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Steve and Frank

October 7, 2011


Steve Jobs died prematurely.  I say this because, I am 4 years older than Steve when he died.  America’s other design icon, Frank Lloyd Wright, died when he was 90-something.  Their relationship within their professions and our culture bears some baring.

Steve Jobs and Frank Lloyd Wright were driven, intense and often exquisitely rude men.  It’s hard to say that either of them would have ever felt that taking the time to smell the roses or go to a child’s Little League game would have ever trumped the magic detail that they were pursuing in any given project at any given time.

Neither man needed consensus, cooperation or feedback.  But both men had a vision that was uniquely theirs, and refined to a point where it was undeniably powerful, seductive and evocative of a sense that the user/occupant was part of a hyper-cool world of insight and progress.

When Frank Lloyd Wright emerged as a force in design in the early 20th century, his introduction to the world of architecture had conceptual facilitation by the International Style architects of Europe, but in truth he was always viewed, even in America, as a subset to the greater Modern Revolution.  Wright’s distinct form of architecture has winnowed down to cult status, whereas the more “light” form of Modernism of Corbusier and the Bauhaus is the dominant paradigm in our culture.

Steve Jobs’ Apple products are beloved and energized existing technology, but Microsoft is the dominant paradigm and has flooded the massive majority of computer devices in America and worldwide.

Fifty years after Wright’s death, it’s clear that the Wrightian mode of design is outmoded for the day’s starchitecture – inherently geometric and quirky, evidentiary of materiality and craft, it is viewed as a curio.  24 hours after Steve Jobs’ death, it is unclear that Apple will succeed beyond Jobs’ death to sustain its vitality as a subordinate stream of technology in culture, American or otherwise.

Both men are uniquely American, both are the John Wayne and Ronald Reagan of their chosen professions. The force of their personalities cannot be simulated by assertions of it -Sarah Palin, Philip Johnson, or Donald Trump desperately sought and seek Frank and Steve’s undeniable potency, but words and affect cannot get them there. No amount of pretense can create the inside-out dynamism of Jobs and FLW, even though both were master salesmen, neither would sell anything that was not, in their view, a perfect reflection of who they were. They never played to an audience, they just wanted the audience to see the Truth that they knew.

Both had a power based upon raw and hyper-focused talent that was unlearnable and neither went to a school to learn what they did.  Neither ever had a partner that they could live with for very long, and both had extraordinary success at the cost of a greater purpose in their lives other than being an incredible success.

Frank Lloyd Wright and Steve Jobs represent the extreme distillation of the American character into divergent yet inextricably linked worlds of design:  architecture and technology.  Jobs did not invent the computer nor did Wright invent the building; both saw it with an eye that would have been lessened had it been crowd-sourced, think-tanked or focus-grouped.  Both had the ego and individuality that made their work so distinctive that it has undeniable power, and propagated hundreds if not thousands of imposters.

In a time of economic travail, people look towards our society, our communities and our government to keep us from going under.  Wright and Jobs never did that – instead they looked to themselves and loved their vision enough that it virtually precluded any possibility of failure in their eyes – despite obvious setbacks in both their career paths.

In fact Fallingwater and the iPad were Depression Babies – both emerging at low points of economic opportunity as beacons of what is always possible when a force of will is self- sustaining.

They are uniquely American stories – stories that may be out of fashion in an economic downturn where hope is placed in personal skill, without the aid of cultural assists, safety nets or political correctness.

Both men were a terror to be around; both men did things others couldn’t; both men knew that, used it, and are forever remembered as changing the world despite their own obvious mortality.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. October 7, 2011 6:55 pm

    Duo –
    I Love the fact that you paired these two iconic figures in modern American history (I’m pretty sure Jobs has a secure place there). I also appreciate your connecting them in sense of design – Steve Jobs was ALL about how things LOOKED. So was Wright. But, both approached it from usability and functionality.

    Lemme use the cliché – “Form Follows Function”. Both Frank and Steve were innovators on this, yet they also dared to be different. Not everything Frank tried was heralded as the “new” black; and in Steve’s case, he was actually FIRED from the company he co-founded.

