My favorite photo of Richard that captures his wonderful wit & sense of play.

Everywhere I go people ask me about Richard Sapper and his recent passing. They’re shocked and saddened by the loss and know I had deep personal/professional connection to him. As one might expect, the conversations also include questions about what happened. I have to fight back the tears to say even the fewest words on the topic. For this blog tribute, I don’t want to discuss death; I want to focus on life. I hope you enjoy reading about my experiences with Richard, how he impacted me as a designer, and the joy he brought to my life and the lives of others.

I still have my original conference ID badge and booklets from 1981

In 1981 I was fortunate to have been awarded a scholarship by the University of Kansas to attend the International Design Conference in Aspen. This is where I first met Richard Sapper. The conference theme was “The Italian Idea”. I was excited to attend the conference and learn from the Italian design-elite. Mario Bellini, Massimo Vignelli, Vico Magistretti, Sergio Pininfarina, Leo Lionni, Giorgetto Giugiaro, and Richard Sapper were all there. I loved the work created by the Italians of the era, but was particularly smitten by the designs created by the lone German in the crowd. His design ethic seemed to take the Italian idea of design to new levels. It combined form, function and emotion in a beautifully synergetic way that was poetic.

I shot this photo at Richard’s Tizio lecture in 1981. Where are those sketches now?

The Tizio lamp is Sapper's most notable masterpiece

I quickly signed up for a special lecture with Richard, where he described how he had designed the Tizio lamp. For me, this lamp was the poster child for what real design was all about. As I sat in the small venue, Richard walked in wearing wheat colored jeans, a faded chambray shirt, and classic boat shoes. Where was the “designer costume” you might ask? He didn’t want, or need one. His work was stronger than the impression any costume could create. He proceeded to sketch on an easel a series of crisp charcoal drawings outlining his thinking behind the Tizio’s creation. The presentation was just as brilliant as the design. Afterwards, I tried to speak to him, but he was swept away into a crowd of anxious design followers. Little did I know that 4 years later I would be working with him at IBM.

I joined “Big Blue” in their Mid-Range Computing development laboratory in 1985 where I designed System/36 and ultimately AS/400 products. One of the attractions of accepting the job at IBM was clearly the Sapper-factor. He had started as the corporate consultant in 1980 following designer/architect Eliot Noyes. I wanted to learn from a designer of Richard’s caliber and create objects that aligned with my own design ideals.

During the first 10 years of my IBM career I attended many corporate design reviews observing Sapper in action. He critiqued designs, shown primarily in 35mm slide format, without hesitation in a powerful and direct manner. If the work was bad, it was impossible to hide. If it was good, he was full of compliments. Suggestions always flowed from him on to make any design better. The lessons learned were significant in enhancing my own views on design and improving my skills. These early IBM years turned out to be the warm-up act for what would follow.

After leading the design direction for the IBM AS/400 Advanced Series in 1995, Sapper called on me to assume design management responsibility for the Personal Systems Group. He was impressed with my work and thought I was up for a new challenge. At the time, ThinkPad was just a few years young and was riding a wave of success created by Sapper’s design vision. The sophisticated black box computer punctuated with a bright red dot was an instant success. By contrast, the desktop personal computer designs of the era were far less successful. In fact, the group executive at IBM described them to me as “the rejects from a 3rd world electronics show”. My job was to turn this dilemma around without letting ThinkPad fall behind. I decided to change the way Richard worked with the designers. I abolished the formal review process in favor of hands-on creative workshop model.

Directly involved at the front end of the process, rather than critiquing what was nearly finished, fueled Richard’s ability to more strongly impact design. Richard would come to various locations several times a year to work alongside my team using drawings, paper or highly detailed appearance models. The 35mm slide projectors went into storage and the design quality soared. These sessions eventually became known as “Sapperfests”. Not only were we creating great work, but we were all learning real time with a true master of his craft. Within a year or so we were winning scores of international design awards and having great fun as well. Richard’s influence was flourishing.


Designing with Richard always included a healthy dose of creative fun

Sapperfests were teaming with creativity for nearly 24 hours a day while he was in town. Designers would stay far into the night making changes to models and drawings for another chance to review the progress in the morning. More often than not, we would be supplying Richard with a pencil, paper, adhesive tape, and scissors so that he could lead by example. These were some of the most important design tools he used. Junior designers were occasionally schooled regarding their lack of basic design tool knowledge. I am not referencing software. He once asked for a pencil and paper so that he could draw a simple sketch of an inspired idea. Unfortunately, he was handed a mechanical pencil and a sheet of ruled paper. He looked up at the offending designer and declared “This is not a pencil. A pencil is made of wood”. He despised frustrating mechanical pencils and idea stifling ruled paper. The scandal, a term Richard often used to describe irritating problems, was never repeated.

Richard deftly wielding one of his favorite 3D design tools in Raleigh

His vintage Milano scissors played an important role in creating the ThinkPad Yoga hinge design

My assistant Beverley Weiland would always bring one of her made-from-scratch baked desserts for the team to enjoy. This was one of the highlights of every Sapperfest. Richard referred to her culinary creations as “famous”. One of his favorites was her apple crisp. He was truly treated like a family member. At the end of each day I would take him to a restaurant to dine, drink and recap the day’s activities. He was a connoisseur of a simple, but perfectly prepared meal. His taste in food was not unlike his design sense. In Tokyo we would often enjoy a Kobe steak cooked in the New Otani’s beautiful Japanese garden, and in Raleigh a Bison ribeye from Montana Ted’s. He loved bison so much that he bought each of his grandchildren a cuddly toy replica. I’m not sure if he ever told them why he liked bison so much.

Kobe beef and Bev’s made from scratch desserts were a treat & tradition

Cuddly, but not as tasty as the real thing

There are so many stories I could tell about our experiences together, but it would take hundreds of pages to capture them all. Wild BMW rides to the lake of Como, late night Japanese train rides shaking off the effects of too much sake, reading witty letters on seemingly unexplainable topics, sharing excursions to art and design museums, parking on train tracks in Milano, creating Skylight, shopping for trousers in Raleigh, hunting down lost luggage at RDU, debating the quality of salt at a restaurant, proper coffee brewing demonstrations, discussing Bob Dylan, Muhammad Ali, and the Beatles influence on society, sending back wine because it was hot and lousy, watching him greet designers with double cheek kisses, and the wonderful phone calls or faxes describing his latest ideas, are all forever etched into my memory. Today I am saddened, but also happy that my life was so enriched by having known him.

Get well card designed by Shige Kimura and signed by the entire Lenovo design team

Over the last 30 years of my career at IBM and Lenovo, Richard helped me, and many others, more than anyone can imagine. 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. His genuine warmth and creative approach made everyone around him more successful. All the while, he made his work look quite easy. I cannot imagine having experienced life without him. I offer my sincerest condolences to Richard’s family and to all who loved him.

Until we meet again,

David Hill