Steve Jobs Grew Up in a Modernist Home
October 27, 2011
Original advertisement for an Eichler home.
By now, everyone has read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, released this past Monday, or, at least, knows all about the book’s spoilers (Jobs’ claim to “cracking television”, ostensibly with a forthcoming product) and anecdotes (Jobs believed that his fruitarian diet would ward off any uncomely bodily odors. It didn’t). Surprisingly, several architects, including I.M. Pei and Maya Lin, are mentioned to have hung out with Jobs, adding to his extensive and eclectic coterie of design influences.
But aside from these, we particularly liked one tidbit–aggrandized by Isaacson to the level of insight–which holds that Jobs’s acute aesthetic perception was catalyzed by the modernist spatialities of his childhood home: a Joseph Eichler-built house, whose standardized, yet expressive design would influence the simplicity and elegance of Apple’s products. Read on.
Isaacson situates Jobs’ early childhood against the backdrop of the aesthetic simplicity which characterized Eichler’s homes. A real estate developer, Joseph Eichler built some 11,000 homes in California over a period of nearly 25 years from the mid-century on. The houses, with their unadorned surfaces, clean lines, and material sumptuousness, helped to insinuate and contextualize modernism within the bounds of the American dream born out of the post-war boom.
Eichler himself was driven to architecture by his experiences of living in one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses, a series of contemporary homes designed for the “everyman,” (Wright’s term). The Usonian houses were imagined by Wright as units of his vast, utopian plan for a new American urbanism: Broadacre City, a decentralized, pastoral urban configuration wherein each family was allotted a home on an acre of property, concessions which Wright believed would ennoble and empower the individual to realize their full potential. Although Eichler’s houses bear little resemblance to the Usonian houses–they owe much to European modernism–they share Wright’s moralistic goal of democratizing good and elegant design.
The Jobs family home in Silicon Valley had an open plan with full-height glazed walls, exposed beams, and concrete floor slabs. The kitchen, an airy space with modern appliances and clean cabinetry, opened onto the living area, at whose center was probably placed a television set. As original advertisements for the houses can attest, the light-drenched interiors were warm and cheerful, bursting with the optimism and promise of a new age.
It’s easy, perhaps, to retroactively pinpoint the beginning of Jobs’s evolving design sense to the formative years he spent in these admittedly, seductive modernist trappings. But Jobs, in fact, repeatedly related to Isaacson his affinity for and aesthetic debt to Eichler, saying, “His houses were smart and cheap and good. They brought clean design and simple taste to lower-income people.”
As Isaacson points out, the Eichler houses married artistic sensibility with mass production in an exemplary way that would prove instrumental in the development of a young and ambitious Steve Jobs. Describing his former home, Jobs told his biographer, “I love it when you can bring really great design and simple capability to something that doesn’t cost much. It was the original vision for Apple.”