Why Sapper Mattered

Aldo Ballo / Alessi

Longtime design journalist and former editor of I.D. magazine Chee Pearlman chronicles the impact of a 20th-century titan whom we lost this winter.

It’s hard to think of a designer who has created as many iconic products as Richard Sapper. You might point to, say, Apple’s Jony Ive, who mints countless covetable designs for the tech brand and has won every honor bestowed on his profession. But Sapper, who died at 83 on December 31, in Milan, did in life what is increasingly difficult in an age of specialization: He seamlessly applied his talents across industries and scales, bringing intelligence and poetry to the mass production of computers and electronics, lighting and furniture, housewares and transportation.

Sapper was born in Munich in 1932 and launched his career in the styling department at Daimler-Benz, creating sleek rearview mirrors for the 300SL Roadster before deciding that corporate life wasn’t a fit. By 1959 he was living in Milan, where he attracted clients like department store La Rinascente, electronics brand Brionvega, and housewares giant Alessi. One of his early classics is the much imitated Tizio desk lamp for Artemide that powers its halogen bulb without wires through a transformer in the base. 

Postwar Italy was a remarkably fertile design hothouse where Sapper flourished. His stove-top 9090 espresso maker of 1978, the first to challenge the angular Bialetti found in every Italian household, and the sensual two-note whistling Bollitore teakettle for Alessi, both in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, added to his growing number of museum-worthy accomplishments. By 1980, his reputation internationally secured, Sapper was appointed principal industrial design consultant at IBM with the mission to bring back some of the prestige of Big Blue’s early years. Sapper had his triumphs, including the first ThinkPad. But corporate America wasn’t easy to crack. “It’s much more common to find an executive in Italy who is interested in how his products look than it is to find such a person in America,” he told me during an interview for I.D. magazine in 1991. “Many people in America don’t really care about design...because perhaps these people have other interests, like sports, that make their lives enjoyable.”

A new monograph, Richard Sapper, edited by designer Jonathan Olivares and produced in collaboration with the designer before his passing, in now out from Phaidon ($95, phaidon.com)

Image Credits: Getty Images / Artemide North America