The supercar sculptor

Sardinian-born Flavio Manzoni spent his childhood wishing he’d designed the Sydney Opera House. Today, his creations house an even more stirring musical performance.

By Michael Stahl 31/10/2016

How is one supposed to carry the weight of one of the world’s most powerful brands, the responsibility for a technological leader and a national institution? If you’re Flavio Manzoni, senior vice-president of design at Ferrari, you carry it on slender shoulders, with graciousness and an engaging, boyish enthusiasm.

On this particular day, Manzoni’s wide-eyed wonderment had a lot to do with his being in Australia for the first time. He visited in late May as a special guest speaker for Sydney’s Vivid festival. He also presented his latest creation, the four-seat, four-wheel-drive GTC4Lusso V12, and sat down for a one-on-one interview with Robb Report Australia.

He modestly deflects credit for the Lusso’s design – and that of every current Ferrari model, including the stratospheric LaFerrari supercar – onto his 75-strong team at the Ferrari Centro Stile. And Manzoni cites that very team as his proudest creation: prior to his arrival in January 2010, Ferrari was the only major automotive brand still lacking in-house design.

Manzoni is slim, bespectacled, stylish in a slightly nerdy way. He keeps fit by cycling, is an avid and accomplished pianist and is encyclopaedic in his knowledge of classical music. With an embarrassed laugh, he refers to the 708kW, 350km/h-plus LaFerrari supercar as a “beast”; the 574kW, 340km/h F12 Tour de France as a “monster”.

Manzoni was born in 1965 in Sardinia – the island’s culture, he says, is in his soul – as the son of an architect. Cars weren’t a particular focus, but capturing thoughts and images came naturally. “When I was a child, it was normal for me to visualise an object and the morning after, sketch it, just to freeze it, materialise it,” he says.

He says he dreamed of Australia even then. More specifically, of the Sydney Opera House. “When I was a child and I was dreaming to become an architect, this was among the five best [buildings] that I really loved,” he sighs. “I was very impressed that in 1957 a very young architect, Jørn Utzon, was imagining the future like this. If you look at [the Opera House] now, you think this has been designed now, thinking towards the future. And however many years later, this is really impressive.

“It makes us think how we are forgetting this approach. It is absolutely important to think in a very audacious way, let’s say a bold way, symbolic way. There is everything on this building; it is a masterpiece of symbolism. And I noticed yesterday, visiting the building, there are four dimensions – there is time as well.”

At 18, Manzoni left Sardinia to study architecture and industrial design at the University of Florence. On graduating, he decided to pursue a career in automotive design. He joined Fiat in 1993, spending six years in the design centre with the upscale Lancia brand, half that time as senior interior designer, before detouring to the Volkswagen-owned SEAT where he again specialised in interior design. He returned to Lancia in 2001 as overall Director of Design for the ailing brand.

Moving to parent Fiat in 2004, Manzoni oversaw the design of mainstream models like the retro-themed 500. A move to Volkswagen in 2006, where he was soon heading the group’s creative design, involved him in everything from the space-maximising Up! series of concepts, to the mainstream Golf VI, to designing the identities for Bentley and Bugatti.

Then, in 2009, Maranello came a-calling. Manzoni’s appointment was confirmed in January 2010. Ferrari had never fully taken the plunge before. As Manzoni sits down with Robb Report Australia in Sydney, he explains it had been that way from the beginning, when founder Enzo Ferrari agreed (with supposed reluctance) to produce and sell gran turismo road models in order to fund his racing scuderia.

“Enzo Ferrari used outside coachbuilders,” Manzoni says. “He didn’t care about production. He had to sell the cars to sustain the racers. There was a famous encounter between him and Pininfarina, and he committed to create the GT cars.”

From 1947 to 2010, all but a handful of Ferrari’s most iconic models were clothed by the independent Turin design house of Pininfarina.
Ferrari had put a toe in the water in late 2002 when, with fellow Modenese marque Maserati then in its stable, it appointed former BMW and MINI (now McLaren) designer Frank Stephenson as Director of Concept Design and Development.

Stephenson’s role was not to actually design cars, but to assist independent designers (like Pininfarina luminary Lorenzo Ramaciotti) in maintaining each brand’s identity. He was replaced in 2005 by Donato Coco, under whose watch were developed the Ferrari F430, California and the gorgeous 458 Italia. Coco moved on to British marque Lotus, as Ferrari successfully wooed Manzoni.

“I started in 2010 with the commitment of starting from scratch an entire studio,” Manzoni says. “We were four [people] at the beginning, now we are more than 75 …”

After completing revisions to the Pininfarina-penned FF – the “shooting brake” profile, re-employed in the GTC4Lusso – Manzoni and his young team had the ultimate challenge of Ferrari’s next supercar flagship, the LaFerrari. Acceptance of their efforts wasn’t a given. At the end of 2010, his small in-house team anxiously presented six full-scale clay models to Ferrari management … who gave the nod to move forward with two of them.

“It was the first big success for us – a demonstration that a talented team, working in-house, can produce a very high result,” Manzoni reflects. “The final part of the job was a very long process of optimisation. We remodelled, we redesigned every millimetre of this shape in order to reach the best compromise in terms of performance and beauty.”

Manzoni’s presentation at Vivid Sydney kept an audience of 200 enthralled in the Museum of Contemporary Art, recounting the design process of the LaFerrari. A very early step, he explained, was to take the naked carbon-fibre chassis as presented by the engineers and visualise (via 3D-modelling) the flow of air over it to create a “ghost body”.

