Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

Richard Sapper's dark, alternate universe of tech design

Richard Sapper's IBM Thinkpad, introduced in 1992.

Search the word “futuristic” on Curbed and, even without images, a certain look emerges. “Not a right angle in sight.” “Swoopy.” “Jetsons.” When the pictures load, there’s an overwhelming whiteness to go with the curves and the assisted floatation, windows like aerodynamic diagrams, columns like Tulip chairs, highlights like an early-2000s logo redesign. It’s a future that owes a lot to Buckminster Fuller and Zaha Hadid, and a little to childhoods spent at Epcot, but is now synonymous with Apple, via the radius corners and metallic sheen of products great and small.

Apple, under the meticulous design direction of Jonathan Ive, continues to dominate the collective imagination with a singular vision the tech’s future. The pinched end of my MacBook gives the visual illusion of levitating. My Apple monitor floats on its bent-aluminum stand. The corners of my overlarge iPhone draw no blood. Their collective uncolor stands in contrast to everything else in my house, and their material imparts a subtle sense of luxury. Thorstein Veblen wrote, over a century ago, about the handmade silver spoon, free of decoration, as a symbol of “inconspicuous consumption.” The iPhone, as a luxury that seems to be everywhere, partakes of the same soothing, shiny uniformity. Only the maker knows what’s under the hood.

Contrast that with the ThinkPad T400—so many laptops ago—I just dug out of a drawer. I religiously recycle my electronics , but I couldn’t let this one go. It’s a museum piece. It is heavy, thick like an architecture monograph. I blow the dust off and its matte black surface is unmarred. I try to open it and I can’t: I’d forgotten the gesture, once second nature, of sliding my thumb across the catch. A tiny button catches on the soft pad of my thumb, and I press. It opens with a satisfying click.