Nikolaus Hafermaas, graphic designer and Porsche fancier

The Porsche brand has long been associated with luxury, masculine ego, and Southern California sunshine. And what's wrong with that? Designer Nikolaus Hafermaas tours "The Porsche Effect" at the Petersen Automotive Museum.

Think of a Porsche, and you might think of James Dean racing in his Porsche 550 Spyder, or Jay Leno cruising along on Mulholland Drive in a Porsche 911. 

Nikolaus Hafermaas, the German-born chair of the graphic design department at ArtCenter College of Design, is also a huge fan of the brand, describing the cars as a national source of pride. He owns two Porsches, and has been seen around town teaching his daughter how to drive his Porsche Speedster replica. According to him, owning a Porsche is a dream “engraved in the German psyche of everyone who was born after the World War II.” 

Nikolaus Hafermaas at Porsche Effect, an exhibition at the Petersen Automotive Museum

The brand has overcome its wartime past. Porsche (pronounced “Por-shuh)” was founded in 1931 in the city of Stuttgart, Germany, by Ferdinand Porsche, who designed the first gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle (Lohner-Porsche),  the Mercedes-Benz SS/SSK and the famed “car for the people,” the Volkswagen Beetle. He also worked with the Nazi regime on the development of advanced tanks, including the Panzer VIII Maus, and other weapon systems. Ferdinand Porsche was later tried for war crimes, and his son Ferry began designing cars for the public under the company’s name. He developed the Porsche 356, their first postwar model for mass consumption. Porsche and Volkswagen remain closely related to this day.

Hafermaas, who also directs TestLab Berlin, ArtCenter’s satellite design studio, toured the Porsche Effect, an exhibition currently on view at the Petersen Automotive Museum. It celebrates seventy years of Porsches on sale to the public. He talked to DnA about what to look for in the exhibition, why the brand matters to a generation steeped in digital technology and eco-consciousness, and how it leaves Ferrari in the shade.

DnA: Since your hometown is Berlin, do you think you may be predisposed to love your country’s automobiles, particularly Porsches?

Nikolaus Hafermaas: My interest doesn’t go back to Porsche, but to childhood memories in a VW Bug. One of my first memories was seeing the world from the little nook behind the backseat in the rear window of a VW Bug: my father’s car. He always dreamed of owning a Porsche, but unfortunately he never got around to it. When I turned around thirty and was living in Berlin, I had to buy my first Porsche and have my father drive it.  

When I moved to Los Angeles in 2004 to work at ArtCenter, I had to get the muscle car thing out of my system, like many Germans do. I bought a 1968 Pontiac Firebird and drove it around for a couple of years. Then in 2006 I ordered a custom-built Porsche 356 Speedster replica from JPS Motorsports. That’s a replica of a classic Porsche race car, and I drove that for four years through all the seasons, including the winter. The car doesn’t have a roof.

Then I added a real Porsche to my collection, a 1996 Porsche 993, a version of the Porsche 911 model. It’s one of the last cool cars, and I’m still driving both cars pretty much daily.

DnA: You said your father badly wanted a Porsche, and then you yourself got one. What was it that both you and your father admired so much about these cars?

NH: Well I think the admiration, the dream of Porsches, is just engraved in the German psyche of everyone who was born after World War II. You can feel the lineage between VW Beetles and early Porsches. They smell the same, they sound somewhat related. There are certain switchgears and other things, basic shapes, that just have some kind of resemblance. And then when you come from a VW Beetle, the Porsche is like an evolutionary step forward.

DnA: So what did you think of the Petersen show?

NH: I was giddy like a kid in a candy store when I got there. It was just amazing to see in-the-flesh originals that are true milestones of Porsche’s eighty-seven-year-old history, and they’re quite nicely presented. The exhibit also presents a very insightful narrative and backstory that are great reads—not only backstories—but also cool Porsche print advertising that was super irreverent and cheeky, especially in the 1980s and 90s. When you go into the Peterson, you enter a Porsche world.

DnA: Is that because it’s the stomping ground for any decent car? Or for Porsches specifically?

NH: I would say it’s a stomping ground for any pretty decent car. I think brands from all over the world try to get their cars into the hands of a very discerning car audience of Southern California and have them roam around the canyons, in the streets, and on the racetracks of Southern California.

DnA: For a visitor to this exhibition who is not a Porsche expert like you, what would you recommend they look out for?

NH: Well, I’m absolutely not an expert; I’m just madly in love.

I think the show has has two very fascinating parts to it. One is the actual museum floor where you see the cars on pedestals and beautifully lit with with lots of texts around them. But then equally fascinating, or to me more fascinating, is a part in the basement that’s called the Peterson Vault. It’s an industrial-looking kind of storage facility for the overflow of the Peterson collection, and it also has a shop part where they do partial renovations and the maintenance of cars. So you get that behind-the-scenes tour and see some additional Porsches there. Both parts of the show are different, and they complement each other very well I think.

DnA: And is there any particular Porsche model that we should look out for?

NH: In the entrance of the museum there’s a 1939 proto-Porsche, it’s called the Type 64 that is basically built on the basis of a very, early VW Beetle. It has a streamlined shape, it looks a little goofy, and it’s super narrow. The driver basically has to sit in the middle of the car more or less. And the copilot slightly behind him. It’s beautiful, it looks like an amphibious kind of creature of sorts. It can be considered the very first Porsche as we know it.

