Designer who loved technology – Richard Sapper’s designs range from cars to laptops

The career of German-Italian designer Richard Sapper was driven by his boundless interest in technology. Sapper, one of the key industrial designers of the last century, created innovations including the Tizio lamp for Artemide, the kettle 9091 for Alessi, and the ThinkPad laptops for Lenovo.

Artemide Tizio table lamp
Richard Sapper developed an innovative counterweight mechanism for the Tizio table lamp by Artemide. Tizio received the Compasso d’Oro design award in 1979.

FEW DESIGNERS have created products on the same broad scale as the German-Italian Richard Sapper. Solving technical problems with high-quality design was Sapper’s passion and a driving theme throughout his almost 60-year career.

Sapper was born in 1932 in Germany. His wide-ranging interest in the world became evident during his university studies: he read philosophy, anatomy, technology and business studies at the University of Munich. Sapper’s uniqueness as a designer also lies in the self-confidence and ingenuity with which he combined various dimensions of design and technology.

Richard Sapper
Richard Sapper studied multidisciplinary at the University of Munich and later worked as a teacher in several universities around the world.
Siemens Grilli phone
Designed in collaboration with Marco Zanuso and released in 1965, the Grillo telephone by Siemens was the world’s first clamshell phone.
Brionvega Doney 14 television
Brionvega’s Doney 14 was one of the earliest mobile televisions. Also this device was designed in collaboration with Marco Zanuso.

Sapper, who began his career as a stylist for car manufacturer Daimler Benz, moved from Munich to Milan, Italy, to work for architect Gio Ponti in 1958. A year later, he established an office of his own and promptly designed his first Compasso d’Oro award-winning product, the Static desktop lamp for Lorenzi.

In the years that followed, he would win 10 more Compasso d’Oro awards. Sapper also began his long-term cooperation in electronics with architect-designer Marco Zanuso; the fruits of this partnership included the early portable television Doney 14, the compact TS502 radio, and the world’s first folding phone, Grillo.

The Tizio table lamp became one of the best-selling office lamps of all time.

In the following decades, Sapper focused on furniture and lighting, cars and ships, information technology and electronics, as well as kitchen utensils and dishware. The Tizio table lamp, which was designed for Artemide in 1972, became one of the best-selling office lamps of all time. Sapper’s collaboration with Alessi, which began in 1978, spawned more design classics such as the espresso coffee maker 9090 and the kettle 9091.

Richard Sapper
Sapper was hired as the principal industrial design consultant for IBM in 1980 and he actively worked on IT design in the final decades of his career.
Lenovo ThinkPad laptop
The simple red-black design of the ThinkPad laptops has remained similar since the first model, which dates back to 1992.
Alessi Kettle 9091
Sapper’s designs for the Italian brand Alessi include the melodic kettle 9091 and the espresso coffee maker 9090, a winner of the Compasso d’Oro award.

In 1980, Sapper was hired as the principal industrial design consultant for IBM, actively working on IT design in the final decades of his career. Sapper also created the legendary visual design of the ThinkPad laptops: a black, angular exterior with a bright red button mouse in the middle of the keyboard. Sapper continued to work on ThinkPads when well over 70, after Lenovo acquired the series from IBM in 2005.

Sapper was interested in design at the theoretical as well as the practical level. He lectured at several universities, from Buenos Aires to Beijing and, together with Italian architect Gae Aulenti, worked on new urban transport systems to reduce congestion in big cities. A highlight of his research was the Zoombike, a folding city bike which appeared in 2000.

Richard Sapper was interested in design at the theoretical as well as the practical level.

“Time is one of the few things that may ultimately establish the true quality of an object,” Sapper once summarized.

The passage of time has confirmed that Sapper’s designs were genuinely of high quality. Although many of his designs are decades old, several remain in production – and quite a few look as though they haven’t aged a single day.

Richard Sapper

Who: Richard Sapper

  • Born in Munich 1932, died in Milan 2015.
  • Studied at the University of Munich and later worked as a teacher at the Yale University, Vienna’s Hochschule für Angewandte Kunst, Stuttgart’s Kunstakademie, Milan's Domus Academy, Beijing’s Central Academy for Art and Design, the University of Buenos Aires, and London's Royal College of Art.
  • Best-known products: Kartell’s K1340 chair (1964), Brionvega’s Algol television (1964) and TS502 radio (1965), Siemens’ Grillo telephone (1965), Artemide’s Tizio lamp (1972), Alessi’s 9090 espresso maker (1978) and 9091 water kettle (1983), Knoll’s Sapperchair (1979), the ThinkPad laptops for IBM and Lenovo (1992 onwards), Elettromontaggi's Zoombike (2000), Magis' Tosca chair (2007).
  • Awards & recognitions: 11 Compasso d’Oro awards, the Lucky Strike Award from the Raymond Loewy Foundation, an Honorary Member of the Royal Society of Arts, an Honorary Doctorate from the University of North Carolina, the Merit Cross of the Order of Merit from the Federal Republic of Germany.

See also:

• Products by Richard Sapper >

Text: Nora Uotila Images: Suvi Kesäläinen, Richard Sapper and manufacturers

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