iBauhaus: The iPhone as the Embodiment of Bauhaus Ideals and Design

iBauhaus: The iPhone as the Embodiment of Bauhaus Ideals and Design
by Nicholas Fox Weber

Alfred A. Knopf, NY, NY, 2020
272 pp. Trade, $27.95
ISBN 978-9-525-65728-6.

Reviewed by: 
Mike Mosher
January 2021

I like this relaxed, essay-like book. I relate because for several years I taught a very Bauhaus foundational design course in our university. I also like it because the author quotes Hannes Beckmann (1909-1977), my own Beginning Design Professor at Dartmouth College. Cheerful in the classroom (although he’d been imprisoned by both the Nazis and the Soviets on his way to the US), he exhorted us to “zeek ze elegant zo-LOOshun!" as we worked on our projects. He'd often say he was heading off to weekend with his friends the Albers. The couple feature prominently here, as the author Nicholas Fox Weber is longtime Director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and has written about them previously. For him, they embody Bauhaus ideals.

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’ 1983 speech at the Aspen Design Conference launches a narrative of people, ideas, and money. It was held at the Aspen Institute, a well-appointed think tank founded in Colorado in 1949 by Herbert Bayer, formerly of the Bauhaus and bankrolled by Chicagoans Walter and Pussy Paepke. Nowadays the Paepke's daughter laments the end of an Apple Corporation "where every millimeter counts" in the design process, absent the late Jobs. In the 1983 speech Jobs described computers as "adaptive," "simple," even "mundane" but ...conceded to the audience of designers and design aficionados that computers generally "look like shit”... despite the fact that "Computer people are closer to artists than anyone else."

And by page 80 I wondered...where is the iPhone?

Steve Jobs' birth, from a Syrian grad student and a Midwestern girl, is oddly reminiscent of another Midwestern girl’s union six years later, hers with a Kenyan student, that produced President Barack Obama. In Weber's conversational style, the tale of Jobs' boyhood home and background leads to discussion of influential California architect-developer Joseph Eichler's progressive policies. This dovetails into Josef Albers not inviting his prejudiced family to his wedding to Jewish Anni, then his Bauhaus colleague Vassily Kandinsky's antisemitism, and a topical dig at Fred Trump's racism.

Propertius' asserted that "ten apples can seduce a girl", a fact which may have convinced Steve Jobs to labor picking them at All One Farm near Reed College. Weber advances a wild claim "For Steve Jobs the Apple orchard was more important to his inner formation than was any educational institution." Was this the verdict of Jobs' biographer Walter Isaacson or this author? Weber launches into meditation on the Apple logo, whose “smirking little leaf on top is insufferable." He disses the version of the logo in "striped pajamas", and though is talking about something festive, the phrase conveyed prisoners’ uniforms in the concentration camps the Albers were spared by escape into Connecticut exile…while morally compromised Bauhaus colleague Herbert Bayer did design work for the Third Reich. Weber touches on cryptographer Alan Turing's morbid end with a poison apple, but it's interesting there's no reference to the other symbolic use of rainbow stripes: among gay activists of the 1970s and 1980s, to which Apple provided a friendly workplace in which a partner of any sex could share the employee's medical insurance. Then-Vice President of Apple Products, Jean-Louis Gassée used the simile that Apple Computer Inc. in 1989 was like a fine French sausage factory, exquisite finished project after a grisly process and awful smells yet added that it was a more humane company than it had been five years before (under Steve Jobs, whom Gassée helped eject). I designed onscreen animated training graphics at Apple 1987-90, a couple years after Jobs’ exile from the company he co-founded and six years before his triumphant return, in the days of 72 dots per inch black and white Macs, probably more cyberpunk than Bauhaus in aesthetics.

The author turns his attention to swashbuckling Jony Ive, Chief Design Officer at Apple in the iPhone era. Ive's father was a silversmith and Bauhaus-influenced design education bureaucrat; Ive the son has great drawing skills, won industry awards for student designs when he attended Newcastle Polytechnic. That school’s foundation year was very much like that of the Bauhaus, emphasizing infinite possibilities from minimal structural elements, which Ive manipulated with "a stupendous skill". "The link from Weimar and Dessau to Cupertino was direct" declares Weber. For better or for worse, for the Macbooks that appeared under Ive's directives had and have hard cold (on Michigan mornings) metal, versus those of the early-2000s, which includes the white plastic (soon stained from sweaty hands) machine upon which I’m writing this review now. Ive left Apple in 2019 to launch the design firm LoveFrom.

