Michael Mauer, director of style at Porsche, and former ski racer Aksel Lund Svindal fly up a snow-covered mountain in a helicopter. This is where the story begins. A conversation about perfect lines and that moment when you intuitively know what’s right. There’s nowhere for the helicopter to land. There just isn’t enough space. Michael Mauer, Porsche’s style director, and Aksel Lund Svindal, retired downhill skiing world champion and Olympic medalist, have to jump out of the chopper with their gear. It’s just under a meter down, but the mountain top is covered in snow and the space available is hardly bigger than the bathroom in an ordinary hotel. Making up for it is the view: We’re at St. Moritz, at a new sky bar high above the rooftops of what is perhaps the most famous high alpine resort town in the world. The windows are grand here, as is the evening view of Lake St. Moritz and the mountain panorama. White silhouettes against a bright blue sky – perfect lines, created by nature.
A blanket of virgin snow stretches out in front of the two. Michael Mauer may not be a world champion, but he can ski. And how! The pictures of him carving his way across the snow behind a drifting Porsche 911 GT2 RS! Unforgettable! High-performance sport and design share the quest for excellence and for an outstanding typology of the moment. The perfect line is the materi-alization of an ideal that appears to hold sway over both disciplines. The pristine unskied slope thus becomes a symbol for the open result, complete freedom. Does that have anything to do with the designer’s fear of a white sheet of paper, Mr. Mauer?
Michael Mauer: The ideal of the perfect line defines my goal, it gives me a sense of direction. The automobile industry is full of restrictions, from the applicable rules and regulations to the laws of aerodynamics. Or the technology, most recently as regards the positioning of the battery in the Taycan. I’m used to it. To a certain extent, design is always an argument, a struggle, and the final result is an ideal approximation.
What about you Mr. Svindal? Is there something like the downhill skier’s fear of a virgin slope? Aksel Lund Svindal: Not really. Everything in a race happens very fast and you have to make quick decisions, but still you somehow see the line. Even in the snow, where everything is white. You’re always a good deal ahead mentally. You notice this especially when something unforeseen, when a mistake happens, for example when you fall. Reality brings you back to the here and now, so to speak. Suddenly you’re back where you actually are and not somewhere ahead in the future.
Do you prefer S-curves or a straight shot? Svindal: I like challenges, obstacles and terrain – always as fast as possible. There you encounter forces that you don’t get in speed skiing. I find that more interesting. It’s similar to skating a half-pipe, which is basically two curves. You can use them to your own advantage to gain additional speed. And this in turn frees you up for all kinds of solutions. Cornering has a great influence on the choice of material. Some curves are easier, others more difficult, but you never brake into the curve.
Does courage make the difference? Svindal: For me it’s more about self-confidence. Courage is easy. I think all racers are afraid; the risk is everywhere. But if I practice and train conscientiously, I know that I have the qualities I need to do it well. Courage alone is nothing without preparation, without the appropriate skills. Though you’re still nervous, of course.
Aksel Lund Svindal took part in the 2003 World Championship in St. Moritz and finished a surprising fifth in the giant slalom at a time when no one had him on their radar. The Norwegian alpine ski racer, who won two overall World Cup titles, two Olympic gold medals and five World Championship medals in his career, is considered one of the best of his era. Svindal announced his retirement in the spring of 2019 but still loves and lives skiing to the fullest.
Mr. Mauer, what role does technology play? Mauer: Some people think that algorithms and artificial intelligence can solve everything. Young designers are increasingly drawing on Wacom tablets and no longer with pen and paper. That sometimes leads to the subconscious hope that software and computers will someday create the design. But it’s always the person who brings along the creativity, inspiration and imagination – regardless of the medium. It’s about being able to develop and realize your abstract ideas.
What can help? Mauer: If I can’t master the technique of drawing, if I fail to substantiate my ideas, then I will inevitably fail. Aksel will probably not race down a slope based on an intuition. Of course, intuition is important at a certain point, but talent and one’s personal inclination play a big role. A fortunate coincidence, so to speak, because based on my imagination I may see something that others don’t. Svindal: There’s a plan A, but no plan B, C, D or E. The goal is always to get back to plan A as quickly as possible. Little things always happen, and you have to be able to respond to them. Braking and going back to A is actually not an option – at least when skiing. You have to keep going where you are and see that you can get back on the right line as quickly as possible without losing speed.
Basketball coach Holger Geschwindner once calculated the perfect throw for Dirk Nowitzki. What role does theory play? Mauer: When I look at a model, I sometimes can’t say exactly what it is, just that it doesn’t have the right impact on me. Then it may become necessary to break with the textbook. Technology still isn’t able to work things out so they look perfect, beautiful and good. That’s when experience comes into play in the design process. Svindal: In skiing, math often makes it easier to find a solution in a team. We use lots of analysis tools and video elements. Of course, there’s a lot that the skier can feel, but that’s subjective. You can lose a lot of time discussing how to optimize your performance. Mathematics is the objective element to increase efficiency and reduce the margin of error on your way to finding the perfect line.
