About 20 years ago Richard Sapper visited Dieter Rams. “We were talking about the things that each of us was doing,” says Sapper, “and at a certain moment Dieter said: ‘Well, you are doing many things that are quite closely related to what we do, but yours are much more exciting.’” Sapper, who is 80, leans back in his sofa and smiles.
It is not clear to me that Rams’s compliment was actually a compliment. “Exciting” does not sit comfortably in the Rams rulebook, next to his puritan vocabulary of “less”, “better”, “honest” and “useful”. But Sapper tells me this story in response to a story of my own: it’s a speculative one, and the reason why I decided to come and see him in his Milan apartment.
It goes like this. In the 1970s and ’80s, the soul of product design was in the hands of two Germans. One was a minimalist who reduced products to seductive shells with their features rubbed smooth, and occasionally gave them nicknames like Snow White’s Coffin. The other, far from hiding the technical nature of these products, revelled in it. His designs were black and boxy, they had sophisticated moving parts, and they wore their technicality on their sleeve. I refrain from telling Sapper that I picture one of these characters as design’s Obi-Wan Kenobi and the other as its Darth Vader, because that would be mildly insulting.
It goes without saying that one of those visions was so successful that it became design dogma. Apple’s reprisal of the Rams aesthetic turned Ulm-School minimalism, via Cupertino, into a global design orthodoxy, to the point that Apple’s competitors are reduced to seeing how closely they can mimic its designs without being taken to court. If there was another way, a counter-orthodoxy, might it have been Sapper’s?
Sapper is less priest-like than Rams, he has no ten commandments, there are very few books about his work and he remains low profile. But he has been prolific. In a career that spans six decades, he has designed everything from cars to computers, furniture to televisions and kettles to cheese graters. It is doubtful whether such diversity would even be possible today. He even designed the first completely plastic chair (a children’s chair for Kartell, with Marco Zanuso in 1964). His best-known product, in terms of sheer ubiquity, is probably the IBM ThinkPad laptop, designed in 1995 during his tenure as the computer giant’s chief design consultant, a position he still holds. Among design cognoscenti, however, it may be his radios and televisions for Brionvega, his whistling kettle for Alessi, or, most likely, the Tizio desk lamp for Artemide.
Designed in 1971, the Tizio was the Anglepoise of a more technologically advanced era. Its counterbalanced arms enabled it to bob up and down like an oil drill, only more elegantly. One part scientific instrument and one part executive toy, it was a shortcut to making your office look cutting edge. Such mobile mechanics are a favourite pursuit of Sapper’s. He shows me a coffee machine with moving parts, a folding leather chair for B&B Italia and a series of adjustable arms for computer monitors, which he continues to design for Knoll. “They’re very complex technically. These moving forms interest me because they change form while you move them,” he says, managing to sound both deep and as though he’s stating the obvious.
Unlike Rams, Sapper’s style is harder to pinpoint. However, there is a signature Sapper detail. Though the body is black, the joints on the Tizio are bright red—a touch that runs through several later products, from the red lever of his black office chair to the red mouse button on his black ThinkPad laptop. It is as close to an aesthetic as Sapper gets.
We are sitting under a Tizio as we chat in Sapper’s book-lined apartment, around the corner from the Castello. The lamp’s halogen bulb is buzzing disconcertingly, but I don’t point this out. Dressed in jeans and a denim shirt, Sapper has the physical presence of a large man who has been compacted by the years. He is polite, but not one to lead the conversation. He does not like to interpret his work, and is a firm believer that products speak for themselves. When I ask him what is special about his Sapper TM Chair for Knoll, he replies, “That’s for you to say.” When I ask why his desk is mounted on traffic cones he says, “That’s a joke.”
He does tell stories though.
