The Italian soul of Steve Jobs

As far as anybody knows, Steve Jobs did not have a drop of Italian blood, even by osmosis from his adoptive parents. Yet he clearly had a strong affinity for Italy. According to Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of the Apple genius, Jobs’s attendance at the International Design Conference in Aspen in 1981 was a seminal moment, a turning point in his career. The meeting that year was devoted to the Italian style and included, among other celebrities, designer Mario Bellini, filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci, carmaker Sergio Pininfarina, and Fiat heiress Susanna Agnelli. As a result, “I had come to revere the Italian designers … and it was an amazing inspiration,” he told Isaacson. From the Italians, he imbibed the principles of simple functional design that came to define his technological style and accounted for much of his spectacular business success. When he returned to run Apple in 1997, it was no surprise that he sought out such top names in Italian design as legendary car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro and architect/designer Ettore Sottsass, famous for his work at the Olivetti Company, which we’ll hear more about in a moment.

Photo of iPod on black background

Time and again, that sense of style proved to be his comparative advantage in the digital marketplace. The development of the iPod is a prime case in point. Although he always loved music, Jobs awoke almost too late to the business possibilities of marrying personal computers with recorded sound. Capitalizing on the digital music craze, HP and other computer companies started including CD burners in their machines so users could create their own digital music mix.

Photo of adding machine

Generation 4 iPod, 2004. Smithsonian image

Other start-ups had already come up with portable music players using the MP3 format. Suddenly realizing all this, Jobs told Issacson, “I thought we had missed it. We had to work hard to catch up.” And catch up he did, with iTunes, the iTunes Store, and the fantastically successful iPod, a miracle of simplicity and functionality. What made the difference between Apple’s iPod and every other portable music player was the pure white minimalist concept conceived by Apple’s design chief, Jonathan (Jony) Ive, who epitomized the same ethos of functional simplicity. As soon as he saw Ive’s prototype, Jobs knew that the look and feel of the Apple iPod were destined for success.

Since his death, Jobs has been compared to other great technological visionaries. Isaacson likens him to Thomas Edison, others to Edwin Land. But what did he have in common with all those Italian designers who had made such an impression on him? A comparable figure, to my mind, would be Adriano Olivetti (1901-1960), one of the most influential designers of the 20th century, in Italy or anywhere else, for that matter. Inheriting the business from his father Camillo in the 1930s, Adriano was president and guiding spirit of the Olivetti Company, famed for its elegant typewriters and business machines. A leader, like Jobs, in the high-tech manufacturing sector of his day, Adriano developed Olivetti into a hugely successful firm with global reach and reputation. In the 1950s, his company launched the mainframe Elea computer line and, in the 1980s, even a PC, the Olivetti M20, all stamped with the company’s signature style. (In a monumentally bad business decision, the company eventually shed its computer business.)

Central control unit of the mainframe Olivetti Elea 9003 (1957). Photo by we-make-money-not-art, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Central control unit of the mainframe Olivetti Elea 9003 (1957). Photo by we-make-money-not-art, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Olivetti and Jobs were soulmates beyond tracing similar arcs in the world of industry. Both made their marks at the intersection of art, design, and technology. Anyone who has ever owned an Olivetti Lettera typewriter will know why it is enshrined at the Museum of Modern Art. Not only did it work beautifully, it was gorgeous to behold.

Olivetti Lettera 22 (first model) typewriter. Photo by LjL, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Olivetti Lettera 22 (first model) typewriter. Photo by LjL, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

An enthusiastic modernist, Adriano considered his firm’s ambience to be as important as the products he created. Hiring Italy’s best modern architects in the 1930s and 1940s, he built model factories, stores, schools, and homes for his workers, even a model city (Robert Kargon and I wrote about this in Invented Edens: Techno-Cities of the Twentieth Century). In short, he viewed his business and his world as a work of art.

Adriano Olivetti in front of his factories in Ivrea, 1960. Courtesy Associazione Archivio Storico Olivetti.
Adriano Olivetti in front of his factories in Ivrea, 1960. Courtesy Associazione Archivio Storico Olivetti.

With his love of Italian design, Jobs was surely inspired by the Olivetti style in developing everything from the Mac to the iPhone and the iPad. Driven by a passion for technological beauty, both Olivetti and Jobs “collected” design geniuses in their companies; Apple’s Jony Ive had his counterpart in Olivetti’s Marcello Nizzoli. Jobs also shared the Italian’s passionate concern for architecture and ambience. Isaacson notes that Jobs, nothing short of obsessive about planning his Apple stores, insisted on covering the floors with the same gray-blue sandstone he had seen in Florence sidewalks during a 1985 trip to Italy. He imported Apple store stone directly from the same quarry, hiring Florentine designers to oversee the cutting and layout of the tiles.

Olivetti was an out-and-out utopian, Jobs perhaps a closet one. Despite often being, according to Isaacson, notoriously, meanly competitive and extremely demanding on his staff, he believed in perfecting the world through the power of technology and design. He and Olivetti avowedly cared less about money than how their innovations were improving society and culture. For both, design aesthetics was far more than window dressing; it was the soul of technology and the key to the future. Ill-designed technology was not only useless and unpleasant, it was alienating, oppressive, inhuman. Jobs and Olivetti believed that clean, simple, and honest design beautified, humanized, and ultimately redeemed our modern technological culture.

Art Molella is Director of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History. This column originally appeared in Prototypethe Lemelson Center’s newsletter.