"Steve Jobs once wanted to hire me"
- Richard Sapper

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Interview: German industrial designer Richard Sapper has launched a new website chronicling his work dating back to the 1950s. In an interview looking back on his career he tells Dezeen how he turned down the chance to work at Apple, how design has been "degraded" by commercialism and how 3D printing could help solve unemployment (+ slideshow).

Richard Sapper

Speaking from his home in Milan, Sapper, 81, recounts how Steve Jobs once tried to lure him to work for Apple, "but the circumstances weren't right because I didn't want to move to California and I had very interesting work here that I didn't want to abandon."

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Tizio desk lamp, Artemide, 1972: photograph by Serge Libiszewski

When asked if he regretted turning Jobs down he said: "Sure I regret it – the man who then did it [Jonathan Ive] makes $30 million a year!"

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TS 502 radio, Brionvega, 1963: photograph by Serge Libiszewski

In a career spanning almost 60 years, Sapper has designed iconic products including the Tizio lamp, the ThinkPad range of laptops for IBM and the 9091 whistling kettle for Alessi.

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Grillo Telephone, Siemens Italtel, 1965: photograph by Roberto Zabban

Sapper says that he admires the work of Jonathan Ive and Steve Jobs at Apple, citing the company as an exception in an industry he feels has been "degraded" by an overriding focus on profit. "If a company asks me to design something, the first thing I hear is how much money they're making, how much money they want to make, and I'm expected to produce the difference."

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9090 espresso coffee maker, Alessi, 1978: photograph by Aldo Ballo

Richard Sapper was born in 1932 and was first employed as a stylist with Daimler Benz in Stuttgart. He founded his own studio in Milan in 1959 and worked as a consultant for many of Italy's leading companies, including BrionvegaFiat and Pirelli.

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ThinkPad 701, IBM, 1996: photograph by Aldo Ballo

He is renowned for his work with technology brands, including IBM, for whom he has been chief industrial design consultant since 1980.

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Algol portable TV set 3rd edition (first designed with Marco Zanuso), Brionvega, 1985: photograph by Aldo Ballo

When asked about 3D printing and its impact on the design industry, Sapper describes it as "a huge revolution," and adds, "it is revolution that allows anyone who has such a machine the possibility to produce something that they have invented themselves. This can help to reduce the problem of unemployment because people are able to produce something without having to be employed."

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9091 kettle, Alessi, 1983: photograph by Aldo Ballo

Sapper's 9091 whistling kettle for Alessi is one of several iconic kettles described by Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic in a film made by Dezeen for the Design Museum Collection App for iPad.

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Sapperchair executive office chairs and seating system, Knoll, 1979: photograph by Aldo Ballo

Other clients include Alessi, ArtemideKartellKnollLenovo and Magis.

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Zoombike folding bicycle, Elettromontaggi, 2000: photograph by Luciano Soave

Despite his prodigious career, Sapper says he launched a new website, designed by London studio Julia, because "I've been working in design for over 50 years and most people still don't know my work."

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Sapper XYZ monitor arm system, Knoll, 2012: photograph by Jens Mortensen for Knoll

Here's a transcript of Richard Sapper talking with Alyn Griffiths from Dezeen:


Alyn Griffiths: Your website documents a career going back all the way to the 1950s. How has design changed in that time?

Richard Sapper: There have been enormous changes. When I was young and starting out, industrial designers all worked for somebody who owned a company. Some of those company owners wanted to make good-looking things because there is pleasure associated with good forms. In many ways these people were idealists. They didn't make more money because they made a beautiful design. Today, it seems to me that money is the only reason to make design.

If a company asks me to design something, the first thing I hear is how much money they're making, how much money they want to make, and I'm expected to produce the difference. It is a completely different relationship and it isn't as much fun to work in such a relationship. From that point of view, my profession has degraded.

Alyn Griffiths: So do you think there are too many products and too many designers today?

Richard Sapper: There are certainly too many products and too many designers, and the idea behind design has changed. Today it's all [about] money. Back then it was just an interest in producing something beautiful. And this is very similar to the interest a designer has in making a design. They want to do something beautiful. If you find a manufacturer who has the same interests then it is easy to work together. Today, most of my clients are so big that there is no one person who is responsible for the appearance of the product.

Apple has been a real exception because it was a company that, up until last year, still worked as my old clients used to work. They would come and see what I do, they would tell me their opinions and it was just [Steve] Jobs who did that. He absolutely wanted to make beautiful products.

"Steve Jobs once wanted to hire me" - Richard Sapper
Richard Sapper's new website

Alyn Griffiths: You never worked for Apple did you?

Richard Sapper: Jobs once wanted to hire me to do the design of Apple [computers] but the circumstances weren't right because I didn't want to move to California and I had very interesting work here that I didn't want to abandon. Also, at that time Apple was not a great company, it was just a small computer company. They were doing interesting things so I was very interested, of course, but I had an exclusivity contract with IBM.

Alyn Griffiths: Do you regret it at all?

Richard Sapper: Sure I regret it – the man who then did it makes $30 million a year! [Laughs] so how can you not regret it?

Alyn Griffiths: How have technologies like 3D printing changed the processes of designing and manufacturing?

Richard Sapper: 3D printing is changing not only the way design is made – that has already happened – but it is also changing the way things are produced. In a few years, many things that are now produced in big factories will just be done at home.

Alyn Griffiths: Do you think that's a good thing?

Richard Sapper: Yes, I think so. It's a huge revolution, and it is revolution that allows anyone who has such a machine the possibility to produce something that they have invented themselves. This can help to reduce the problem of unemployment because people are able to produce something without having to be employed.