    That being said, I have to differ with you about some of your conclusions on this article. America, or humans in general, are just as capable NOW of doing amazing things at any given moment as they were when the economy was good.

    A bad economy doesn’t have anything to do with design or innovation, or the entrepreneurial spirit. In fact, it’s my faith in my fellow man that allows me to sleep at night, knowing that some 48 year old housewife in Iowa, or a 14 year old kid in New Jersey will create that next “spark” that moves us forward.

    **disclaimer – had I written this post three years ago, I’d have used Mark Zuckerberg as an example for the last point, but now, he’s just a 27 year old kid with way too much power.


  2. Big Mike permalink
    October 7, 2011 7:52 pm

    This article would have been fine without the gratuitous swipe at Ms. Palin. First, it is “laughably” presumptuous to pretend to know what she aspires to. Moreover, it should be abundantly clear by now, especially after her announcement of non-candidacy, that she does NOT have her heart set on that starring role on center stage, preferring to call in plays from the sideline, and being neither The Duke nor The Gipper but a unique homespun eminence grise who will be with us for a very long time. Underestimate her skills at your own peril.

    Anyway, politics is more than a bit off-topic in the world of Frank Lloyd Wright and Steve Jobs.

  3. Janice Gruendel permalink
    October 8, 2011 4:09 am

    Terrific blog! JMG

  4. October 10, 2011 10:55 am

    Duo: Interesting comments. I was having similar thoughts but had not distilled them. Watching Charlie Rose’s interviews about Steve Jobs made me think of FLW. Although I absolutely love FLW’s designs I must say I admired Jobs’ success but just didn’t ever fall in love with any of Apple’s innovations. For one thing, Jobs may have insisted on no second button but I was not one that agreed. Just yesterday I was trying out a friends iPad and found it rather annoying to use and I actually prefer everyone else’s tablets. That is the value of both these innovators- they provoke a response, whether positive or negative. Either response cultivates further innovation from others, either to expand and enhance that initial idea or be the counteracter. FLW- I got it. Steve Jobs- I never got it and never bought it.

  5. October 10, 2011 2:11 pm

    Duo, I wrote almost the same piece! Strangely a not unpleasant feeling.

    “The Mouse and the Cantilever”, I called it.

  6. Rick Camp permalink
    October 11, 2011 9:43 am

    Duo: While I find the relationship between Jobs and Wright interesting, the purposes of their creative drive could not be more different. The elitist Wright created one-offs, and his legacy had minuscule impact on anything other than architecture, and even that only fleeting. He was not a revolutionary by any standard definition of the word.

    It has become a cliche, but like many cliches, grounded in truth: while Microsoft put a computer in every business office, Steve Jobs put one in every pocket. That, sir, is revolutionary. Job’s creativity was shared with millions of people (not just one client), and has profoundly affected their lives in a way few visionaries ever have. His creations, and the scores of program developers who jumped on his wagon in the 80s made it possible for me, and thousands of others to earn a living in creative fields in a manner that would have otherwise been impossible. And do it, not from an office, but from our homes.

    The other factor that separates the two men is one you seem to have missed entirely: Jobs created more than just products; he created a company that is fundamentally different from any that came before. Apple is crammed with “Steve Jobsian” employees. The culture pervades every level of the corporate structure. The problem will never be one of lack of innovation or creativity. It will be one of choosing WHICH product will be the next “insanely great” one.

    • duo permalink
      October 11, 2011 10:17 am

      When Wright died the expectation by Wrightians was that “Taliesin Associates” would carry on Wright’s ideas forever – and his shop had an extreme cult of personality overlay – very coherent, very energizing, and very half-lifed by the death of The Master. Still present but vestigial…given the immediacy of Jobs passing its impossible to know if Apple will be GE after Thomas Edison, or Taliesin after Wright…

  7. October 23, 2015 8:01 pm

    Frank loyld wright could only stand in Steve Jobs shadow ——–


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