The Magic Pencil

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Vladimir Pirozhkov is the most renowned Russian industrial designer in the world. His CV boasts 20 years of work in Europe and Japan, as well as interior designs for famous car manufacturers like Citroën and Toyota. After returning home, he set up Astra Rossa, a company that will soon evolve into a new project called Kinetics, which will encompass the aquatic, aerospace, biotechnology, and information industries, among others. However, his main objective for the next 20 years is not to develop his business but to establish a school of ‘technological special forces’ and a prototype-building center that can tackle any task.

What exactly is going to happen in this center?

When I was a little boy, I often watched a Polish cartoon called ‘The Magic Pencil,’ where a boy would draw things with his magic pencil and everything he drew would come to life. I began to dream, and I wanted to draw and make my drawings instantly come to life too. Our center is like this magic pencil: you draw things that instantly get digitized and printed out on a printer. Our exhibition stand had three points. The first point had a desk with a computer on it where people could draw anything they liked. It was connected with a big yellow cable to the second desk where we converted the drawing into a 3D model, which was connected with a cable to a third desk with robots and printers on top where the results would get printed. When people see these things they simply go crazy, especially children.

But on a serious note, we realized that we needed a facility where we could build reliable and high quality functional prototypes of high complexity for various industries. We would like to build a digital factory enabled with all of the processes that are out there. The 3D printers that have become trendy today are merely one part of such a factory. We need high-precision milling, high quality metal finishing, composite materials, additive technologies, composites, precision machine tools that could be used to make instruments, and many other things. For instance, if over the long run we are planning to print living organisms out of living cells by passing them through a specialized needle, the printer nozzle, we need specialized equipment to make these needles. We need a high complexity prototype center that could service the space industry, the military-industrial complex, and bioengineering. We are also planning to train specialists who graduated from major technological academic institutions, such as the Moscow Institute of Steels and Alloys, Bauman Moscow State Technical University, Moscow State Engineering Physics Institute, Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, or Moscow State University, and offer them a two-year applied Master’s degree program with internships in the West. This is what we called the ‘Technological Special Forces.’ There will be just around 20 people per year, who we would like to turn into applied creative engineers.

Why do you think such a center and these ‘special forces’ are needed?

The problem is that we have lost a lot. In 1937, the Soviet Union used to import 70% of all technological equipment produced around the world. At that time, colossal logistical, technological, and educational efforts were made, which enabled them to build a plant in Moscow or in St. Petersburg and then quickly re-locate this plant to Chelyabinsk, Ufa, or Sverdlovsk. Virtually all industrial facilities have been re-located to the regions.

Unfortunately, the young people who come to work for us today have never seen any large-scale projects. In the 1990s and 2000s, it was fashionable to buy everything and so we swapped our powerful and competitive nation for a chance to have European-style interior design and state-of-the-art window frames. To an extent, this was the price we paid for success. The 1980 Olympic Games, the falling oil prices, Afghanistan – all of these things have undermined this huge country that had sent a man into space and produced nuclear engines. At that time we still were fundamentally stable despite all of the complaints we hear today about the difficult Soviet past. Now, however, we do not have the same stability. It is over. Here is a simple observation to prove my point: people who may not necessarily be familiar with basic fundamentals become today’s specialists. Thirty years ago, it would be unthinkable. Frankly speaking, many of today’s engineers are simply incompetent and we often run into this problem.

Russia offers a very interesting civilizational model. We live halfway between Asia and Europe, and something always falls of the truck on this Eurasian highway. For thousands off years, foreigners traveled through our land and left interesting things behind, which were incompatible until we managed to bring them all together

My generation always understood that the commissioned item must be completed on time and meet all of the quality and reliability criteria. These three simple things were never even up for discussion in the Soviet Union. Today, unfortunately, it is no longer an axiom.

I think there can be no two opinions – applied education is the key. Today people graduate from universities without any basis, and we waste time as a result because we need to redo many things several times over. Those who manage to put together a good team can consider themselves lucky because high quality people are an extremely rare commodity.

So you are interested not just in university students but also in high school students?

