Mastermind of the IBM ThinkPad Leaves "Enduring" Legacy

Former IDSA Member Richard Sapper Dies at 83

Jan 5 2017 - 10:55am

Former IDSA Member and multiple International Design Excellence Award (IDEA) winner Richard Sapper, perhaps best known as the mastermind of the first IBM Thinkpad, passed away on New Year's Eve 2015 at the age of 83.

All made for IBM—Sapper's ThinkPad 2000 Family won an IDEA Bronze in 2001; his NetVista X40i and Info-Portal Concept each earned a Silver IDEA in 2001; and his ThinkPad A30 and Net Vista X41 each won a Silver IDEA in 2002. ThinkPad won won an IDSA Design of the Decade Award in 2000. "The sleek black notebook... not only set the standard for mobile computing, it changed IBM's image to one of innovative leader," touted IDSA's INNOVATION magazine.

Sapper was born in Munich in 1932. After studying everything from philosophy to anatomy to engineering, Sapper earned a business degree from the University of Munich. He moved to Milan in 1958.

He told Dezeen in 2013 that his biggest regret was turning down a job offer from Steve Jobs at Apple. "Sure I regret it—the man who then did it [Jonathan Ive] makes $30 million a year!"

Sapper became an honorary member of the Royal Society of Arts in 1988 and a member of the Akademie der Künste in Berlin in 2001. He was bestowed a LIfetime Achievement Award by the German Design Council in 2009 and an honorary doctorate from the University of North Carolina a year later. In 2012, Sapper received the Merit Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. He taught at Yale and universities around the world.

He worked on everything from bus and car concepts for Fiat to stackable chairs for Katell; from home electronics for Brionvega to task lamps for Artemide; and on the first whistling designer tea kettle for Alessi.

Longtime IDSA Member David Hill, vice president and chief design officer at Lenovo and multi-IDEA winner, emotionally recalls his friend and colleague of 30 years in a new blog entitled Life with Sapper. "Richard helped me, and many others, more than anyone can imagine," writes Hill. "He molded me into a much better designer, enriched the world with his energy, kindness, boundless talent, humor, spirit and determination. He could turn any design problem into an asset before your eyes."

In late 2016, Hill made an emotional discovery at his home and wrote a new blog entry about the video he had taken of Sapper years earlier. "It captures the actual feeling of being there unlike a more highly produced or scripted endeavor would ever have done," describes Hill. "It’s natural, spontaneous and genuine. I hope you enjoy this rare glimpse into the world of designing with Richard Sapper." See the video here.

Phaidon, which published a monograph in summer 2016 on Sapper edited by Pratt industrial design alum and 2013 IDEA Juror Jonathan Olivares, declared Sapper was "one of the most influential industrial designers of his generation... his best work synthesized a formal simplicity and rigor, technical understanding; not to mention a poetic sense of humor."

"Sapper's legacy and influence will endure through time," writes Diana Budds for FastCo.Design.