” he says. But the flame blazed forth on cue during the opening ceremonies, and it remained alight for the 16 days of competition. It still stands high above Turin, a permanent monument to Pininfarina Extra’s expertise. 

Pininfarina Extra
www.pininfarinaextra.com
Jacuzzi
800.288.4002
www.jacuzzi.com
The Keating
877.753.2846
www.thekeating.com
Snaidero
877.762.4337
www.snaidero-usa.com

Special Request
Some of Pininfarina’s most spectacular machines have been one-offs, including the Ferrari 375 Mille Miglia that film director Roberto Rossellini commissioned for his wife, Ingrid Bergman, in 1954, and the Ferrari 342 America that King Leopold III of Belgium ordered a year earlier. However, Pininfarina dissolved its bespoke business in a 2001 restructuring of the company. “In 2003, I asked Andrea [Pininfarina, the Pininfarina Group’s CEO] to go back again and try to make special projects more visible, to show the public the possibilities of what we can offer,” says Paolo Garella, who now heads Pininfarina’s Special Projects Division. “Today, it is the only area of the company that has direct contact with the final customer.”

The Special Projects Division unveiled its first car, the Ferrari 612 Scaglietti K, last April in Italy. New York collector Peter Kalikow commissioned the auto, an iteration of the Ferrari 612. “He wanted a car that only 10 percent of Ferrari owners would recognize on the spot,” Garella says. “This car is completely new, and it looks like a Scaglietti, if you know Scaglietti.”

The division followed with the Ferrari P4/5, which it created for James Glickenhaus, another New Yorker, who presented the car at last August’s Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. “Jim wanted to do an homage to the P cars, which are probably the most famous sports cars built by Ferrari,” Garella says, explaining that the Pininfarina team began with the body of a Ferrari Enzo. “Nothing [on the car] is exactly like the P4 or P5,” he says. “It’s very much blended.”

Garella says he expects soon to begin working on as many as three new commissions. Prices begin at $1 million, and Pininfarina can make no more than three automobiles per year. 

Pininfarina’s Special Projects Division
specialprojects@pininfarina.it

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