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Porsche style guru goes old school

Sports car design chief still uses his trusty pencil and paper.

Published November 16, 2012

When it comes to the work they produce, all auto designers are unique. But no matter what they turn out, they all have something in common: an obsessive desire to create.

Michael Mauer, Porsche’s chief designer, carries on the tradition in Germany. While he was on the phone to me, he was sketching with a pencil, drawing a car.

“It’s for relaxing, and to help me think,” says Mauer, who worked with his team to create the new Porsche 911. “I would not like to say that I hate computers, they help us to be faster in the process, but when it comes to drawing, I belong to a generation that was educated in doing renderings in a conventional way with paper and pencils.

“I tried to do sketches on a tablet with an electronic pencil, but there’s no connection. I tried a couple of times to do this with the modern technologies and I failed, because I still need this feeling of a pencil and paper. I sketch on paper, on napkins, on whatever, just to have this sensitive experience.”

Mauer had always been fond of drawing cars, but wasn’t sure of what he wanted to do when he left school. His father, a doctor, had a patient who was a former press spokesman for Mercedes-Benz, and who explained that there was indeed a profession where Mauer could actually use such a talent. He studied at the Pforzheim School of Design in Germany, which had just started a class for transportation design. Mauer was one of only two students in the program’s first two years.

“All of the teachers were from Mercedes-Benz, and so in 1986 I went to their R&D centre in the truck department,” he says. In 1998, he became head of the company’s advanced studio in Tokyo.

From there, he went to its Smart division and then in 2000, was asked to join Saab in Sweden. “I was given the chance to reposition the brand, which was challenging,” he says. “Moving to Sweden was an experience, but in 2004, I was asked to join Porsche and for me that was coming home to Germany and joining a brand where you don’t hesitate if you get this offer.”

Working on an iconic design like the 911 is both a challenge and a thrill, he says. “I would lie if I said it is business as usual. On one hand it is, since we have our processes, our sketches and our models. But on the other hand, the 911 is an icon in the car industry, and so we look into the history and analyze the design cues that we would like to further develop, build on, and where we would like to add new design elements.”

The evolution is important, he believes, because otherwise a car can stagnate. That’s something the 911 hasn’t done in half a century. “There is a strong belief that this is a good package, but there are a lot of possibilities to further develop the car,” he says. “Other brands managed for 10 or 20 years, but they believed the solution was so good, they missed the point where they had to further develop it. If you just take the step from the 993 to the 996, from air-cooled to water cooling, there were a lot of Porsche enthusiasts that had a big problem with this. But at the end of the day, it was the only solution to keep the car updated on the technical side.”

Back to that simple pencil: Mauer admits that his team had a problem during the new 911’s development, when the car’s tail design simply didn’t look right. Everyone was heavily involved with models and computer sketches, and there were numerous meetings as the team tried to come up with a new design. Sketching away while listening, as he usually does, Mauer came up with a solution that brought the design on track. “When people are in a meeting next to me, they tell me I’m not listening, that I’m sketching again,” he says. “It’s kind of automatic behaviour, but it helps me to visualize my thoughts.”

His team actually creates the designs; in his position, he is responsible for all design activities, including exterior and interior design, colour and trim. Even so, he still feels the excitement of driving a car while remembering the day that it started with a sketch.

And he’s also a perfectionist, even when it comes to doodling while talking on the phone. “Whenever I see a pencil on the table, I have to try it out,” he says. “It could be good, but then the next one is better. I’m still searching for the perfect pencil.”

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