What Steve Jobs Learned from the Bauhaus
“If you’ve looked at computers, they look like garbage,” Steve Jobs said to the crowd assembled in Aspen, Colorado, for the 1983 International Design Conference. Apple was going to sell three million computers that year, he continued, and by 1986 they were going to sell 10 million—“whether they look like a piece of shit or they look great.”
But Jobs was gunning for the latter. “This new object,” he said, “it’s going to be in everyone’s working environment and it’s going to be in everyone’s educational environment. It’s going to be in everyone’s home environment, and we have a shot at putting a great object there.”
Some eight decades earlier, in Germany, the artists, designers, and craftspeople associated with the
For the Bauhaus, the lynchpin of the whole endeavor was simplicity. “Less is more,” Bauhaus architect
That, says Cooper Hewitt assistant curator Emily Orr, is the guiding doctrine bridging these two giants of design. “There’s this idea, in the Bauhaus and in Apple products, of bringing order to something very complex,” she said. “Our iPhones can do anything and everything these days. How do you distill that very complex function down to something that appears simple and user-friendly?”
Jobs hadn’t always been on board with the maxims of the 1920s German design school. Apple’s first official offices (after the team vacated the Jobs family garage) shared a building with a Sony sales office. Jobs was fascinated by the look of Sony products, often hanging around and thumbing through the brochures. In the 1970s, Sony was one of the only brands to have a distinctive industrial design look. “Everything was kind of chunky and bulky and very masculine,” Orr noted of Sony’s aesthetic. “The object really screams, ‘This is a piece of consumer electronics.’”
But by 1981, when Jobs attended his first conference at the Aspen Institute, his interest in this heavy industrial look was already beginning to fade. The institute’s Colorado campus had been designed by Austrian artist and architect
Two years later, Jobs elucidated Apple’s Bauhaus-infused principles. “The way we’re running the company, the product design, the advertising, it all comes down to this: Let’s make it simple. Really simple.” He emphasized the distinction between Apple’s computers and other leading competitors. “We will make them bright and pure and honest about being high-tech, rather than a heavy industrial look of black, black, black like Sony.”
Staying true to materials was another hallmark of the Bauhaus. Hungarian-American designer
Years later, when Jobs and influential Apple designer
Jobs was also obsessed with typography. Bayer, the man behind the Aspen Institute, had himself designed the classic Bauhaus font that was used on its promotional materials. It was sans-serif, minimal and modern. And it came to define the movement, much the same way that certain fonts came to brand Apple. “Whether it’s on the device or on the home screen or on the packaging, all of Apple’s branding is consistent and recognizable through this use of typography,” says Orr.
But typography is just one component of a broader belief in “total design,” says Orr, that links Apple and the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus believed that all creative fields, whether architecture or graphic design or painting, should come together in a gesamtkunstwerk—a total work of art. For Apple, too, “it’s not just about the product,” Orr said. “It’s about the packaging and it’s about the counter on which that packaging sits, and it’s about the environment that houses those shelves and the location of that store.”
“We’re really shooting for Museum of Modern Art quality,” Steve Jobs once said of his team at Apple. They succeeded, quite literally. Ten Apple products now reside in the MoMA’s permanent design collection, including the first-generation iPod and the iMac. They’re all sleek lines, light colors, beveled edges, and geometric forms—a look they owe, in part, to the long-lasting influence of the Bauhaus.