That is exactly right. There is this Children’s Art House in Moscow where we try to help and sponsor a radio electronics club. One boy who goes there came up to me and told me in earnest, “Do you know I made an ‘ionoplane’ and I’d really like to show it to you but first I will show you how to transmit energy over distances. It is based on Tesla’s experiments but I made some improvements.” He rotated some lever and, lo and behold, there was an electric discharge at a distance. There are no questions about his experiment but let’s move on to the ionoplane. What I saw was an equilateral triangle positioned on three matchsticks, each connected by two wooden skewers forming some sort of a fence on a smaller scale. The entire thing was wrapped in ordinary aluminum foil. Threads that stretched from the matchsticks were scotch taped to a desk. This was the ionoplane. He pulled out some kind of a remote control that he’d made from an old video recorder, turned the whole thing on, and all of a sudden the device took off from the ground but kept hovering because the threads kept it in place. Without mincing words, the boy explained that he had switched the ionic charge from positive to negative and that his craft was pushed up in the air with a force equal to that of gravity. “Is it anti-gravitation?” I asked him. He says, “I do not know what it is, but I like it.” He said that six of his ionoplanes have already flown away into the stratosphere because he failed to tie them to the ground. I repeat, we are talking about a small boy. The head of this club (a doctor of physics) said to me, “I do not always understand how things work here, but this is great!” These are the kinds of guys I need.

Back to rare commodities. You returned to Russia in 2007, but does one really see many other high-profile examples of this sort?

In fact, there are quite of few ‘returnees,’ or at least many people are thinking about it. Our team simply has a better PR strategy, just like the hamster in that joke.1 By building this Prototype Center, we are trying to create a sort of magnet that would attract people like that. For instance, one famous scientist wants to return home to us. He has been printing living organisms abroad using bio printers for quite some time now. We are thinking of inviting him to our territory so we could have expertise in this promising technological area as well. Vladimir Schetschkin also agreed to work for us. He is a professional of the highest caliber who worked for Ducati for 15 years. Moreover, Vladimir Reichlin is also thinking about coming back to work in Russia. He left for Germany 25 years ago and built a plant producing race car engines, and then went on to create a unique certified diesel engine. He certified it based on the European classification. This way we can localize several types of advanced technologies at the same time under one roof.

What do you think about inviting foreign experts to Russia, as was the case with Lada Xray or YotaPhone?

This is nearly the only way out. This practice has been around since Peter the Great. I find it excellent and efficient. We need it badly today. For instance, my friend from Britain Steven Mattin, an automobile designer [Editor’s Note: Mattin is the former chief designer at Mercedes-Benz and Volvo] came to Tolyatti to work for AvtoVAZ. He is most likely going to stay in Russia because, as an expat who was imported from abroad, he has a lot of work here and the conditions are very attractive indeed. Sixteen new Lada models are soon to be released. I must admit these are high-quality vehicles. Today, the Kalina is a fine car that sells at a very affordable price. I am confident that this year will be the year of the Lada and not Mercedes-Benz, for instance. Speaking of which, this work does wonders for his professional portfolio. I am certain he will get a pat on the back from his colleagues and classmates. Reviving a brand offers valuable experience! Ferdinand Piech did pretty much the same thing in his time with Volkswagen – he took 15 platforms and turned them into three: Polo, Golf, and Phaeton. The entire Volkswagen brand, which offers more than 50 chassis, is built on three platforms and this is very handy. Steve Mattin is doing the same thing today at VAZ.

How does he feel culturally, psychologically, and mentally?

He does not find it easy. But it was equally hard for me to live in France given their business ethics, although I did get used to it over time. I came back not because I didn’t feel comfortable – I lived in a very comfortable environment in Nice – I came back to be able to take part in many interesting projects, which we have in abundance. Could my colleagues from Toyota ever brag about building a spaceship? Never! Projects like these can take place in two countries in the world once every 50 years, whereas complex cars are nothing out of the ordinary.

Speaking of your work at Toyota, you said that things did not come easy to you right away and that one wise Japanese colleague explained that you had a European mentality – you thought about the result and not the process. What did he mean by that?

I will use a recent example to illustrate my point. We had two and a half months and we had to build and connect 12,000 unique parts so we could display our garden-variety spaceship (called PTK-NP) at the MAKS 2013 Expo. We assembled it in an integrated fashion in different parts of Moscow and Russia in an incredible rush, which is something we are still recovering from. This was work accomplished to achieve a single result, but this is not the right process per se.


We are competitive in the oil and gas sector. We make good helicopters. What is more, today we started paying a great deal more attention to their design. For instance, K-62 is a military helicopter whereas K-60 has been converted for civilian use. Or take Mi-38, a world-class composite helicopter. Ka-52, aka the Alligator, is a totally unique product

The right process is when you can control all your work stages, from acquiring materials to making the final product. This is precisely what we want to achieve in our center. Considering that we are based at the Moscow Institute of Steel and Alloys, there is a robust foundation we can fall back on; this is where quality begins.

