German Designers

“You Have to Rely on Your Instinct!” – an Interview with Richard Sapper

Kessel Bollitore, Two Note Whistling Tea Kettle for Alessi, 1984, © Richard Sapper
Espresso Machine 9090, Espresso Machine for Alessi, 1978, © Richard Sapper
Knife Series LA CINTURA DI ORIONE, designed with Alberto Gozzi, for Alessi, 2008, © Richard Sapper
TS-502 Transistor Radio, designed with Marco Zanuso, for Brionvega, 1965, © Richard Sapper
Lamy Dialog 1, for LAMY, 2003, © Richard Sapper
Sandwich Clock for Ritz-Italora, 1971, © Richard Sapper
Microsplit 520, Stopwatch for Heuer, 1976, © Richard Sapper
Car Body Model for Touring (Milan), 1968,  © Richard Sapper
Aida Stacking Chair for Magis, 1999, © Richard Sapper
Tizio for Artemide, 1972, © Richard Sapper
ThinkPad, PS/2N33SX Notebook-Computer, Designed with Kazuhiko Yamazaki, for IBM, 1992, © Richard Sapper
ThinkPad, PS/2N33SX Notebook-Computer, Designed with Kazuhiko Yamazaki, for IBM, 1992, © Richard Sapper
Professor Richard Sapper talking to Stephan Ott, Photo: Lutz Sternstein
He is regarded as a living legend: for some 50 years Richard Sapper has exerted a decisive influence on the world of design – his work is functional, yet often with a special twist. Over a dozen of his designs are on display in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Recently the German Design Council awarded him a lifetime achievement prize for his work in design. Stephan Ott met the free-spirited designer in Berlin.

Dieter Rams once said that your work was not characterised by a uniform product language, but that each product is autonomous. If one were to put five of your designs next to one another, then it would be hard to tell that they are from the same designer. Would you agree with this?

I simply love variety, and one product category soon becomes too restrictive and too one-sided for me. The fact that Dieter Rams spent two-thirds of his life working for Braun – that would have been too boring for me after a few years. I’ve made all sorts of things because that was fun for me. I’m interested in new tasks and with each new product, each new product category you get to know a new technology. You can always transfer this knowledge, over and again, and this I find extremely interesting.

You have worked for many major corporations, not only for IBM, but also for Fiat and Pirelli. If you work as a consultant for these companies aren’t you then obliged to stick to a corporate identity?

No, certainly not! I turned around IBM’s entire product philosophy. It did take me a good ten years, however, until I was actually able to push anything through. And then that was only because at some point IBM was no longer able to explain why they were selling the ThinkPad so successfully. So they commissioned a market analysis. This revealed that a third of the people had bought the Thinkpad because of its design. This was something that had never occurred to IBM.

Only then did they start to take you seriously?

Yes! And I wasn’t really happy about this because the real reason for IBM’s change of attitude was the increase in sales. And this was never my intention. I’ve never gone along with Raymond Loewy’s thesis that “Good design is good business”, for if this were true, then there would be no ugly products, but in fact there’s any number of them – and they even sell well.

A knock-on effect was that you not only designed products for IBM but also worked with them on their corporate design

Yes, from the very beginning that was my job – working with them on their design philosophy. This I did – with the result that all IBM computers are now black. They weren’t that colour before, they were grey until I changed that. I paid no heed to the style of this large company, instead I tried to design it myself – with success. Just as Dieter Rams did at Braun

Let’s now take Apple as a competitor and as an example of success in the field of design. Where do you see the differences to IBM?

I find the direction that Apple took when Steve Jobs returned in the mid-nineties absolutely fascinating. Apple has managed to put into production the same things – in the highest degree of perfection – that I was striving for at IBM. We pursued many such ideas, but even with a device like the ThinkPad, which was designed fairly uncompromisingly, we could never have used a DVI plug like the one a MacBook has. IBM uses a conventional VGA plug, that’s sold because it’s a standard plug and it has to be used because the customers have the matching cables. Apple makes its own cables...

Which, however, often annoys the customers …

And that’s why it would have been an insurmountable hindrance at IBM. But seen from the designer’s point of view it’s wonderful. They make everything just as it suits them, everything exclusive, that is of course ideal. Another example is this edge on the ThinkPad. It is curved at the front because this is more comfortable to handle. At IBM ergonomics is studied meticulously by experts, I’m sure it is at Apple too. But Apple places more importance on things other than comfortable hand positions. MacBooks are really tuned to design and aesthetic quality. There are no compromises there. Whereas at IBM there will always be compromises, whether due to production technology or marketing. At Apple this is all united in one person.

So more like in a small or medium-sized enterprise.

