Why Mac's Modernism Is Old

Clockwise from left: SSPL-Getty Images; Age Fotostock; Car Culture-Corbis

This article is being written on a brand-new MacBook Air. It is a gorgeous thing, all crisp edges, sleek surfaces, and continuous flow. In recent days, as pundits have speculated about the future of Apple under an ailing Steve Jobs, one constant has been praise for his eye for design—and concern for what the company might become without it. Since Jobs’s return to Apple in 1997, his designers have won all sorts of awards.

But anyone committed to cutting-edge contemporary art and design has to wonder if Apple’s design gurus deserve those accolades. There’s more than a bit of standard retro chic to Apple’s goods. I may be in love with my new Air, but giving it a prize in 2011 is like giving a rave to contemporary paintings that rehash Mondrian’s grids. For me, Apple’s modern styling is like work by Chippendale and Tiffany: you may love it, but you know your love is stuck in the past.

Apple’s success has its roots in the streamlined forms of 1930s trains and toasters (not to mention the sleek sculptures of Constantin Brancusi), and in midcentury riffs on those styles. As one blogger has pointed out, certain products by Jonathan Ive, the design guru at Apple, are close to being clones of Braun’s postwar designs. No one could imagine doo-wop counting as the most timely pop of the 21st century, but we hold up Apple’s old-fashioned, Braun-ish products as just right for our times.

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Here’s what’s even weirder: I’m almost alone in my reservations about Apple’s new-old look.

“I love it, I have to admit,” says Renny Ramakers, a former design critic and art historian who now runs the great design firm Droog, way out on the bleeding edge. “I’m not theorizing every product,” says Ramakers. “Some products I just want to use—and it’s a present when it is also beautiful.”

Maybe Ramakers’s heedless love affair with Macs helps pinpoint the source of their power. Like all the greatest modernist objects, from Bugatti cars to Braun radios, Apple’s goods have an almost hypnotic effect. They aren’t just a product of modern life; they sell us on it as cool and unruffled, without any glimpse of its dark underside.

It is easy to imagine a ThinkPad or a Dell on the assembly line, in a clanking factory that stinks of solder: you can see their every join and part; you can almost smell the plastic they’re made from. Their attempts at decoration only make the industrial cover-up more apparent, like reeds planted near a tailings pond. Whereas the water-carved clamshell of my beautiful Air just seems to have arisen from the waves, immaculate and virtuous, without a whiff of brimstone or fuel oil.

One other reading of what the Air represents: it may not be about the apotheosis of modernist design so much as its approaching disappearance.

Gijs Bakker is both an Apple lover and one of the great figures in radical postmodern design. (He once made jewelry so bold, it counted as contemporary art, and he went on to cofound Droog.) What Bakker loves about his iPhone is the way the object is barely there at all; you don’t have to praise its look because it’s so easy to ignore it. “The form is almost nothing,” he says, and that lets the function take over completely.

Bakker didn’t mention the iPad, but maybe that’s the ultimate example of design that has disappeared—and a sign of a way forward for Apple. There’s really nothing to say about the look and feel of an iPad. As an almost featureless slab, it is an object that seems too simple to be anything other than it is. Describing the “look” of the iPad is like describing the look of a sheet of glass. The iPad almost lets you leave the world of objects and jump straight into Web space. The paring-down of the Air may be a first step toward escaping shape altogether, which Apple then achieves in the iPad.

It could be that Apple’s very latest, very greatest products might not be the last gasp of modernism, after all. They could be the first hints of a design so new, it barely exists.

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