What influence does one’s own personal style have here? Mauer: Of course, you can always stand in your own way. The brand has to work, especially in the automotive sector. The designer has to understand what position the brand occupies, what values it represents. Only then can you think about individualization, only then can you do things differently from the competition. Svindal: That is definitely the case with freeriding, where you have huge differences between the skiers – and everyone can use the whole mountain how they like. In ski racing, most of the variables are set. Though of course there are little things that distinguish the athletes: I’m 1.90 meters tall, for example, which is pretty tall for a downhill skier. So I can ski over larger bumps without losing contact with the ground. A smaller skier, on the other hand, has less air resistance, more speed, but will also choose a different line. Different athletes lose or win a race differently.
Michael Mauer is one of the most important automotive designers. Following stints at Mercedes-Benz and Saab, he became head designer of Porsche AG. Having grown up in southern Germany, Mauer knows the region around St. Moritz like the back of his hand and first stood on skis at Piz Corvatsch as a child.
Mr. Mauer, how do you get into a creative flow? Mauer: Something that definitely raises my level of creativity is a trip like this one with Aksel. I have to concentrate so much on skiing that my subconscious frees up space for creativity. It is important to stray from time to time, to get off the beaten path. When a designer works on a model for days and for weeks and feels that it isn’t perfect, that the proportions are wrong, he becomes nervous. Experience has shown me that the solution will come at some point. You just can’t force it. I don’t believe in God-given results just falling from the sky – but our brains keep working in the background without us noticing it. Svindal: I personally always have to prepare and train as intensely as possible. I want to be able to prepare for difficulties beforehand and develop a plan. That’s crucial for keeping calm, thinking clearly and overcoming anxiety during a race. Nevertheless, it remains incredibly difficult to estimate how fast the race will ultimately be and how far the jumps will go. Sometimes you find yourself at the finish line after the practice run and you have no idea how it’ll work out. During the race, you have the fastest equipment and the weather conditions change, along with the consistency of the snow and the wind direction. A difference of 5 km/h more or less is enormous in the curves.
What about failure? How do you fail with grace? Mauer: The question always comes up how you define failure and how you deal with it. If I can’t prevail with a design, it is frustrating – but this frustration can also be an incentive to improve my argumentation in the future. Situations like that are important for one’s personal development, both professionally and as a human being. Svindal: Whenever I didn’t win the World Championship, I was always angry with myself. But ultimately, a serious setback helps you to increase your concentration. My attitude has always been: today is one of many possibilities. If it doesn’t work out today, it will work out tomorrow.
When do you realize that you’re in flow? Svindal: You can feel it on the downhill: the rushing speed, the consistency of the snow, the aerodynamics. In this one moment you develop a sense of where you have to go – you only recognize it as you’re doing it. It will never be really perfect. But with the right amount of experience, you know at the beginning of the curve where you will come out of it, how good the line is. And if you realize that it won’t work out after all, the trick is to get back on the line as quickly as possible without losing a lot of speed – we’re talking about fractions of a second here. Mauer: When it comes to design, the time span is a bit more relaxed. Here it is important to accept the deviation. Sometimes a compromise in parts of the creative process makes sense in order to approach the optimum as a whole. The perfect line in design can only be a snapshot in time. There are those moments when you think: wow, that works. With a little distance, this turns into: okay, it could actually work even better. That’s probably a natural human thing.
So there is no such thing as the perfect line? Mauer: What is the perfect shape, the perfect line? Perhaps it is perfect for me, but whether the same holds true for tens of thousands of other people is a completely different question. A particular design might not work on the market because it is simply ahead of its time, for example.
What role does cultural influence play on the idea of a perfect line? Mauer: The automobile companies are all active globally. But they always have a local home that shapes the brand identity. Each brand has to decide to what extent it will address country-specific requirements and preferences. Regardless of all that, I was able to grow as a person during my time in Japan. [Michael Mauer headed the Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design Studio in Japan from 1998 to 1999.] For someone who grew up in the deepest Black Forest and loves nature, surviving in Tokyo is a real challenge. Svindal: My life as a top athlete always involved a lot of training. Ultimately, this is a very individualistic form of concentration and you have to arrange a lot with yourself. For me it was therefore key to ignore outside influences. Even between competitions, the focus was on coming down – in order to be able to think, to reflect.
Does adrenaline give you a kick? Svindal: Adrenaline can affect you one way or another: it can help you win races, but it can also lead you to believe that everything is okay when it isn’t – and an hour later you’re in the emergency room in a wheelchair because your leg has stiffened up. Extreme situations create an especially close connection with people in your immediate vicinity. And so something might happen in six months that would otherwise take a whole six years. This direct connection and mutual trust has always been extremely important to me to be able to perform at my best at all. Mauer: I believe that people do need pressure and stress from time to time. In my case, that means keeping the timeline, dealing with limited resources. If a designer doesn’t get a timeline, he goes on forever. It’s a bit different for Aksel: even if the line wasn’t perfect – there’s no cheating time.
Interview: Michael Köckritz, Christian Lamping. Fotos: Stefan Bogner