Richard Sapper died on New Year’s Eve. He was one of the world’s most revered product designers, famously refused a job offer from Steve Jobs, and is the reason many designers don’t use mechanical pencils (more later).
Sapper was responsible for the IBM Thinkpad – awarded the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) Design of the Decade Award in 2000. He won Italy’s Compasso D’Oro design award a record ten times, and has nearly as many products in the Museum of Modern Art (NYC) Permanent Design Collection.
Amongst many things, he designed the definitively minimalist Tizio Desk Lamp, a sewing machine for Necchi, the groovy Grillo Folding phone (the first with a flip mouthpiece) and several wonderful products for the great Italian design house Alessi – including the 9090 Espresso Maker, 9091 Whistling Kettle, and Todo Giant Cheese Grater.
Richard Sapper was born in Germany, but preceded George Clooney as a renowned long-time resident on the shores of Lake Como in Italy. It was at this home studio that Sapper designed many of his famed pieces. Frequently between dips in the lake, and the occasional sip of his beloved Cynar liqueur.
And it was a reluctance to leave Europe for California that saw Sapper saying “thanks but no thanks” to a young Steve Jobs when offered a design position at Apple. When asked by Dezeen Online in 2013 whether he regretted his decision, he famously replied “Sure I regret it – the man who then did it (Briton, Jonathon Ive) makes $30 million a year”.
Sapper’s greatness was his ability to be adaptable. He didn’t search for a signature style – it was about the product. Never-the-less, a sense for motion is common to many of Richard Sapper’s creations.
He was an ardent sailor, skier, hang glider, and wind surfer. He once said “I am interested in things that move and change character”. He described his Thinkpad in kinetic terms – he wanted it to open and reveal its contents like a cigar box.
The Good Store stocks three classic Sapper designs for Alessi. Two are guided by his interest in motion. The third was inspired by his large stature.
Sapper’s 9091 Whistling Kettle uses steam to mimic the sounds of the Rhine river boats of his childhood. The kettle even comes with spare pitch pipes.
The 9090 Espresso Coffee Maker was Alessi’s first product to enter the Permanent Collection of MoMa NYC. It’s sold over two million units and Sapper credited its design inspiration to the steam engine.
The Giant Todo Cheese Grater was created for personal reasons – Richard Sapper was a big man annoyed by small fiddly graters. He solved his problem by creating a beautiful BIG statement object: https://www.thegoodstore.com.au/product/alessi-todo-cheese-grater/
Mr Sapper leaves behind an enormous list of beautifully designed products. And countless people who he personally touched beyond his design community and within it.
He taught at Yale and many other universities, but is fondly and famously remembered for his long stint at IBM, where he was Senior Design Consultant.
Sapper would fly into IBM headquarters for ‘Sapperfests’. Former colleague, now Lenovo chief, David Hill recalls twenty four hour brainstorming sessions of energy, enthusiasm, and goodwill.
At one ‘Sapperfest’ that there was an infamous goodwill lapse. The great designer asked for a pencil. An unfortunate junior designer handed him a mechanical pencil – one of Richard Sapper’s pet hates because he thought they were too complicated. “This is not a pencil”, Sapper said. “A pencil is made of wood”.
With Richard Sapper’s passing, we’re left with an image of product designers around the world being inspired by his work, whilst sketching away with ‘wooden pencils’ in his honour.
For the rest of us, we can use and gain enjoyment from the products he leaves behind, and (if we can find some) raise a glass of Cynar to his memory.