What does the design of São Paulo’s Cyrela tower and a 1970 Ferrari 512S Modulo have in common? Both feature the swerving, aerodynamic silhouettes of Pininfarina (PINF:IM), the Italian firm best known for giving shape to iconic sports cars. Renderings of the Brazilian skyscraper unveiled on Sept. 11 show a building that’s all curves, a blend of metal and glass that echoes the look of many of the cars Pininfarina designed for Ferrari (F:IM), Maserati, Alfa Romeo, and others. The 84-year-old firm stopped large-scale production for its automaker clients and closed its factories three years ago, but it continues to design high-end concept cars. Chairman Paolo Pininfarina says the firm’s “design DNA” is visible across a growing range of projects, from residential apartment towers to pens.
Such commissions are becoming a bigger part of Pininfarina’s business and have helped boost the bottom line after the weak European auto market forced the company to shed hundreds of workers and restructure its debt. Pininfarina expects to post an operating profit in 2014, after two years of losses. “They’re doing an impressive job with new products and ideas, but it’s an uphill struggle,” says Massimo Intropido, head of Milan-based financial research firm Ricerca Finanza. “One thing is appeal, another is the balance sheet.”
Among a certain set in brand-obsessed emerging markets, the Pininfarina name is associated with Italian elegance, a reputation that’s helping the studio win commissions in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. “There is a lot of luxury and not much elegance” today, says Paolo Pininfarina.
In recent years, Italian fashion houses including Giorgio Armani, Versace, and Bulgari have attached their names to ultraluxury residential projects in Miami, Dubai, Bali, and other locations. “The thing with Pininfarina is that they combine design and technology, so it’s not just pure aesthetics,” says Carlo Scarpa, a professor of industrial economy at the University of Brescia in northern Italy. “Not everyone can do that.”
Battista Farina, known as “Pinin,” set up an independent car builder in 1930 and was, from the start, attracted to the challenge of making something functional and beautiful, Paolo says of his grandfather. Battista created the elongated teardrop silhouette that became the company’s hallmark. Pininfarina went on to develop relationships with Rolls-Royce, Maserati, BMW (BMW:GR), Jaguar, and Ferrari.
For the high-end Italian kitchen and furniture company Snaidero, Pininfarina designed the Ola 25 kitchen, unveiled at the Milan Furniture Show in April and featuring cabinets made of carbon fiber, commonly used in airliners and sports cars. Pininfarina designed the interior spaces of the new Juventus soccer stadium in Turin, including locker rooms, boxes, and restaurants. The Sky Rider, a drone in the company’s trademark red and black, was produced in partnership with DeAgostini Publishing, an Italian magazine company that has a side business producing scale models for hobbyists.
Several of Pininfarina’s most prominent projects in recent years have been residential buildings. Architecture, with its engineering constraints and visual impact, mirrors some of the challenges of designing cars that run fast and look good, says the firm’s chairman. Italian construction company Building, based in Turin, tapped Pininfarina to renovate an historic 19th century residential building in the city. “We chose Pininfarina because it’s not cookie-cutter,” says Piero Boffa, Building’s chief executive officer. “In design today you see a lot of sleek but similar things. Pininfarina you recognize.” The project, scheduled for completion at the end of next year, will preserve the facade while creating a modern Pininfarina interior of trademark S-shaped objects and lacquered minimalism.
Pininfarina is chasing small projects as well. An inkless pen that never wears out has a patented metallic alloy tip that leaves a permanent mark on paper through oxidation. Made of aluminum with a wooden inset, the pen—which Pininfarina sells for around $115—is based on the Cambiano, a concept car designed by the firm. “We’re obsessed with details from the micro to the macro,” says design manager Paolo Trevisan.