I designed the first digital stopwatches for Heuer years ago. Of course they were a revolution back then. Heuer liked the model that I presented to him personally. When he then showed it to the sales managers, about 25 of whom were present, he suggested that each of them should comment on it as they passed it around. The first one said immediately, “I can’t sell this!”. He explained this by saying that the stopwatch was completely different from the usual devices. All the others at the table agreed with him – I already thought that I had been working in vain for half a year. When the stopwatch finally came back to Jack Heuer, he said “Your comments were all very interesting. We’ll sell this stopwatch nevertheless. YOU will be selling them!” End of discussion.
Six months later, by the way, Heuer was making a third of his turnover with this stopwatch. That means that Heuer and I were right, his sales bosses were wrong.
But I don’t blame the marketing people at all, they’re just not trained for something like this. A designer works in and for the future. An entrepreneur, too, can be expected to have an eye for the future. But marketing and sales people have to concentrate on what they have on the table, they are guided by what they have already sold. Marketing has no basis at all for a new, revolutionary project, there you can’t make a well-founded sales prognosis. You have to rely on pure instinct.

What role do new materials and production technologies play for you as a designer?

They play a very big role – look again at the new MacBook from Apple. Its production technology is absolutely incredible, that’s never been done before, milled from a block of aluminium. And it really does work, it’s just that no-one thought of it because everyone would say at once, “Milling? A piece like that? In series? That’s completely crazy!” In a certain respect it really is completely crazy, but somehow at Apple they managed it to do it for a reasonable price. And the new MacBook doesn’t cost any more than the old one.

Right, there’s no great difference in price.

And it has such an incredible number of advantages, it’s really amazing. Or another example: for me LED development nowadays is utterly fascinating. In 2009 a LED version of the Tizio is being launched on the market. It’s to be called Letitzia. It needs only ten percent of the energy that Tizio needed and it gives more light. In our present energy situation this is an extremely interesting development since over 20 percent of the entire energy is used for lighting. With this technology we will be able to save a significant amount of energy.

You’ve always had an affinity for cars, you’ve worked for Mercedes-Benz, you’ve been a consultant for Fiat and Pirelli. It doesn’t often happen that car designers advance into other fields? Why is this?

When you are in a car factory, then you’re in that organisation, and the work is also very interesting. Most people just stay there. It wasn’t like that with me because after two years as a car designer at Mercedes I realised that I just wasn’t suited to being employed by a big company, even though I really liked the company. I wanted to do what I wanted – without a boss.

That’s a pretty good reason.

So I made a whole series of suggestions to my boss, whom I greatly admired by the way, about what a car should look like in my opinion, and I gave them to him in the form of a brochure. After a fortnight he called me in and said, “I’ve been studying your book for two weeks now, and I find it very interesting, but Mercedes will never build cars like this.” Then I suggested to him that I should go to Italy. I wanted to do my own thing there.

Apart from the fact that life is good in Milan – was there another reason for you to go there?

Absolutely! I went to Milan because of work, and because of work I stayed there. But I can say that my first year in Milan was the happiest of my life. I was thrilled by this different, much more cosmopolitan atmosphere. In comparison Stuttgart was the back of beyond! But, of course, it was also the time, not just the atmosphere. Back then there was the same atmosphere in Milan as there is now in Shanghai. Absolute revolution, economic miracle.

Did your decision to leave Mercedes also have something to do with the fact that as a car designer you only ever design parts of a car?

Of course, but a car designer who designs a detail does so with the vision that at some point he’ll be designing the whole car. And there’s really no reason why this shouldn’t happen. You can always make suggestions, in this respect Mercedes-Benz was an ideal workplace. Years later I was asked if I’d be interested in working as a designer for Ford in Germany. In the run-up there were of course a number of talks, the most revealing of which was in Cologne with the chief engineer for Europe. He asked me how I imagined the ideal car. So I described how, from my point of view, to develop a really good car. The he said, “You know, Ford isn’t interested in building good cars. Ford is interested in making money!” And I thought, “Can’t get much clearer than that!”

And they couldn’t have made the decision any easier for you?

No, that was clearly not the place for me!

Richard Sapper, born in 1932 in Munich, ranks among the most important product designers of the 20th century. He has worked for Mercedes, IBM, Artemide and Alessi i.a.. From 1959 to 1975 he worked together with Marco Zanuso. In 1970 Sapper founded his own design office in Stuttgart, from the mid-eighties he also taught in Yale, Vienna and Stuttgart. Many of his designs have now become classics, such as the halogen lamp Tizio, the whistling kettle Bollitore and the open-out Brionvega radio TS502. Richard Sapper has lived in Milan since 1958.
The interview was conducted by Stephan Ott. He works as a freelance author, journalist and lecturer. Since the beginning of 1999 he has been responsible for the communications of the German Design Council (Rat für Formgebung).

Copyright: Rat für Formgebung/German Design Council
June 2009

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