From Bauhaus to Minimalism: The Evolution of the iPhone

From Bauhaus to Minimalism: The Evolution of the iPhone

The decades-old origins of the iPhone's design.

There are few objects as pervasive as the iPhone. What started as an ambitious dream in the mind of Steve Jobs and his colleagues has become a technical standard-bearer. But beyond enabling people to access apps, send text messages and make calls, the iPhone is the kind of ubiquitous, status-quo shifting design object that can define a generation. Despite the fact that it continues to be emblematic of the future, its aesthetic origins are nearly a century old.

The genesis of the iPhone we know today can be traced to a lifelong interest of Steve Jobs. His fascination with Bauhaus–a German school that operated from 1913 to 1933 and inventively combined fine arts with crafts–is well documented, and many of its central tenets made their way into the iPhone's initial designs. From its spare lines to its lack of decorative detailing, the iPhone has embraced simplicity, a Bauhaus calling card. And the softly beveled and rounded nature of its edges also mirrors many of the designs that emerged from the original Bauhaus school, like Marianne Brandt’s tea infuser or the MT8 lamp by Wilhelm Wagenfeld and Carl Jakob Jucker.

Bauhaus was largely formed as a rejection of what founder Walter Gropius saw as rapid industrialization sans any artistic quality. To combat this, the school embraced the marriage of industrial technology with high-minded design, thus making objects with artistic quality available to the masses. The large-scale launch and subsequent releases of new iPhone editions embody that mentality of bringing sleek design to as many people as possible. And the design ultimately served as a major impetus in forcing Apple's competitors to make significant investments in the design of their comparatively clunky models.

But things have shifted since the iPhone was launched in the summer of 2007. Yes, it has become slimmer, however, the changes extend to the design philosophy itself, which diverged upon the death of Steve Jobs and the departure of Apple's longtime Chief Designer Officer, Jony Ive. Ive was instrumental in helping realize Jobs' design vision and, like Jobs, was deeply influenced by the work of the Bauhaus movement. Ive was particularly inspired by the work of industrial designer Dieter Rams who though not technically a member of the Bauhaus is considered an heir to its principles. Many comparisons have been made between Rams' early work for electronics company Braun and the earliest incarnation of the iPhone and iPod.

With Jobs and Ive no longer involved, the iPhone has slowly (but steadily) moved away from Bauhaus fundamentals toward ideals more closely in alignment with minimalism. Minimalism as a distinct art movement, rather than the generic term, began in the late 1950s and flourished throughout the '60s and '70s. It is associated with artworks of extreme abstraction and simple geometric shapes, like those by Frank Stella and Robert Morris.

While the most recent iterations of the iPhone remain slick, they've lost most of the soft edges and even the finishes that were once hallmarks. Now, the iPhone has a more uniform, monochromatic shell rendered in solid colors. Gone are the contrasting materials of the Bauhaus school, replaced by a Donald Judd-like whole crafted in an increasingly angular style. And the elimination of the home button and traditional headphone jack further serve to turn the iPhone into a work of supremely reductionist sculpture that continues to grow simpler with time.