Story 1. The Sapper TM Chair was born of guilt. It was designed in 1970, around the same time that Sapper was consulting for Fiat. He’d proposed a concept car with plastic bumpers instead of metal ones, and though Fiat didn’t produce the car, it did adopt the plastic bumper on all of its models, which meant that the factory in Turin producing its metal bumpers was going out of business. “I had ruined this factory, so I thought if I can use a similar technology to make the frame of an office chair, I could use that to make my Knoll chair,” says Sapper. This no doubt accounts for the fact that the Sapper TM Chair looks like a car seat. It is undoubtedly a boardroom chair, but it has a boy-racer quality with its gear-stick armrests. That masculinity is present in all of his most distinctive designs.
But what interests me about Sapper is his tendency to design black boxes. In the 1960s, he designed a number of televisions for Brionvega with Marco Zanuso, with whom he collaborated for over a decade. They were compact and beautiful, but in a curvaceous, quintessentially Sixties way. And then, in 1969, they produced the Black 201 TV, also for Brionvega but this time very different. It was a black cube. Your guess would have been that it was a TV, but it dispensed with all the historical styling of televisions to present what was unashamedly a piece of technology rather than a lifestyle object.
This was a far cry from the approachable sexiness of Rams’s appliances for Braun. This was more inscrutable, more mysterious. Coming out one year after Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey, the 201 evokes (intentionally or not) the movie’s famous black monolith. Indeed, it foresees an era when the form of technological devices would reveal nothing about their function, an era when internal mechanisms might as well be magic and thus their shells might as well be devotional objects, an era that culminates in the black monolith of black monoliths, the iPhone 5.
In engineering, the “black box” is a device whose workings are opaque and can only be read in terms of the input and output. It’s not instantly obvious which side of the 201 is the screen, but switch it on and the output is revealed. This mystification is born out in a series of subsequent products. The Heuer Electronic Stopwatch, 1974, is another black box, until you lift the lid to reveal a digital display and three buttons. You might see this as the embryo of what would later become the Leapfrog laptop for IBM, 1989, and then the more famous ThinkPad. All of them were black boxes—clunky (microprocessors not yet being quite so micro) and opaque, until cracked open.
Sapper himself is something of a black box, this time in terms of the flight recorders salvaged from aeroplane crashes: the information has to be coaxed out of him, one story at a time.
Story 2: The Thinkpad’s TrackPoint button is a particular red. “IBM originally wanted it to be black, like the keyboard, but I said no, it has a different function than the keys, so let’s give it a different colour.” He chose the same red as the Tizio joints, but according to German industrial codes that red was reserved for emergency off switches. Sapper ignored that. They exhibited the ThinkPad at a trade fair in Hanover and the police came and confiscated it. He changed the red slightly.
The ThinkPad is now manufactured by the Chinese brand Lenovo, for whom Sapper is also now an adviser, though he continues to consult for IBM on its mainframe computers. His long-standing role at IBM — where he follows in the footsteps of Eliot Noyes and Norman Bel Geddes — suggests he may actually know what’s going on in those black boxes of his. It occurs to me that if IBM had become Apple, then Sapper would have become Rams.
On a cabinet is a photo of Sapper’s father in uniform, during World War I. He was German but born in Guatemala. “Half my family is still in Guatemala,” he says. Tracing Sapper’s career back, he apprenticed under Gio Ponti, and before that began his career at Mercedes, and before that studied philosophy with the religious philosopher Romano Guardini. He tells the story he often tells about how Guardini gave him his blessing to be a designer. “I told him that I was concerned about the beauty of objects. He picked up a little Venini vase and said: ‘Every time that I look at this it gives me joy, so certainly this is a profession that makes sense, because it gives people joy.’”
Beauty is something Sapper keeps coming back to. It surprises me, because the techno-machismo of his black boxes seems to operate on a different plane — it seems to be about more than just taste. In an age of over-consumption, is making things beautiful still enough anymore? “There are so many ugly products that sell wonderfully,” he says. “Most automobiles are horrendous but they get bought nevertheless. Running shoes lately have taken a turn for the better, but two or three years ago they were the quintessence of ugliness!” He’s right, he still has work to do.