To get to Richard Sapper's studio in central Milan, you have to take a creaking, 100-year-old elevator to the fourth floor of the apartment building where he and his wife have lived for decades. The elevator has the original dark wood paneling, and the ancient gears and pulleys hoist it upward at a glacial pace. So the feeling on approaching Sapper's lair is that you're traveling back in time. But Sapper, a pioneer of industrial design who got his start at Daimler-Benz in the mid-1950s, is not stuck in the past. Even at 75, he is still experimenting.
A German who adopted the world's fashion capital as his home, Sapper designs singular products that people keep for years and companies sell for decades—for example, the ThinkPad laptop for IBM (IBM) (Lenovo now owns the ThinkPad brand) or the Tizio Lamp for Italy's Artemide. A Sapper design often combines advanced technology, simplicity of form, and surprise. "The most important thing for me is to give everything I do a form that expresses something," he says. "It's not neutral. It has a point of view and a personality."
Which, to some, can be a problem. Corporations have awoken to the importance of industrial design to their marketplace performance, yet there's a heated debate over what's the best approach. On one side are the iconic designers, whether old like Sapper or young like Yves Béhar of San Francisco's Fuseproject, known for Birkenstock's trendy Footprints line. They create products the way painters create art—using their individual taste, skill, and intuition. Apple Inc.'s (AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs and chief designer Jon Ive belong to this camp. The alternative tack, represented by firms such as Boston's Continuum and Silicon Valley's IDEO, is all about using teams of designers, engineers, business strategists, ethnographers, and human factors specialists to produce more predictable sales results.
Each side has its proponents. "We need breakthroughs. They don't come from an experimental process. They come from the mind of a great designer," says Don Norman, professor at Northwestern University and author of the book The Design of Future Things. Gianfranco Zaccai, Continuum's president, fires back: "Real design is seldom done by one person, but rather it is best done by a group of people, with different skills and sensibilities, working together." Continuum boasts a long list of clients including American Express (AXP),American Greetings (AM), and Procter & Gamble (PG).
The fate of one of Sapper's most recent projects shows the risks a company takes when it relies too much on bold design to win in the marketplace. The Halley lamp, which Sapper created in 2005 for Lucesco, won awards but sold poorly. The lamp has a distinctive look, with long, graceful spindles and a fan-cooled light that looks a bit like a small aircraft. The Halley was too expensive to build, however, and there simply wasn't enough demand for lamps that cost $510 to $640. Lucesco co-founder Curtis Abbott doesn't blame Sapper. "Going for an iconic designer and for Richard was not a mistake," says Abbott. "Our mistake was we didn't have the market research to help us understand the sales potential for this product."
Sapper has plenty of satisfied customers. Over a career spanning 50 years, he has designed more than 200 products—everything from the rearview mirror on the 1956 Mercedes 300SL Roadster to the 1998 Zoombike foldable bicycle for Elettromontaggi. "I think that I have proved through my work that you do not need big teams to create innovation. As a matter of fact, big teams often act as brakes to innovation," he says. "However, you need big teams to translate innovative ideas into mass-produced products."
As you might expect, Sapper often works alone.
A small studio in his apartment overlooks Milan's sprawling, tree-dotted Parco Sempione plaza. There, he sits at a large table lit by lamps of his own design and cluttered with models, drawings, and notes to himself. At a meeting last fall, he wore his usual uniform of denim shirt and jeans and spoke in careful English. From time to time, he jumped up to grab an item off a shelf, or, in one case, to roll a Zoombike into the room to show how it folds up like an umbrella.
Sapper is something of a Renaissance Man. He grew up in Munich and Stuttgart and studied engineering, philosophy, and economics before shifting to design. There's a twinkle in his eye as he describes his first job at Daimler. "I made a whole series of proposals about how Mercedes should change the way it designs cars," he recalls. "I gave it to my boss. After two weeks he called me and said: Your proposals are very interesting, but naturally, Mercedes will never make cars like this.'"
Sapper decided on the spot that he didn't want to work in a large bureaucracy. He quit and moved to Milan. Over the next 18 years, he worked with famed architect and designer Marco Zanuso on a series of products, including the Grillo phone for Siemens (SI) in 1965, which presaged the clamshell design of today's mobile phones. Then he ventured out on his own. Says Paola Antonelli, curator of architecture and design in New York's Museum of Modern Art: "This is one of the rare instances when you can say that a master designer has designed consumer products that go everywhere."
His facility with technology and strong, simple forms led IBM to hire him as its principal industrial design consultant in 1980. Even though Big Blue then was an old-line company selling most of its big computers to corporations, it had a long history of using design to bolster its brand, beginning with its distinctive blue-striped logo. Sapper made his mark with the ThinkPad, which he conceived as an elegant plain black box with a surprise inside: a small red button for controlling the cursor on the display screen.
Before the ThinkPad came out in 1992, IBM's internal design team had done extensive research and even asked customers to draw what they thought a portable computer should look like. "Richard thought this was absurd," says Sam Lucente, who was an IBM designer then and is now vice-president for design at Hewlett-Packard (HPQ). "He was a purist."
These days, Sapper continues to push his craft in new directions. He worked with industrial designers at Lenovo this year to create a twist on the ThinkPad theme—the ThinkPad Reserve Edition, a limited-edition notebook computer clad in tan French leather. It's the first ThinkPad ever that wasn't black. A stylish new outdoor chair from Italy's Magis, called Tosca, is made of injection-molded plastic and stands up in any weather. A set of kitchen knives is coming from Italy's Alessi next year.
Alessi typifies the kind of client that hires brand-name designers. The company, whose products are sold in stores such as Macy's and Nordstrom, has built its reputation for fine kitchen utensils and appliances on the creativity of such designers as Achille Castiglioni, Michael Graves, and Philippe Starck. Sapper has done nine projects for Alessi, starting in 1977. The goal is to produce items that combine the designer's vision with the company's brand image. "Richard gets into long and hotly contested arguments with our engineers, but, at the end, the results are stunning and our technical skills are stronger," Managing Director Alberto Alessi says.
Sapper's opinions are as pointed today as they were back when he was first defining the industrial design profession. He's an enemy of fad and the throwaway culture. "I'm interested in fashion, but only as long as things stand up," he says. "It must stand up to time."
In his studio, at the end of a leisurely chat, he leans back in one of the Tosca chairs and ruminates when asked how his thinking has changed over the years. Finally, he says: "The most significant change is I see things clearer. I know more exactly what I want than I did when I was young." No room for a committee here.