A designer must always live partly in the future: Peter Pfeiffer

A designer must always live partly in the future: Peter Pfeiffer
March 2012
Born on: 28 August 1943 in Dallwitz (then Sudetenland, today Czech Republic)
Peter Pfeiffer and automotive design – in particular Mercedes-Benz design – was never a story one might logically have predicted from the start. The move towards automotive design in Sindelfingen took place in several stages. In addition, Pfeiffer’s life as a designer at Mercedes-Benz was marked by two paradigm changes in design: clay models and computer-aided design (CAD) greatly influenced the design process in terms of the time process and immediate creativity.
Peter Pfeiffer, born in the Sudetenland, grew up in Franconia and lives his life according to Prussian punctuality and the Prussian motto: be more than you seem to be. He does not put himself in the limelight; his main concern is the business at hand. And for him this business is determined by the realisation: “When a customer stands in front of a Mercedes-Benz he should think: I want that car.” For Pfeiffer, the topic SL is one aspect of the overall image of Mercedes-Benz, with the emphasis on performance, passion and robust longevity.
After being expelled from the Sudetenland at the end of the Second World War, his family settled in the Franconian region of Germany in the small town of Schönbrunn near Staffelstein. After completing lower secondary school, Pfeiffer trained to become a porcelain modeller at the firm of Alboth & Kaiser in Staffelstein, and after completing that training attended the Technical College for Porcelain Design in Selb (Upper Franconia).
During a study trip to the Ford factory in Cologne, he asked the then head of design there, Wesely P. Dahlberg, about a work placement. Dahlberg, father of the legendary P 3 model (nicknamed “bathtub”), had initiated a design revolution in Cologne and was in the process of developing a design department at Ford. As a trial, he had Pfeiffer model a wing and liked what he saw. Dahlberg gave Pfeiffer the opportunity he had been hoping for; he started immediately. Pfeiffer was happy, although the switch came as a great disappointment to his father, who also worked at a porcelain company.
Pfeiffer cheerfully entered the big wide world in Cologne, where he remained for five years. In 1967 he got a call that ultimately led to a change in location: Josef Gallitzendörfer, also a Franconian with a career in porcelain similar to Pfeiffer’s, but older, had moved from Ford to Sindelfingen, to what was then Daimler-Benz AG, to work in the newly established design department (then still referred to as the styling department). For a year, Pfeiffer resisted the Swabian enticements, but after an extensive examination of the products of Mercedes-Benz and the brand history, at the age of 25 he decided to make the move – one that would be his last. The young designer and modeller arrived in Sindelfingen in the midst of the sea change from elaborately crafted wooden models to clay models. These could be made more quickly and – very importantly – allowed for the introductions of instantaneous modifications. Work with clay, and later plasticine, was speeded up by Gallitzendörfer, who made Pfeiffer a close collaborator. The two had their joint work and experience with the new design medium in common. Even then, Pfeiffer had a keen sense of moving away from past and present, a desire to seek out tomorrow’s world. And so without a break he carried out the second revolution in design, from clay model to computer model based on CAD (computer-aided design). There was no hankering after the good old days. He knew that a designer must live in the future.
In the case of the SL of the R 230 series, introduced under his aegis in 2001, this meant designing a vehicle, which despite its larger dimensions combined elegance, brand identity, harmony and sportiness, and in its original version presented a sporty face that appeared to the beholder as congenial and devoid of aggression. The launch in 2001 attracted euphoric acclaim, with commentators rating the car as the most beautiful Mercedes-Benz in a long time. It was a Mercedes-Benz of which many people said, whether they could afford it or not: “I want to have it.” And it is also proof of the successful work of a team of which Peter Pfeiffer always considered himself a part, and whose head and policymaker he was as chief designer from 1999 to 2008.


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    Mercedes-Benz SL (R 230, 2001 to 2012), first generation (2001 to 2006). Design department, on the left Peter Pfeiffer, then chief designer
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    Mercedes-Benz SL (R 230, 2001 to 2012), first generation (2001 to 2006). Peter Pfeiffer, then chief designer
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    Mercedes-Benz SL (R 230, 2001 to 2012), first generation (2001 to 2006). Design department, at the left rear: Peter Pfeiffer, then chief designer
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    Mercedes-Benz SL (R 230, 2001 to 2012), first generation (2001 to 2006). Design department, on the right: Peter Pfeiffer, then chief designer
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    Peter Pfeiffer, former Mercedes-Benz chief designer
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    Peter Pfeiffer, former Mercedes-Benz chief designer
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    Peter Pfeiffer, former Mercedes-Benz chief designer