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The untold origins of Apple’s groundbreaking design

It all goes back to a food processor.

The untold origins of Apple’s groundbreaking design
[Photos: kmn-network/iStock, alexey_boldin/iStock]

Steve Jobs had started out more as a geek who liked mechanics than as a design aficionado. He was the sort of pale, indoors boy who spends hours tinkering with his ham radio when most guys his age are playing outside. Apple I was born in the Jobs family’s garage; Steve stored parts throughout the house. The device he put together consisted of a computer board, a keyboard, and a power supply. There was neither a monitor nor a case. One of many new information devices being developed at the time, it sold, but only to people who were already experts in that sort of gadgetry. The purchasers were knowledgeable hobbyists who understood how to make it run.

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[Image: courtesy Alfred A. Knopf]
Jobs soon realized that personal computers should be single objects in handsome cases, with built-in keyboards. And they should appeal aesthetically. His partner in developing the new tool, Ron Wayne, designed one. It had a Plexiglas cover that sat perched over its gray metal body. Jobs did not like it, although he did not know why. He had no clear vision of what he wanted, but this was not it. Jobs’s insistence in rejecting new names, new approaches, and new designs was almost as vital to him as his capacity to try the unprecedented. And when he dismissed something, there was no point in arguing.

That absolute conviction about distastes, and the resolve to stick to your guns after you said no to the second-rate, had been essential at the Bauhaus, which Jobs loved. Discernment was as vital as the will to develop new, out-of-the-box possibilities.

The goal at the Bauhaus was to make the implements of everyday life not just more effective but also handsome in an unassuming way. They should facilitate human usage naturally while being clean to look at. That purpose meant that what seemed deceptively ordinary could be a source of inspiration. This was rare in a world where most people wanted their designs either fancy and expensive-looking or seemingly original.

Novelty and pretension sold best, but what counted more at the Bauhaus was an appreciation of what was basic and inexpensive.

Steve Jobs took that cue. One day when he was studying kitchen appliances at Macy’s, he saw a Cuisinart. Its molded plastic case was gold to him. The sanitary white of sterile hospital equipment, those food processors for everyday use are made in the hue that creates a neutral setting for action. The color does not intrude or impose. The glistening plastic evokes faith and possibilities. The overall appearance functions like the starting line of a race.

Jobs quickly had a computer case designed that was similar to that of the Cuisinart. Its form served its purpose. The durable white plastic imparted a feeling of ease.

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Jobs also cleaned up the circuit board inside the case. Fastidiousness as well as a drive for clarity were further links between him and the Bauhaus Masters—as the school’s teachers were called—although they would have found the way Jobs dressed intolerable. The Bauhaus did not do goofy. or slovenly. But the people who developed and perpetuated the standards of the Bauhaus would have embraced Jobs’s goals for pleasing, user-friendly objects.

A 1984 Apple Macintosh and a Cuisinart (model ca. 1978). [Photos: Apic/Getty Images, National Museum of American History/Smithsonian Image Library]

That the Cuisinart was the parent of the Apple II Computer positions the iPhone in the subsequent generation of the family tree of direct descendants from the Bauhaus. The Cuisinart is a multitask food processor that was created by Carl Sontheimer, an American who was raised in France in the 1920s. Sontheimer had left the United States as a baby but had returned to study engineering at MIT. He developed not only this kitchen appliance that has become a staple of American households, but also invented a direction finder, dependent on microwaves, that enabled NASA to land a satellite on the moon.

Sontheimer acquired substantial wealth through the electronics companies that produced these two items. Still, the Cuisinart, unlike the direction finder for space vehicles, was an adaptation, not an original creation. What Sontheimer put on the market in America in 1973 was essentially derivative of the Robot-Coupe, a higher-priced machine invented by a Frenchman, Pierre Verdon.