This foundation is unlikely to make up for all the other difficulties of working in Russia. What percentage of your projects get implemented?

Russian corporations can be difficult to cooperate with. We often have to invest a lot of energy, time, and money into the development process, as was the case with KAMAZ. Then all of a sudden when you or the company least expect it, it gets sold to a European holding company and everything you’ve accomplished was in vain. About 15% to 20% of all projects get implemented, which is not bad at all. In Europe, this figure barely reaches 5% to 10%.

What project would you like to implement the most?

A vertical take-off aeromobile, also known as 3D transport. We’ve been working on it for quite some time, and we believe that one day we will manage to make this project a success. We are talking about a five or six-seater vehicle with two engines, 550 BPH each. It should be pretty comfortable; the vertical takeoff capability means that it will not need any additional infrastructure, such as airfields. Moreover, we plan for these crafts to operate on diesel fuel. I think it goes without saying that this would solve the traffic problem, and that is just the start of what these vehicles can do.

Could industrial design possess strictly national traits? Could we identify them in those countries that have yet to present any serious success stories?

Every nation has its own aesthetics. For instance, after the war when Japan became stronger economically, they faced the question: what kind of aesthetics could we present to consumers abroad, especially in the United States? American consumers (as well as others) did not understand the Japanese sense of aesthetics – it was too restricted. So they had to replicate the design of American radio receivers, photo cameras, and other gadgets. They developed this system and simply conquered the market with their cameras, motorcycles, and cars. When they felt they had gained enough traction, it was time to introduce the Japanese character, the so-called ‘J factor.’ Today their cars have their own unique traits. But before you can reach that level, it takes decades of industrial production, the fruits of which are eagerly consumed by other markets.


Design is always a superstructure built above the industry. When you have industry, you have industrial design. We all want flashy labels, but what’s inside is much more important

Does this mean that anybody who offers products on the market today has to adapt to it?

No, it does not. It all depends on whom you are selling these products to. There are highly aesthetic things, such as cars, and there are very basic things, such as axes. The latter may vary. You can find very stylish Swedish axes – they are beautiful to look at from the designer’s point of view – and there are simple ones that are just as efficient but much cheaper.

Speaking about specific Russian traits, we have always been stronger when it comes to basic elements and our ability to simplify them. A very typical case in point: the Americans invented a pen to be able write in space, whereas we used a pencil that works in any environment. Why spend $20 million to invent special pens if you can spend this money on something more useful?

Once you createsomething that’s simple and good, you can make sure that it is used in most of the world. The truth is that people appreciate simplicity, and if you come up with a simple design for a garden-variety oven that consists of three bricks, people in Afghanistan will welcome it. And if we can come up with a solution to produce clean water in China or India, this would translate into a very powerful move on our part.

We are blazing the trail in some industries, such as space, for instance, or nuclear energy, as well as extraction, transportation, and marketing of natural resources. However, when it comes to electronics, we are trailing behind many, and perhaps it makes no sense to try and change the way things are and invest enormous amounts of money and energy into electronics. Perhaps we should think about cleaner water in the world and focus on that?

Take South Korea. Twenty-five years ago, they adopted a plan to gain entry to international markets and ensure leadership in several industries such as automotive and household electronics. And they did it. If a country focuses on one thing, it creates a huge infrastructural demand and anything becomes possible – from railroads and locomotives to services.

Russia offers a very interesting civilizational model. We live halfway between Asia and Europe, and something always falls off the truck on this Eurasian highway. We ended up adopting the samovars from Iran, felt boots and dumplings from China, and ceramics from Holland, which we transformed into Gzhel. For thousands of years, foreigners traveled through our land and left interesting things behind, which were incompatible until we managed to bring them all together. My favorite example – try to order coffee in China. It is virtually impossible. They can bring you 800 types of green tea, but you only get coffee in a select few Western-style hotels. Conversely, try ordering a tea in Italy – they will bring you a tea bag and dump it into lukewarm water because they really do not know how to handle it. We on the other hand can offer a great variety of both, in virtually every segment. We are good at integrating things and that is our know-how. Naturally, culture affects our national habits and everything we do. Because of our vast territories, we operate on a grander scale. If you try putting a Japanese person in a 200 square meter flat, he would basically be lost in there because they are used to making do with three square meters. It does not mean that they are poor; it just means they have a different approach. That is why when we talk about interior design, the Japanese blaze the trail – they manage to use every cubic centimeter to fit in the right box with the right lighting because they are able to exist in small spaces. The Americans, on the other hand, cannot pull it off. Nor can we; we like to spread our wings wide because we have enough space to spread them.