“This car is made from carbon fibre and air,” Manzoni told the audience. “There are two forces which condition the configuration of a car like this. One is the air, and that tends to excavate the body. The other one is the amount of components that you have to put inside. Two opposite forces.”

Another force, strong in Manzoni, is authenticity. Fake grilles and wings, he says, aren’t design; merely styling. “Ferrari, we never make something only because we like it. It is not possible. There is always a rational process of selection that is based on also a rational criteria. If you have a beautiful idea but it doesn’t fit the purpose or the content of the product, it stops.”

Ferrari, though, has probably a richer seam of emotive visual cues than any other automotive brand. A tail-lamp shape, a ducktail spoiler, a pair of outlets angled just-so, that instantly denote the prancing horse. But Manzoni feels that regurgitating the past is cowardly, unless it’s done in an authentically innovative way.

“How can we combine a visionary approach with the respect for the tradition?” Manzoni rhetorically asked the Vivid audience. “There is a relationship between man and machine … It refers to symbols that have a strong impact on our imagination. The look of the object is very often provocative, there is a seductive encounter with the user, which is strongly emotional.”

At the nose of the LaFerrari, the front splitter appears to be suspended from a central, vertical element. It’s a fitting, functional solution – which happened to subtly recall the 1961 Ferrari 156 “shark-nose” Formula 1 car.

Similarly, the need to relieve pressure from the rear wheel-arches of the latest F12 Tour de France GT car found a neat solution in three, slanted air outlets. While in complete functional and aesthetic harmony with the F12’s innovative, excavated channels, they’re suggestive of the 1962 250 GTO.“It is a kind of conceptual approach that connects our products to the past, but not in a nostalgic way – in a very futuristic way,” explains Manzoni. “And if you look back, there are so many Ferraris that are so different from their predecessors. This means that the designers at the time were not so much influenced by the history. They just wanted to reinvent the future of Ferrari.”

More than he is proud of any of his designs, Manzoni says he is proud of a team that works “so fast – like in Formula 1”. The design time for a new Ferrari model, he says, is a staggering 14 months from first sketch to design freeze, after which it is handed over for the rather longer process of production engineering.

That design timeframe includes modelling in clay, which Manzoni insists is essential. “The modellers – who are real artists, sculptors – work on the right tension and the sexy effect of the surfaces that sometimes doesn’t come with virtual modelling. The human touch is very important to give a certain sensitivity, sensibility to the form.”

Fourteen months? Manzoni breaks into a smile. “LaFerrari took a longer time. But fortunately we are Italian, so we know very well the art of improvisation! We plan for 14 months, but sometimes that is not sufficient if you want to achieve the result of excellence.”

All of which largely explains the need for the Ferrari Centro Stile itself. “Nowadays the Ferraris are so complex, it’s not possible any more to find the technical configuration and then give it to somebody else to make a suit on top,” Manzoni says. “It’s an integrated design. We still cooperate with Pininfarina, especially for the one-off projects. It means they make their interpretation based on a production car. Historically, this is the tradition of a coachbuilder.”

Car designers are unfailingly among the most fascinating people one meets. Automotive design embodies almost every kind of design – architectural, furnishing, appliances, electronics – and does so within an endlessly demanding framework of vibration, heat, exposure to the environment and differing legislative requirements. Added to that is the range of cultural tastes to be satisfied by a product that will appear, at best, two years after the design has been signed off. Automotive designers never cease observing and absorbing cultures, colours, contours, textures, even sounds. Manzoni often mentions the “short-circuits” that occur between often unrelated fields like architecture, art, music – from which something new can be invented. How was Australia seeping into Manzoni’s consciousness?

“I can speak only about what I’ve seen so far,” he smiles. “Sometimes I have the feeling of an American city, because of the very modern buildings. But there is a very special, local and authentic character of the environment. I love this combination of natural beauty of the land.”

He had toured Sydney’s eastern suburbs, loading his iPhone – a cracked and weather-beaten example – with images of clifftop houses and curious, wind and water-hewn sandstone formations.

“It’s unbelievable, the cliffs are fantastic, and the integration between architecture and nature. There is a kind of connection there. I saw many beautiful villas on the cliffs … This landscape looks like an oil painting. And this villa, designed with a circular front and windows looking north-east and south-east. I think they can see the curvature of the earth from this.”

He shows us a series of photographs of rocks in Sydney’s Parsley Bay. Sandstone, layered and sculpted by the wind, pockmarked with bubbles like an Aero chocolate. “This reminds me of Antelope Canyon in Utah, a canyon created by the wind. It is beautiful, incredible what nature can do. And here – a tree that was born in the stone …”

The sandstone formations might as easily have reminded him of Katsushika Hokusai’s famous woodblock The Great Wave off Kanagawa, a print of which is prominent in the Ferrari Centro Stile in Maranello.

How do these lumps of rock help inspire the design of some of the world’s most advanced supercars? “I don’t know,” Manzoni shrugs. “I think I’m a very curious person, so I think it’s very important to nourish your creativity, your soul with different experiences. I’m sure they will naturally work in the background, influencing your choices, your ideas, your vision. This is a creation of nature, but it is like a sculpture.”

Creation, as he explains, doesn’t always happen when one is creating. “Normally, when I have to solve a problem, we sit in front of the model or we sit around the table, we make brainstormings with the team. But so many times, it happens in the moment where you have a pause. Spontaneously there is a kind of illumination – some intuition, some idea that comes naturally.”

He agrees that this intuition comes more naturally to Italians. “Italian design is better!” he laughs. “I think there is a higher emotional value that comes from the passion and enthusiasm that we have. I think we are naturally inclined to put a certain artistic quality on our best products. But not everything, uh? I have to be honest!”


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