One of the largest pieces in MoMA’s permanent collection is a mixed-media sculpture fashioned from aluminum, steel, rubber, and wood. There are no blockbuster exhibitions on the calendar in its honor, no parties hosted by Björk or Yoko Ono, yet it’s one of the finest pieces of its kind. The 1946 Cisitalia 202 coupe marks a turning point where the fluidic, smooth, and “essential”—the word preferred by its designer, Battista “Pinin” Farina—came to car design. Unlike Cisitalia or countless forgotten carmakers of the postwar period, however, the 202’s designer remains a vital, going concern.
Pininfarina, the design firm that Battista founded, helped give shape to the 20th century as much as Knoll, Gwathmey Siegel, or Boeing did. Based in Cambiano, an exurb of Turin, the firm achieved a quiet ubiquity on the world’s roads, and it did so by being its own boss. If Ford called just minutes after Alfa Romeo rang, nothing precluded Pininfarina from saying Si to commissions from both companies. Pininfarina was a design assassin in a Brioni suit, able to hit multiple targets at once.
It’s a different century for the company—and for all carrozzerie, the traditional Italian automotive-design consultancies that have been bludgeoned to the brink of extinction by tectonic shifts in the car business. Today’s automakers perform virtually all their design work in-house, a mortal threat to the carrozzeria model. Pininfarina is still standing, albeit with significant reinforcement from an unlikely source. In December, one of India’s largest industrial conglomerates purchased a controlling stake in a deal worth roughly $185 million. Such a coupling, the likes of which Battista could never have fathomed, might make Pininfarina more influential than ever before.
Not that the company is sitting on its hands waiting to find out. “It’s one of the main questions that we ask ourselves: What is our role in this climate?” says Fabio Filippini, Pininfarina’s vice president of design. Keen foresight in the 1980s led Pininfarina to branch out from its automotive comfort zone, and the company may well be alive—unlike former archrival Stile Bertone—because of it. The company is as diversified as any time in its history, with tendrils in residential architecture, kitchen design, marinas, agricultural equipment, and yes, Coca-Cola vending machines, but car-design consulting remains central.
“The carrozzeria side has two approaches: one, when you’re working with mature carmakers in established markets, and two, when you’re working with companies in emerging markets that still don’t have strong design identities,” Filippini says. “The risk is to become too dependent on either one of them.”
That pragmatism has informed much of Pininfarina’s recent movement. Preceding its purchase by a subsidiary of Indian heavy-industry colossus Mahindra Group in December, Pininfarina launched its first office outside of Italy, in Miami. Under director Matteo de Lise and lead designer Paolo Trevisan, the subsidiary office has delivered two residential towers in South Florida with the Related Group of Florida: 1100 Millecento in Miami’s Brickell neighborhood and Beachwalk in Hallandale Beach. Augmenting these are a marina project in Argentina and a residential tower in Brazil, each managed out of Pininfarina’s new American beachhead.
“Traditionally, Pininfarina has had a conservative approach to growth,” de Lise says. “It was, ‘Let’s keep all our expertise in one place.’ And that was perfect from the standpoint of keeping the quality the main and only goal. But by scaling in a very intelligent way, by opening other offices around the world that have specific areas of expertise based on what the local territory needs, we think we can maintain this quality.”
Not that signs of strain don’t emerge. Pininfarina’s restyling of Eurostar’s Standard Premier train cars came in for criticism earlier this year, with high-profile takedowns from editors at Wallpaper, U.S. Vogue, and Harper’s Bazaar U.K. Yet these are leavened by plaudits for Pininfarina’s ambitious condo tower in São Paulo, which netted a 2016 iF Design award in Germany.
It’s the Mahindra Group acquisition, however, that will most acutely test the elasticity of Pininfarina, particularly in its central automotive-design business. Mahindra & Mahindra is India’s second-largest carmaker by sales volume, and among the world’s largest producers of agricultural tractors. Though one of the most recognizable brands in a nation of one billion people, Mahindra & Mahindra lacks a cohesive style; notwithstanding variations on a slatted grille, its cars share few cues. Mahindra, then, is Filippini’s emerging-market test case writ large—very large.
With this in mind, Filippini argues that the Indian market and other emerging economies don’t require region-specific style considerations. “Right now, all over the world, there are certain fundamental expectations of good automotive design,” he says. “There can be variation, but I don’t think car companies should design cars too different from country to country. Good stance, good proportion, it’s sitting well on its wheels, the amount of front overhang and rear overhang—those I think are recognized worldwide. A certain expression of dynamic fluidity is valued worldwide.”
As for that telltale, florid “Pininfarina” badge rendered in chrome script that appears on select creations—from the Maserati GranTurismo to a one-off Czech farm tractor—don’t expect it to colonize Mahindra’s lineup. “We think our badge is one of the most valuable assets in our company because it’s always been used for our most exclusive projects,” Filippini says. “Unless we do something very exceptional, it’s unlikely we would use it. Now, I don’t exclude the possibility, but it’s not right now something we plan to do.”
For emphasis, Filippini need only gesture toward the H2 Speed concept, a flamboyant calling card for Pininfarina’s design services unveiled in March at the Geneva Motor Show. It’s extremely far from mass transportation, and the farthest thing from mass anything. A hydrogen-powered fever dream somewhere between racecar and TIE fighter, with a glass canopy and an acid-green rear wing, the H2 Speed is a ruthlessly streamlined wedge of impossible. The car exists beyond the outer bands of fantasy, where few carmakers dare dream of going. Only an outsider, albeit one with intimate knowledge of car design, would ever conceive of anything like it. And that is precisely the point of Pininfarina.