Richard Sapper's Bright Ideas


In his new book, The Ten Faces of Innovation, Tom Kelley devotes one chapter to the cross-pollinator -– the person who borrows a clever solution or material from one industry and applies it to another. The escalator, for instance, was originally conceived as a Coney Island amusement-park ride. Reinforced concrete was created by a gardener aiming for stronger flower pots. Richard Sapper is perhaps the supreme example of the cross-pollinator. Again and again, the German designer has created innovative products by mining the knowledge of far-flung disciplines.

You may never have heard of Sapper. Unlike Michael Graves or Philippe Starck, his name doesn't precede him. But you would more than likely recognize his work, whether it's the Tizio desk lamp, the Melodic kettle for Alessi, the Minitime kitchen timer, the iconic ThinkPad, or any of the countless IBM (IBM) computers produced since he became Big Blue's design consultant in 1981.

Born in Munich in 1932, Sapper has a portfolio few designers can rival. After a wide-ranging education –- he studied philosophy, graphic design, engineering, and economics -– he joined the design department at Mercedes-Benz (DCX). Since then, he has worked for Gio Ponti, Pirelli, and Fiat; Alessi, IBM, and Knoll; and countless others.

Most recently he collaborated with a lighting startup, Lucesco, to design the Halley task light. Taking the LED semiconductors typically used in traffic lights, he has created a desk lamp that will last some 50,000 hours. And the LEDs aren't the only element he borrowed from the computing industry.

Sapper recently spoke with Jessie Scanlon, BusinessWeek Online's Innovation & Design editor, about his new lamp, where he has been, and where he has always wanted to design. Following are edited excerpts:

How did the Halley project come about?

[Lucesco Vice-President for Sales and Marketing] David Gresham used to be a designer at IBM. Some 20 years ago I met him on a visit to the design center in Tucson, Ariz. He left IBM long ago, but almost two years ago, I got a call from him. He said that he was working for a startup in Silicon Valley making LED lighting, and would I be interested in designing a lamp for them.

Did you say yes right away?

First the Lucesco team came to Italy to meet with me. Then I said yes, O.K. I wanted to meet with them first, because in my profession, it is always important to have good human relations. If you don't, you can't achieve anything.

So what sold you on the project?

I designed the Tizio almost 30 years ago and hadn't designed another desk lamp since then. At the time, the Tizio was revolutionary. It was the first halogen desk lamp. So I thought it might be time to use another new technology to create a lamp that doesn't look like any lamp before.

So the challenge appealed. What were the toughest design problems?

The biggest challenge was heat. Heat ruins LEDs, so you need to find a way of cooling them. I wanted to create a small, very light head, but that would leave no space for traditional cooling. So I thought we might borrow a technique from the computer industry -- the technology used in laptops to cool the chips. The heat is carried by a pipe to a series of thin aluminum fins, which are cooled by a fan. So we managed to do this. We also borrowed another bit of notebook technology: We used the hinges of the screen unit for the arm joints.

For a designer, is there greater value in designing many different kinds of things than in becoming an expert in designing X, despite the learning curve involved in every project?

I'm an impatient person, so if I had designed the same object three or four times, I want to try something else. This is a very good way of acquiring a vast amount of experience. I have designed cars, watches, clocks, kettles. Each new experience naturally is a challenge, but it always gives me the opportunity to draw on solutions that I have used in another kind of product.

A few years ago I designed a folding city bike whose folding mechanism was inspired by aircraft landing gear. If I had designed lamps all of my life, I wouldn't have had the possibility of doing something like that.

You recently created a cheese grater for Alessi. Where did you get the idea for that project?

In my kitchen! In my house, I have to grate the cheese for the spaghetti. And it always takes so long because the cheese graters are so small. With my grater, one downward stroke creates enough cheese for a single serving, so now my job just takes a few seconds.

What should companies do to be more creative?

I found at IBM, to build a creative atmosphere, you have to have respect and faith. For instance, when I first visited the design center in Japan, there were 10 or 15 designers. In Japan they are very afraid of doing something that can be criticized. They were great designers, but no one came up with any revolutionary ideas. Everyone followed the rules. They were distrustful of a foreign design consultant coming in. It took me five years to earn their faith so that they would show me their ideas.

But ideas are only part of it. Thirty percent of success is having the idea, 70% is working with other people to make it a living product. So again –- without good human relations, your idea is completely worthless.

Is there anything you haven't had a chance to design yet that you would like to?

I've always desired to design one of these huge agricultural harvesters that roam the fields and pick up the stuff. They are extremely exciting as a machine, like giant creatures, but they are designed without any thought to how beautiful they could be.

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