DnA: Now of course you’ve brought up a historical fact. You’ve just said 1939. Porsche was being developed before the war…

NH: That’s the dirty secret, you see. Well, it’s not a secret, but you know, Germans are deeply traumatized by the period of Nazism. And the backstory is that Hitler actually commissioned the Volkswagen. And there was a Nazi propaganda program of getting every German into his own vehicle, and they had a system where you could open a savings account for a car. And out of that came a sports version of the car, which was basically an attempt to push technology forward. The great innovations in automotive technology forward have always been related to racing; car companies innovate there on the performance side, and then bring the innovations into mass market vehicles.

DnA: Well that actually brings me to the another question. We are in a whole different kind of culture around cars right now, with the goal of energy efficiency. There’s a lot of anticipation for autonomous cars. So is the high-performance sports car losing its ground culturally?

NH: Well… I’m biased, as you have found out by now, but I would disagree. I think that as a cultural phenomenon, high-performance sports cars seem more relevant than ever. I think what we’re seeing is a trend which could be called a degradation of the thrill of driving toward a more A-to-B commodity that just doesn’t mesh with the fascinations and ambitions of Gen Xers and even millennials. I think we crave for an antidote to the iPhone-ification.

DnA: I don’t know if it does, but I agree that Millennials and Gen Xers are craving the handmade, the analog, an antidote to their hyper digital world.

NH: Absolutely. That’s the point I’m trying to make. I, as Gen Xer, include myself fully into that generation, and I think we just want the full sensorial experience of driving. And not only that, but we want to be able to fix stuff, and we want to modify stuff. Ever tried to modify an iPhone? That doesn’t really work.

I believe that about ten years ago, Porsche had a massive aging problem with their clients: you had to be old to have enough money to buy a car from Porsche. Now, especially in Southern California, there’s a thriving scene of self-declared outlaws; “outlaws” in this case meaning people who dare to modify Porsches. Not to restore them back to super original condition, but to really modify them in their own ways.

So these are youngish people, and they try to buy mostly air-cooled Porsches as cheaply as possible and then to make them their own. They trick them out and drive them hard. So these are not only museum pieces, but a kind of a lifestyle that has evolved around air-cooled Porsches. There is a whole bunch of people who have come to prominence in that scene: Magnus Walker, he’s the guy with the dreadlocks who started collecting and modifying Porsches. There’s Rod Emory, a second-generation Porsche modifier who actually coined the term “Porsche Outlaw.” There are clubs and groups coming up all over the world.

DnA: Fascinating. Now as we know, VW was a naughty boy and pretended to test all their cars for clean diesel. It turned out that they were fixing the tests and it was dirty diesel. Since Germany has this culture of admiration for the high performance car, is there a built-in disdain for making everything as clean and energy efficient as it can possibly be?

NH: Well, I don’t know. What Volkswagen did is absolutely inexcusable because the whole brand heritage was trust. That was one of the most trusted brands, not only in automotive, but overall. Volkswagen might not have been the flashiest car and the most technologically avant-garde, but you could just trust that it had a high level of integrity. To find out that they actually did the exact opposite has created damage that will take many years to deal with. That’s a deep blow.

But on the other hand, I would like to make a distinction between the mass individualized transport that takes you from A to B transport and has to take on every kind of technological innovation to be the most sustainable.

Then on the other hand, you have the fascination for individualized driving.

We’ve had these technology transitions before. When Henry Ford started mass producing cars, that didn’t mean that all horses were shot. The horses just assumed a different role. It was not every day mass transportation anymore, but it became an area of people breeding and collecting horses and racing them and becoming deeply, deeply attached and passionate about it. And I think with transportation you’re going to see the same thing.

There’s going to be the one route that’s mass transportation, super effective, safe. But then there’s cars that will be taken out more for pleasure than for necessity.

DnA: We could wrap right there, but I’m going to throw down the gauntlet. I have a very good Austrian friend, and I know you Germans and Austrians sometimes disagree with each other. My Austrian friend is also extremely passionate about cars. So I said to him, “Are you going to go to the Porsche show?” And he says, “Oh, Porsches, people think they are so great. But actually they are nothing compared with the Ferrari.”

What would you say to him?

NH: I passionately disagree. Ferrari built its most stylish cars in the 1950s and 60s. It made a very iconic, small, low-budget Ferrari sometime between ’68 and ’76. After that car they’ve never really produced anything that hit my personal taste.

Current Ferraris look like they were designed for video games; they’re totally over the top. They have too much going on. The other thing is engineering. Porsche really sets the pace toward future-forward engineering. In 2011 for example they introduced the first mass-produced hybrid Porsche: the Panamera. I just read that Ferrari is going to wait until 2019 to begin selling their first hybrid. Yet in 2019 when Ferrari starts selling the first hybrids, Porsche will already have delivered the first fully electric car to the mass market.

All photographs by Nikolaus Hafermaas. Taken at Porsche Effect, an exhibition at the Petersen Automotive Museum. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. Thanks to Nolan Boomer for editing assistance.