"Steve Jobs once wanted to hire me" - Richard Sapper
Richard Sapper's new website

Alyn Griffiths: Do you not worry that the quality of design will deteriorate?

Richard Sapper: I think it has already deteriorated! [Laughs] I'm always asked, 'Was there more good design when you were young, or is there more good design design now?' My answer is that there is more good design now, but really good design was rare when I started and is still rare now.

Alyn Griffiths: Are there any designers working today who you admire?

Richard Sapper: Of course, I admire Jonathan Ive's work very much. But you mustn't forget the contribution of Steve Jobs because they worked so closely together.

Alyn Griffiths: What makes a good design for you?

Richard Sapper: It has to transmit a message to whomever is looking at it, or who has it in their hand. What message is another question, but it has to tell them something.

Alyn Griffiths: What you are currently working on?

I'm currently working on several things; one is an LED ceiling lamp to illuminate a whole room, I'm working on a system to support computer monitors for Knoll, which is a big project that I have been working on for five years. I'm also working on computers for Lenovo and I'm a consultant for IBM, so I have stuff to do!

  • Sapper is up there with the greats.

    • mike

      Truly a legend in HIS own mind…

    • Francesca

      Love Sapper’s work. One of the best and greatest industrial designers ever!

  • Andy

    My grandfather had a Tizio lamp on his desk, and now I do too. It’s a constant source of inspiration for me.

  • Herve

    I worked for IBM, I appreciate some of what Sapper designed, but I disagree with most of what he says. Sapper has an ego bigger than the company size he was a consultant for (and sometime for good reasons) but he designed the ThinkPad like all the products he worked on, I mean based on the value he had of himself, not with users in mind.

    I am not surprised by what he says, and I think these types of designers were mostly serving their ego, not the company they were working for. The whole article is about how great he thinks he is/was… an artist. I even wonder if Steve Jobs ever talked to him. Am a bit cynical but I don’t buy this story. Apologies to the fans.

    • joshua shapiro

      I worked with Sapper at IBM. He loved cubes – that was his thing. Manufacturability, reliability, or ease of use was not in his vocabulary.

      • Bee

        I worked with Sapper at IBM too. Manufacturability is all he cares about! Otherwise how would some of his products be still in production after decades? And reliability in the case of IBM is in the hands of the engineers, not of the designers. As for cubes, have you ever even looked at his work? There is only one cube-type design, a TV he designed in the 70s. Funny how all these people claim to have worked with Sapper and make clueless comments.

  • BillyH

    Massive Sapper fan. Love his body of work. But: “Today, it seems to me that money is the only reason to make design.” Really? Do I need to post industrial designer salaries?

    There is just as much passion in designers today. Probably a lot more given there is even more of us fighting for design roles. It is a shame that we don’t have the same freedom of form exploration these day. Sapper comes from the golden age of design.

  • south

    I often wonder if any designer who’s produced a bicycle design has ever actually ridden a bicycle. Anyone riding something with a wheel diameter under 10 inches in an urban environment knows you’ll inevitably faceplant into the pavement as your vehicle fails to clear a curb, pothole or larger-than-average footpath crack.

  • David

    The bicycle has small wheels because it folds for both short urban transport and ultimate portability. His dream was to be able to carry the bike with you on a bus, train or taxi in the same way you might carry an umbrella. Sapper never intended the bike to be ridden in the Tour de France.

    • south

      Yes, that’s why I specifically included the words “curb”, “footpath” and “urban environment”. You know, like the average commuter would use it.

      I could design a grand piano that fits into a briefcase too, but if it’s no use as a grand piano then it’s a failed design.

  • joanna

    Does anyone else sense a bit of hypocrisy when Sapper condemns the design culture’s interest in capitalism while he regrets not making £30 million?

    • http://www.mutarq.com Miguel Angel Jimenez

      Yes I do. There was somehting wrong in the whole “speech” that it kept bothering the whole weekend. Now I realise why.

  • Fritzi

    I believe I understand what Sapper means and I agree with him. He began his career in a post-war era where companies were mostly led by individuals that showed great interest in developing new products that would provide value, in terms of durability, and “joy”, in terms of design, to the consumer, that were able to improve the lifestyle of the consumer.

    In the post-war society the general aim was to rebuild a “new and better world”. Many of the heads of these companies showed pride for their products, and if they recognised value and beauty, they were willing to take the risk to produce something completely new and unproven, even if this meant defying the feedback from so-called marketing quarters.

    In these days there was less pressure on short-term success. There are plenty of examples of products that initially did not sell very well (but kept being produced nevertheless because the “chiefs” liked them – very rare nowadays) and ended up demonstrating a timeless quality to the point that some are being made to this day.

    This allowed for some unforgettable designs to be created that we are still able to use and enjoy, such as the products designed by Eames, Saarinen, Castiglioni, Rams, Sapper, etc.

    Nowadays, in a society dominated by consumerism, manufacturing is dominated by large, publicly traded corporations focused on short-term profitability and gain, often at the expense of long-term product quality and durability. This is to be noticed in many other disciplines as well, be it film, music, etc, where the focus is placed on immediate success, on “blockbusters”. Enthusiasm for good designs has been somewhat lost at the corporate level. Of course there are exceptions, such as Steve Jobs’ approach at Apple, as cited by Sapper.

    This has nothing to do with the passion or quality of designers themselves or their salaries. Sapper merely seems to lament a change in attitude towards design within some of the corporate world and the loss of times gone by. Those of us old enough to remember do too.

  • stephen

    I was lucky enough to work with Richard on a few occasions – one of the greatest designers and a truly wonderful person! I will be forever grateful for all I learned from him.