As a result, what does Russia gain and what does it lose in today’s world?

This offers us a possibility to trade resources, which is what we do well. However, because of this, we do not focus on minute details. We could never become like the Germans or the Japanese and they could never become like us. But then again, why should we? We are talking about a different scale. For instance, we designed a spaceship and they launched a new Corolla. It is also good and it probably sells really well, making this project much more lucrative than building a spaceship. The flip side is that we can fly to the moon whereas the Japanese cannot. We are too rich and that is why we are so poor. If we become more economical and calculating, we could get really far.

Are there other examples of cultural integrators apart from Russia?

The Americans. The simplicity of their approach produces beautiful results. When I went to school in America, they gave me an assignment to go and make a disintegrator. Nobody knew what it was supposed to look like. So you have to figure out for yourself this disintegrator’s design. During the next class everyone brings their ‘homework’ to school and a whole show begins. Take for instance the mousetrap race: how can someone make a car out of a trivial device that can drive at a constant speed using just mousetrapping power? Recently I compared two magazines: Tekhnika Molodezhi (Technology for the Youth) and Popular Science, I examined their cover pages, and compared them based on months and years – 1939, 1941, 1946, and so on. It turns out that we tend to ponder things such as reading the human brain, conquering space, or reversing the course of rivers and catching lightning. In other words, we think big; we think about fundamental issues. They think about mobile phones, personal TV sets, inflatable houses, and personal aircrafts – everything personal. This is where they win because deep down people are greedy and they want as much comfort as possible.

I would say we have more soul and they have more money and they are prepared to buy their soul for money whereas we are ready to sell it. But we both think on an equally large scale. This is why in our heads we always compete with America and not with Korea, for instance, even though it is becoming a leading country.

A function of that (one of many) was the fact that packaging, as important as this concept is, has always been far from the first thing on the list, back in the Soviet Union and later in Russia. Do you find anything vital and useful in those times that are long gone, something that we can put to good use today?

The Soviet era gave us the scale of thought. I call it the legacy of the giants. Prior to the USSR, we thought on an entirely different scale, but there we could build a spaceport in just one year. Try to imagine this today. In 1955, a train came to Baikonur carrying two companies of soldiers and an excavator. They finished the job in 1956. This is where the spaceport was brought to life and it is still operational today. Compare it with the ‘Vostochny’ spaceport that has been under construction for the past eight years and is still not finished.

Or take for instance the city of Tolyatti and how it was built. My father went there in 1967, I was born in 1968, and when I turned one we already lived in a brand new apartment with running water, heating, public transport, and other nice amenities nearby. In other words, it took them just a year to build an entire neighborhood with all of the requisite facilities.

Perhaps we paid less attention to the color of our trousers, but people lived in their own apartments. That is why I believe that the USSR left us a very serious legacy. Like I said before, primarily it is all about thinking big. However, unfortunately, today all of our energy is spent on thinking about state-of-the-art window frames, European-style interior design, or an imported car.

There is the opposite school of thought, which is shared by the majority of people who are now in their twenties and thirties. They think approximately along the following lines: everything is connected to everything and had we paid more attention to the color of our trousers, we would have been more cultured, better, smarter, and even more practical. After all, our very perception of design is rooted in those ‘colorless’ times. And today’s decision-makers are the people who grew up in an atmosphere where the appearance of things tended to be neglected.

People who think that way tend to do it online. In order to get online, you need at least a home with a power supply, and to have this home you need the state to give you a flat for free, the same one that your parents were once given and later privatized. All of these things are taken for granted, as a given, as something that does not require any effort. There is a disastrous gap in life perceptions. It takes enormous infrastructure projects to enable someone to live in a heated building with all of these communications so that he or she can think about the nice trousers that can be ordered online using a fiber optic Internet cable. This is a very shallow kind of thinking; it is best reserved for those who think that electricity comes from the power plug.

Design is always a superstructure built above the industry. When you have industry, you have industrial design. We all want flashy labels, but what’s inside is much more important. I agree few of us realize that a label is really necessary and yes, it does need to be flashy. But we are working on it. The Ministry of Industry and Trade is already discussing an entire industrial design and engineering program. Today companies that benefit from state subsidies include industrial design as a separate line item in their budgets.

