The Dirty Secret of Apple's Design

By Gopnik, Blake | Newsweek, February 7, 2011 | Go to article overview
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The Dirty Secret of Apple's Design

Gopnik, Blake, Newsweek

Byline: Blake Gopnik

This article is being written on a brand-new MacBook Air. It is a gorgeous thing, all crisp edges, sleek surfaces, and continuous flow. In recent days, as pundits have speculated about the future of Apple under an ailing Steve Jobs, one constant has been praise for his eye for design--and concern for what the company might become without it. Since Jobs's return to Apple in 1997, his designers have won all sorts of awards.

But anyone committed to cutting-edge contemporary art and design has to wonder if Apple's design gurus deserve those accolades. There's more than a bit of standard retro chic to Apple's goods. I may be in love with my new Air, but giving it a prize in 2011 is like giving a rave to contemporary paintings that rehash Mondrian's grids. For me, Apple's modern styling is like work by Chippendale and Tiffany: you may love it, but you know your love is stuck in the past.

Apple's success has its roots in the streamlined forms of 1930s trains and toasters (not to mention the sleek sculptures of Constantin Brancusi), and in midcentury riffs on those styles. As one blogger has pointed out, certain products by Jonathan Ive, the design guru at Apple, are close to being clones of Braun's postwar designs. No one could imagine doo-wop counting as the most timely pop of the 21st century, but we hold up Apple's old-fashioned, Braun-ish products as just right for our times.

Here's what's even weirder: I'm almost alone in my reservations about Apple's new-old look.

"I love it, I have to admit," says Renny Ramakers, a former design critic and art historian who now runs the great design firm Droog, way out on the bleeding edge. "I'm not theorizing every product," says Ramakers. "Some products I just want to use--and it's a present when it is also beautiful."

Maybe Ramakers's heedless love affair with Macs helps pinpoint the source of their power. Like all the greatest modernist objects, from Bugatti cars to Braun radios, Apple's goods have an almost hypnotic effect.

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