Visual Culture

What Steve Jobs Learned from the Bauhaus

Abigail Cain
Oct 10, 2017 10:31PM

“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 Bauhaus school had tackled a similar problem. They’d observed the rise of manufacturing in the early 1900s and decided that the resulting mass-produced household goods were artless and soulless. So they intervened, creating furniture, appliances, even textiles that were elegant and eminently functional—and that could also be manufactured en masse.


For the Bauhaus, the lynchpin of the whole endeavor was simplicity. “Less is more,” Bauhaus architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was known to say. This principle extended beyond just the simplicity of form—those clean, geometric shapes and sleek surfaces that their products would become known for—to encompass function. Each item should be immaculately designed to make it easy for the consumer to use.

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.’”

Side view of a G3 equipped Apple iMac, made in 2000. Photo by Thomas Kaiser, via Wikimedia Commons.

e Sony Watchman Handheld Flat Black And White TV, Model FD-20A. Photo by Joe Haupt, via Wikimedia Commons.

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 Herbert Bayer in the 1940s and ’50s, then the last surviving Bauhaus master. Surrounded by buildings, furniture, and sans serif signage tailored to Bauhaus ideals, Jobs was steeped in the legacy of the early 20th-century school.  

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 Marcel Breuer’s iconic Wassily Chair (1925–28), for example, emphasized its high-tech materials—in this case, the hollow steel tubing that Breuer had first noticed used for bicycle frames and handlebars. Rather than disguising or covering up the futuristic aluminum, the designer would ultimately chrome-plate it to make it all the more noticeable.

Years later, when Jobs and influential Apple designer Jonathan Ive were piecing together the first iMac, they decided on a translucent shell that revealed the neatly ordered circuit board inside. “Both metaphorically and in reality, the translucency connected the inner engineering of the computer to the outer design,” wrote Walter Isaacson in his 2011 biography of Jobs. Like a 21st-century Bauhaus, Apple had pulled together various creative professions and united them in a single product.

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.

Abigail Cain