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August 12, 2012 By admin

Before Apple: A look back at simplicity in modern design

In a rare interview in June, Jonathan Ive, Apple’s chief designer, defined simplicity as more than just the lack of clutter. According to Sir Jonathan—who since 1998 has led teams at Apple to develop the iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad—simplicity is about distilling something to its essence. Great effort and expense go into making each design feel perfectly “inevitable.”

However, just as there was friendship before Facebook, there was simplicity before Apple. Think of traditional Japanese architecture or Shaker carpentry: Spare elegance, rigorous detailing, and the tight coherence of parts into a whole. The pursuit of simplicity is an ongoing struggle and debate. How do appearances relate to function? Does simplicity encompass the manufacturing process, the user experience, or both? Should simplicity be comfortable? Different responses to these questions have taken the form of memorable product designs. Let’s do a fast-rewind through just a few of these designs to put Apple in context.


If any single figure could be called a direct predecessor to Ive, it would be Dieter Rams, the German product designer whom Ive has acknowledged as an inspiration. Like Ive, Rams made his mark from within a large company, Braun. He stressed the importance of team collaboration. Rams summarized his design philosophy as, “Less, but better,” suggesting that simplicity is about performance as well as restraint. For Rams, a successful product design is so effortless and natural that it almost disappears. Rather than call attention to itself, it is totally neutral and recedes into the fabric of everyday life (whether neutrality is possible is another interesting question). Between 1955 and 1995 Rams designed radios, record players, shelving systems, juicers, and many other things that became household standards. Some of them, like the 1960 LE1 speakers and the 1958 T3 portable radio, have obviously been studied closely by Ive and his colleagues.


The 1981 Sony Walkman II was a masterpiece of its day. Just barely larger than a cassette tape, the sleek metallic box was powered by batteries concealed inside the tape deck. It was a big deal to have the tape heads in the lid rather than the main body, and the buttons on the front instead of the side of the device. The ancestor of the Walkman II was the 1969 Sony TC-50, a portable cassette recorder with built-in microphone used by astronauts on the Apollo 7 mission. Its milled aluminium body was almost as slick as that of today’s Apple computers. Sony’s first commercially successful product in America, the TR-610 transistor radio of 1958, was the must-have device for the pop generation. Its full-width circular speaker—like an abstract open mouth—stands ready to sing or talk. Proportioned like an iPod, the TR-610 came in four colors, fit neatly inside a shirt pocket, and could stand on its own. Although the shiny gold ring might seem very un-minimal, the ring actually conceals the joint between the aluminium speaker grille and the plastic body, creating a more seamless look.


Building upon the postwar genius of the American Eames couple, the design scene in Italy (particularly Milan) exploded in the 1960s. Pier and Achille Castiglione, Joe Colombo, Carlo Mollino, and Ettore Sottsass revolutionized daily life with their fun and ingenious products. Lamps, cars, silverware, chairs, ice buckets, buildings, and city plans—everything was seen as design. One of the most iconic designs to emerge from this scene was the 1969 Olivetti “Valentino” typewriter designed by Sottsass. Its eye-popping red plastic body fit snugly into a portable red case the size of a briefcase. Why not bring it aboard an Alitalia Caravelle jet on a short hop from Malpensa to Fiumicino while smoking a Sigaro Toscano? A more ambitious but less successful design was Colombo’s “total living unit” of 1971, combining architecture and product design into a flexible whole.


The term ‘minimalist’ comes from the art tendency of the 1960s known as “Minimal” or “Literal.” A visit to Donald Judd’s loft in SoHo is sufficient to convince you that industrial materials and basic forms can be worked to a state of silent opulence. The work of Judd, Robert Irwin, Carl Andre, Tony Smith, and Richard Serra, to name a few, is marked by both factory-made precision and a primal sensuality that suggests touching and interaction. The strong physical presence and materiality of minimal art defies the screen-based nature of today’s digital devices. But Ive et al could still take inspiration from the concealed complexity of minimal art. What appears most simple turns out to be the most difficult to manufacture, and the most subtle to contemplate.


In the early twentieth century, European avant-garde equated excessive embellishment with moral degradation. Their answer? “Maximum effect with minimum expenditure of means," according to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the architect who is also associated with the phrase, “Less is More.” At the Bauhaus design school in Germany, the zeal for blending art with industry was as spiritual as it was practical. Marcel Breuer’s Club (Wassily) Chair of 1928 was the next best thing to a cradle of air. Its shape recalled the heavy club chairs of old, but its tubular steel frame (like bicycle handlebars) and stretched canvas seat gave it a floating, mobile aspect. The 1930 armchair by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto also separated the structural frame from the floating seat, but it rejected Breuer’s “cold” steel in favor of “warm” birch and bent plywood.

What other designs embody the pleasures of high-performance simplicity?


Words by Gideon Fink Shapiro