From Cubao to Stuttgart

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From Cubao to Stuttgart
Winifredo “Wini” Camacho’s portfolio with Mercedes-Benz include work on the BDNT Denza and the MB G-Code, along with the X-Class pickup concept and C-Class. -- PHOTO COURTESY OF KAP MACEDA AGUILA

By Kap Maceda Aguila

ONE thing’s for sure: The cover of pop princess Taylor Swift’s “1989” album hardly ever appears anywhere as a serious presentation graphic.

And yet there it was in its full glory right behind and above the grinning resource speaker. To be clear, he was referencing the compilation merely for its nomenclature (the year Ms. Swift was born) and not its musical virtues. The year 1989 proved an extremely pivotal point in the life of one Winifredo “Wini” Camacho. It has thus far been a long, event-filled journey taking Mr. Camacho from the Philippines to become the senior exterior designer for premium car maker Mercedes-Benz in Germany.

Speaking at the “Masters of Design Executive Talks” sponsored by First Pacific Leadership Academy and held on Aug. 14 at the Meralco Theater in Pasig City, Mr. Camacho also cited Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book Outliers to help explain how he bucked the odds and landed no less than a dream job. “Outliers are successful people who do things out of the ordinary, and outside of the normal experience,” he explained to the audience largely comprised of college students from various universities. “[Mr. Gladwell] hypothesized that talent and hard work alone are not enough to achieve access. Being born in a particular year, and being in the right place and time are just as important. In this particular sense, I can be considered an outlier.”

Born in 1965, Mr. Camacho’s path to the Stuttgart-based car maker veritably began very early. At age seven or eight, Mr. Camacho was already rendering impressive sketches of airplanes and spaceships, and “occasionally, dream cars… but back then I was more interested in planes than cars.” He averred, “I knew even when I was a little kid that I would be pursuing some kind of design career.”

After completing primary and secondary education at the Victoria School Foundation in Cubao, Quezon City, Mr. Camacho took up Industrial Design at the University of Santo Tomas. He furthered his innate skills there, which culminated in a design for a compact folding bike as his thesis. “It was a challenging and complex project,” he recalled, but he excelled and completed the course cum laude.

Before this, Mr. Camacho had attended a design seminar held at the National Museum during a summer break, and was riveted by the presentation of the guest speaker, “a prominent industrial designer from Germany… who showed images of this remarkable southern city where he was based.” That city, he learned, was Stuttgart. Mr. Camacho, admittedly a “chronic and obsessive dreamer,” then latched on to visions of reaching the capital of southwest Germany’s Baden-Wurttemberg state.

A slew of odd jobs followed his graduation from UST, first with a furniture firm as designer, then a junior industrial designer for a graphic and product design company. Mr. Camacho then tried his luck on starting his own design practice along with two former classmates. Among their clients was Procter & Gamble, for which they designed a packaging for its famous Tide detergent product. On the side, Mr. Camacho “dabbled in product design like a Walkman cassette player… and early attempts at transportation design, such as a reimagination of the Mitsubishi Lancer.

In 1989, the Tiananmen Square protests, which later degenerated into a massacre of democracy seekers, had a chilling effect on many Hong Kong residents. “[It] was still a British protectorate due to be handed back to Chinese rule in 1997. After this incident, thousands of terrified HK residents feared for their future and left the territory,” narrated Mr. Camacho. “It created a void of skilled professionals. Because of this I got an opportunity to work there.”

He described his first place of residence there as a “shoebox,” a 1.5-meter by 3.0-meter windowless room at Causeway Bay. Mr. Camacho nonetheless soldiered on and worked for a merchandising company, then for a toy maker. It was the first time he had a chance to work with a digital modeling software called Alias — designing pre-school toys and remote-controlled vehicles. “I was probably one of the first in Asia to use that,” he said.

Despite the large shadow then of China looming over Hong Kong, Mr. Camacho has fond memories of that time. “Hong Kong is such a dynamic and vibrant place that opened my eyes to endless possibilities of what I can do and what I can be,” he shared.

Following the discovery of an intense passion for car design, Mr. Camacho applied for and was accepted to the prestigious Art Center Europe, located in beautiful Vevey in Vaud, Switzerland. He entered the transportation design program where, among other projects, Mr. Camacho submitted an impressive, modern-day interpretation of the iconic Vespa scooter. His stint in the school would crystallize the designer’s preference for “pure, absolute, and distinctive shapes.”

In 1996, Mr. Camacho moved to the Pasadena, California, campus of the Art Center as the Swiss facility was shuttered due to the lack of funds. Despite initially missing the serenity of Vevey, Mr. Camacho was eventually taken by “the endless sunny days and live-for-the-moment attitude.” In the US, he continued to flex and hone his design muscles at the institution that is the first in the world to offer a course in transportation design and understandably “supplies a sizeable chunk of car designers worldwide.”

Two issues vexed him there, though. First was a lack of funds — which his mother addressed; and the prospect of getting a job after graduation. “During that time, only the top 20–30% of the graduates would get a car design job. There were simply a lot more car design students than available jobs. Competition was really fierce.”

But the stars aligned anew for the self-confessed outlier. “I was one of the lucky few. After interviewing with several companies, my dream finally came true. I got hired by Mercedes-Benz Advanced Design Studio in Irvine, California.” Mr. Camacho said that one of the job clinchers was his proposed design for a Callaway GT race car to run at the historic 24 Hours of Le Mans.

This is the part where things get more familiar. Mr. Camacho cultivated his reputation and renown in the Stuttgart company, and he acquired experience and expertise from postings in Sindelfingen, Germany; Turin, Italy; Yokohama, Japan; and Beijing, China. Now Germany-based again with his wife and daughter, Mr. Camacho’s portfolio with Mercedes-Benz include work on the BDNT Denza and the MB G-Code, along with the X-Class pickup concept and C-Class.

Significantly, he never forgets how lucky he is, where he comes from. “Ako po si (I am) Wini Camacho, and I’m very, very proud to be a Filipino,” he closed, earning enthusiastic applause from the obviously inspired students.