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Ferdinand Alexander Porsche

posted by Terrence Dorsey on Thursday, 05 April 2012 @ 13:33

The iconic 911, designed by FA Porsche and Erwin Komenda.

(Photo used under Creative Commons license.)

Ferdinand Alexander "Butzi" Porsche passed away today.

Update: This deserves a bit more comment.

The FA Porsche story deserves some discussion, partly because I think his role in the 911 design process is often overstated, and party because the subtle genius of his self-taught design aesthetic is often understated.

For the larger context of design at Porsche, start out with the comprehensive 80 year history of Porsche designs at the Porschebahn Weblog.

Within that history, FA Porsche is primarily credited with designing the 904 GTS and collaborating with Erwin Komenda on the 901/911.

I've read widely varied accounts of that "collaboration," and my own interpretation is thus: FA was young and largely untrained and therefore it seems likely Komenda was meant to keep an eye on the young man and help shepherd the process. They were also directed to maintain styling cues of the outgoing Komenda-designed 356, so that implies potential turf protecting on Komenda's part and significant constraints on the new car. It's also well documented that Ferry Porsche himself pushed to carry over elements such as the raised fenders and fastback shape.

So to what extent is the 901 really an example of FA's design ability? And to what extent did the constraints dictate the result?

To me, though, the second point highlights the genius of the first: all design and engineering entails compromise; how the designer responds to the constraints reveals the genius. Think of how many compromises end up in ugly, useless, forgettable objects.

Now consider the design-constrained 901/911. Or the time-constrained, competition-constrained, construction-constrained 904.

We can take a literal "look" at what FA achieived at Porsche in Chris' Remembering Ferdinand Alexander (Butzi) Porsche… at digitaldtour, admiring the lines of both the early 911 and FA's personal favorite, the 904 GTS.

Excellence magazine has a short remembrance of FA on their web site, and a very well done longer piece in the August 2012 issue. I particularly like the print issue article because it discusses straightforwardly — often in FA's own words — the tension he felt in maintaining Porsche design tradition, working alongside the legendary Erwin Komenda and the compromises required in the design process.

Within that context, it's not surprising that FA exercised restraint and minimalism. And yet his work is anything but bland. Both the 911 and the 904 are timeless, organic, sublime works.

Or for another example, take a look at his design for the IWC Porsche Design Ocean Bund wristwatch. A lean, form-follows-function and nothing more design, but also a timepiece issued to working military divers. There's a clear parallel here back to the automotive design: beautiful shapes, minimal distractions for the operator, and equally at home on the high street or the race track.

That's tough to do, and few designers find more than fleeting success. Charles and Ray Eames come to mind. Phillipe Starck.

And FA Porsche.