Amsterdam, The Netherlands. 2017
From the editor's desk
Thomas Watson Jr. of IBM was walking down Fifth Avenue in New York when a revelation hit him after seeing a display of Olivetti typewriters outside of a retail store. Modern and astonishing in their elegance, both the interiors and the products looked like nothing he had ever seen before. (1) That experience had lifted the cover from Watson's own Pandora box: he would not rest until he had shaped IBM into the modern American corporation par excellence. Twenty years later, after having accomplished his goal through enlightened collaborations with some of the greatest designers of his time, he would declare: "good design is good business."
In spite of Watson's extraordinary accomplishments and being in awe of Olivetti, he missed something of fundamental importance when giving shape to his vision. His rendition of good design making good business meant that good design had the strategic value to shape the company's public perception and making greater sales; in other words, design was seen as an added value rather than something that was so integral to the products themselves as to branch out to all other facets of the company. It is not casual that in American corporate culture and to this day design has been subsidiary to marketing, and while almost every big company and startup alike seems to have gone into a design frenzy recently, almost all of them keep perpetuating the vision of design as a marketing instrument.
There lies the fundamental difference with the particular kind of European culture of entrepreneurship that shaped Adriano Olivetti and his company. His penchant for design was not an ingenious business intuition: it was a byproduct of his cultural commitment to a new renaissance for his country, a feeling shared by many intellectuals of his time. Among these intellectuals were architects and designers, whom Olivetti surrounded himself with as a result. Being interested in architecture and design meant understanding how to build a better world, and as a result of his commitment those principles were embedded in his Olivetti's very raison d'être.
Though for very different reasons than Adriano Olivetti, Steve Jobs was the one American entrepreneur that was able to truly understand the cultural value of design as something that goes beyond a superficial marketing instrument. With an extraordinary culturally committed and product centric vision akin to those of the most enlightened European entrepreneurs he was able to embed this understanding so deep in his products as for them to become synonymous with it. Jobs did this on a scale that no European company ever had the chance to, and he raised the bar to standards that are hard to match.
In the first issue of Bulthaup Culture, (2) CEO of Bulthaup Mark O. Eckert writes: «You'll certainly know the saying "Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire". Tradition does not mean fearfully clinging to what has disappeared, but rather to keep a direct line with a source of cultural energy. A culture takes shape from tradition, which becomes a source of novelty.» Unlike Eckert, a second generation entrepreneur that has been able to bring Bulthaup into the present without losing any of its cultural energy, many of the entrepreneurs who are called to bring a company forward after the visionary founder has passed away don't seem to be able to carry on the underlying vision, renewing it while staying true to its core principles. This has been the case with both IBM and Olivetti, and arguably with Apple as well since Steve Jobs has passed away.
A clear position emerges from our reasoning: in order for a company to truly embrace design as a driving force in its own self-determination, the entrepreneur themselves must become intellectually involved in design. Understanding how designers and architects influence our culture and help shaping our society is not a newfound necessity born from a recent years trend — it has always been of great importance to anyone with aspirations of building products for a better world. We should call for design classes being mandatory in any management and business course, as well as management classes being mandatory in design university. As the two roles get closer and closer the designer-entrepreneur will emerge as a new figure; managers and designers alike should look at history and learn from the pioneers that have set our standards of excellence.
Only a growing culture of exchange and shared values between designers and entrepreneurs, as well as a common cultural commitment and consciousness will enable the creation of great products in the future. As we proceed towards this future, we should foster this change every time we have the chance to contribuite meaningfully to the discourse.