Our decision-makers started paying more attention to it and realizing its importance because they saw that a simple but necessary product comes out to the market specifically thanks to its design.

Taking into account all of the above, could you identify any areas where Russia is truly competitive today? To what extent would your answer match the existing stereotypes?

We are strong in many areas, but naturally not in all areas – no country in the world is. For instance, how far has Germany advanced in space exploration or nuclear power? Not very far. Whereas its neighbor, France, is very advanced when it comes to space exploration and construction of nuclear power plants, but French cars have a long way to go to catch up with German cars. In the arms sector, they lose to us based on the price-quality ratio. The French have railroads, great planes, and generally, when they say that all there is to France is wine and cheese, they couldn’t be more wrong. But they face different problems. The same can be said with respect to stereotypes about Russia – in some ways they are closer to the truth, and in other ways they are not.

We are competitive in the oil and gas sector. We make good helicopters. What is more, today we started paying a great deal more attention to their design. For instance, K-62 is a military helicopter whereas K-60 has been converted for civilian use. Or take Mi-38, a world-class composite helicopter. Ka-52, aka the Alligator, is a totally unique product!

Russia produces pretty good weapons including sniper rifles such as Orsis, which is one of the best in the world both in terms of its technical properties and design. Speaking of which, YotaPhone is a very decent product both quality- and design-wise. There are many things out there. We should pay more attention to ourselves.

Do you think that YotaPhone will succeed as a commercial product?

I don’t know. We are not really good on the commercial front. Our commerce is often predicated on politics. It is not always that things can make a full circle from A to Z in Russia, get assembled from scratch as it were. But let us go back to the nuclear industry. People know very little about it, they do not consider themselves its direct customers. The entire cycle, from uranium production to servicing ready-made power plants, is where we are the best in the world – and this produces quite a tangible commercial impact. Or take the systemic operation of the International Space Station (ISS), this ultra complex set of equipment in weightlessness. 

I came back to be able to take part in many interesting projects, which we have in abundance. Could my colleagues from Toyota ever brag about building a spaceship? Never! Projects like these can take place in two countries in the world once every 50 years, whereas complex cars are nothing out of the ordinary

Industrial design in Russia is becoming a part of its industrial policy. You often mention target setting at a high level. How well is this process organized?

In my view, our government today has formed a more or less clear picture as to what needs to be done, especially when it comes to developing the industrial base. Naturally, the military-industrial complex will drive this entire process – this has always been the case no matter which regime or government was in power. However, our Defense Procurement and Acquisition program will only run until 2020. What will happen then? What should a plant do after they bought high-quality equipment, launched the production, trained their personnel, and built their operating processes?

This is where we can help enterprises in forming a vision and setting targets. For instance, Uralvagonzavod recently made a fine tram called the R-1. This offers great guidance as to what one can do after making tanks and other military equipment. They can continue to collect their orders until 2020, prepare their platform, and launch production.

We could also work with China on these issues by accepting orders from Shanghai. Or take for instance the Trans-Siberian Railway train cars – they are comfortable with unique interior options. They will certainly pique China’s interest. Why not travel to Moscow or St. Petersburg through Russia in a luxury train? It is beautiful. It is stress-free.

To follow up on the same topic, take Russian Railways. Russia can only be truly seen from a train – neither a plane nor a car offers the same views. Why not come up with a large-scale project to convert our 57,000 whistle-stops into small train stations similar to BP petrol stations with cafés, shops, Wi-Fi, and other amenities? Speaking of China, a delegation of their bridge builders recently came to us. To my surprise, I learned that 75% of all ports in the world are built by a company with a nondescript name: ZHPM, part of ZZZZ holding. They build 35-storey cranes for port robots and specialized ships to deliver them to other countries. Apart from that, they build bridges, gear systems to lift them, and all sorts of other things made of heavy iron. This company is only 20 years old and they have built 2,500 of these cranes. I think we should be friendly with such a serious neighbor and exchange technologies, all the more so because they also need us and find us interesting. The Northern Passage, for instance, is screaming for this kind of cooperation.

You once said that any modernization should make sense and have limits. Where is this limit and how do you define it?

When you have 120 buttons in your car and your steering wheel can warm up your left pinkie finger, this is too much, especially if this car is stuck in an endless, self-contained traffic jam! We should put an end to senseless efforts to improve the things that have already become obsolete and adopt a new way of thinking. For example, we should move away from flat surfaces and into space. The same goes for the roads. Perhaps we should not build any more roads in Moscow, but walk more or start flying instead?

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