Steve and Frank
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.