With its name conjuring a robot able to cut and chop, the Robot-Coupe, which is still made today, is a heavier, more expensive version of the device, industrial in strength, mainly used in restaurant kitchens. The Cuisinart’s success is the result of its being sufficiently low-priced, and produced in such quantity, that many households all over America can afford to have one in their kitchens. It and its vast range of clones realize the Bauhaus ideal of good design for everyone. To be useful to gourmet chefs with company money to spend was an achievement, but to lighten the burdens of life for your median-level home- maker was a triumph.

The Robot-Coupe, meanwhile, was itself a form of clone. Just after World War II, the German company Electrostar had created Starmix, a kitchen device that not only chopped and blended and grated, but also had attachments for making ice cream and slicing bread. Its motor could even be used to drive a vacuum cleaner. The developer of the Starmix was Albrecht Graf von Schlitz genannt von Goertz von Wrisberg. This nobleman, born in Lower Saxony, developed his approach to design under the influence of the neighboring Bauhaus. Like so many Bauhaus people, in spite of his more than acceptable background, he left Germany in the mid-1930s and went to the United States. Hav- ing no money, and now simply Albrecht Goertz, he first worked washing cars—his obsession. In 1938, he rented a garage near Los Angeles and began rebuilding cars while modifying their designs. His two-door coupe, the “Paragon,” was shown at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.

Goertz served in the U.S. Army during World War II. When the war ended, he met the designer/architect Raymond Loewy. Loewy, who had created the Studebaker, admired the sporty Paragon Goertz drove. In little time, Goertz designed his own Studebaker, a BMW sports car, and the Starmix.

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When Steve Jobs took his inspiration from the Cuisinart he saw at Macy’s, he effectively started a new generation of the family of industrial designers formed by the Bauhaus.

Jobs’s inspiration in the appliance section of a department store was in the spirit of Marcel Breuer determining an essential component of his furniture by studying bicycles. Breuer recognized in the hollow chrome tubing of bicycle handlebars the ideal material for the framework of his armchairs. The Bauhaus designer Anni Albers found the right drinking glasses to use at her and her husband Josef Albers’s first home, at the Dessau Bauhaus—having failed in every level of emporium for tableware, high and low—when she finally satisfied her insistence on clear, graceful no-nonsense design by inadvertently discovering the glass beakers used in chemistry labs.

In Connecticut, half a century later, Anni battled similarly to obtain a simple lighting fixture to mount over the staircase of her and Josef’s raised ranch house. She ended up adapting one meant for outdoor use. Spotting her quarry within it, she removed the garland of metal flowers encasing the plain glass cylinder the decoration was intended to conceal. Usually frugal, for once Anni happily made an exception by spending too much only to throw out the parts of the fixture that had driven up the cost.

In the kitchen, Anni Albers used a three-tier white metal rolling tray made for use in a hospital. Anything intended “for home use” was “too designed.” Her bedside table was a typewriter stand. By most standards, this brown metal object was ugly and somehow unfriendly looking. But it suited Anni because you could adjust the height and it had sufficient surface space for her small Sony television as well as the telephone, box of Kleenex, writing implements, and sketchbook she wanted in easy reach at all times. Where other people would have had chests of drawers in their bedroom, Anni had office storage cabinets faced in brown Formica.

When they first moved to New Haven, the Alberses had old car seats, removed from a wreck, as their living-room sofas. This was the same offbeat approach that guided Steve Jobs when he was considering the design of a high-tech instrument. You needed to be willing to look in one domain for inspiration in another. You had to forget tradition, even affront it. What counted was both efficiency and the capacity to please the user.


Nicholas Fox Weber has been the executive director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation for four decades. He is a graduate of Columbia College and received his MA from Yale University. He is the author of many articles, essays, and widely acclaimed books including Balthus: A Biography and Patron Saints. This article was excerpted from IBAUHAUS: The iPhone as the Embodiment of Bauhaus Ideals and Design by Nicholas Fox Weber. Copyright © 2020 by Nicholas Fox Weber. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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