There is design criticism in iBauhaus that incorporates biography and broad visual culture. Ranging over depictions of apple-tempted Eve and Adam in Eden by Masaccio, Cranach and (especially voluptuous) Durer's, Cezanne's later apples were supposed to be quotidian and painted with classicism and humility, but from here seem to have triggered modernism's detachment from daily life and politics. Academic painting remained the realm of history, narrative, moralistic gods and God.

This section derives from the work of Weber's Yale University professor Meyer Schapiro. Untranslated French passages, always feel like an elitist Ivy League affectation (so irritating in Edmund Wilson's Memoirs of Hecate County), and here makes one wonder if Josef Albers' poetry quoted was written originally in English, or translated from the German. Weber looks down his nose at Ives' luxurious cars and Rolodex of aristocrats and super-rich, and sneers at Nicholas Foulks at the River Café in London gushing over Ives' pied-de-poule designer suit—chicken-footed fabric?—but leaves those long sections on Cezanne untranslated.

Dismissing Tom Wolfe's 1980s From Bauhaus to Your House as glib, Bauhaus history is here interwoven with Apple's like a fine Anni Albers textile. Anni Albers arranging for his birthday gifts to be dropped for him from an airplane sounds like an Apple marketing stunt. The ill-fated Apple Lisa gets compared to a Bauhaus commission to design chairs for Irwin Piscator's theater, which the director then rejected (though the Lisa's graphics capability lived on in the Macintosh, whose onscreen typography Jobs boasted "muscled some liberal arts into computers"). Teenaged Felix Klee's satirical puppets of his parents' colleagues on the Bauhaus faculty, "teachers shouting bombastically", sounds like an anti-Microsoft skit at an Apple team-building offsite in the 1980s. Weber contrasts the Bauhaus and Apple circa 1983, both facing financial peril while struggling to uphold their elite standards of elegant, delightful high-quality design. Weber compares the new coinage of "Bauhaus" with Apple’s "iPhone" and "iMac". The Jobs family’s garage where Steve and friend Steve Wozniak invented the Apple II is like the Bauhaus workshops (or, maybe like that of previous California techies Hewlett and Packard). Tina Redse, a girlfriend of Steve Jobs, once described him as "too influenced by the Bauhaus" when he pedantically tried to educate her taste.

Even when shaggy, lurching from subject to subject, arguments not quite jelling, it's all stuff I like to read about. Weber marvels at the iPhone, this internet-enabled communicator in his pocket, which for him encapsulates Bauhaus goals and values: attractive ergonomics, smooth to the touch, no gratuitous ornament. He acknowledges the unfortunate social results of isolation in public, ubiquitous distraction. That Weber constantly wonders what Josef Albers would have thought of the iPhone is the sand-irritant that became this pearl of a book.

Late in their lives Josef and Anni Albers were not nostalgic, but focused on their current work, still committed to make "the visible embody an attitude of honesty and integrity and guilelessness" geared to the universal. Anni was excited about new polyester fabrics and worked its black and white threads into her weaving. They both disliked messy art; "Appearance is triumphant.” The Albers lived in a mostly-white, efficient Connecticut house, sparse but equipped with an SX 70 Polaroid camera, a Chemex coffeemaker, and a yogurt maker. Their valuable personal collection of artworks was kept in storage, and they didn't realize they needed a color TV to see their own artwork in a TV documentary on it in full color. The author enjoys old Josef’s enthusiasm for a nearby beloved restaurant’s salad bar; similarly inspired by a Howard Johnson's salad bar on a 2002 trip to Michigan, San Francisco underground filmmaker Craig Baldwin exclaimed, "This! This is the bounty of America!"

Weber endeavors to compare subtleties of color in Albers' "Homage to the square to the UX of the iPhone "similarly lean and spartan object that generates infinite events." In 1919 after "the war to end all wars" was followed by flu pandemic, young designers in defeated and bedraggled Germany were optimistic, valuing efficiency, experimentation, for a new, clean unencumbered everyday life. Weber was a young man when he got to know Josef and Anni Albers in their New England home in the final act of their lives. Like John Berger's books, iBauhaus: The iPhone as the Embodiment of Bauhaus Ideals and Design is a heartfelt polemical essay, a long walk past much scenery to thoughtfully prove a point. Or maybe a handful of small ones. It's a septuagenarian's summing-up, housed in new technology, a megapixel camera full of images from lifelong enthusiasms, sent from his pocket to ours.