Steve Jobs helped shape the modern world with his products at Apple, and it appears we can partly thank the unique aesthetic of Japanese ceramics for some of his most iconic designs.
In the spring of 1996, the wife of an antiques business owner in Kyoto noticed a foreign couple peering in through the shop window. She had no idea the tall American man standing outside with his wife was one of the most influential people in tech.
"I knew Bill Gates, but not Steve Jobs," she admits.
Steve Jobs and his wife
The owner's wife says the couple immediately singled out three pieces of pottery, and that Jobs returned the following two days.
At the time, Jobs wasn't revolutionizing the world of computing, like he did at Apple in the 1980s and again in the 21st century. Instead, he was working for animation giant Pixar Studios, where he had recently served as the executive producer of the smash hit movie, Toy Story.
'Unusual level of interest'
The weekend before, Jobs also attended an exhibition in Kyoto showcasing the work of a Japanese potter. Shakunaga Yukio specializes in the Etchu Seto-yaki style, and Jobs immediately fell in love with his creations.
Shakunaga remembers seeing the couple there. He says Jobs showed a real appreciation for the finer points. "He wasn't satisfied with just looking. He had to touch," Shakunaga says. "And he seemed to value the warmth and softness of the clay — a genuine sense of compassion for the pieces."
Shakunaga explains how Jobs enjoyed his works.
Shakunaga says Jobs even asked where he bought the clay. "I told him how I dig it from a nearby mountain. "I make different types for different pieces and fire them in kilns according to what I'm going to use them for," he says.
"Mr. Jobs was very interested in the way the clay was transformed by the kiln. That level of interest is unusual."
An appreciation for round edges
Jobs visited the exhibition three days in a row. On the final day, he bought several items, including teacups, vases and coffee mugs. He also placed orders for plates — with detailed instructions on size, texture and color.
Shakunaga says Jobs showed a strong preference for an aesthetic feature that has since defined some of Apple's most iconic products. "He liked the sloping corners, because it makes items easier to hold. He understood that people want to hold round items in their hands.”
It was only as he left the exhibition that Jobs introduced himself and gave Shakunaga a book about Toy Story. Those three days marked the start of a decade-long relationship that saw Jobs order products from the artist four times.
Back with a bang, and back in Japan
Several months after his trip to Kyoto, Jobs returned to Apple after an 11-year absence. His first goal was to revamp the company's management. The small team he assembled soon became the standard bearer of personal electronics – starting with the iMac desktop computer.
It was an instant global phenomenon, with a curvy design that became the most recognizable on the market. The iMac became the firm's best-selling product, and it marked Jobs' second coming on the global stage.
'Like a child in a candy store'
In 1999, Jobs was the biggest name in the tech industry. He returned to Japan to give a lecture about his recent successes, but he also had something else on his mind: pottery.
Back then, Robert Yellin was a journalist at an English-language newspaper in Japan, and also a specialist in ceramics. Staff from Apple got in touch, asking him to arrange a tour of several shops in the Tokyo area for Jobs. Yellin agreed, and soon received a peculiar set of instructions from the company.
- Don't allow smokers near him. He doesn't like smoking.
- Don't use four-letter words or any bad language.
- Try to keep him away from crowds.
Yellin admits to feeling a little wary about rules. But he also says Jobs couldn't have been more charming. The men visited two galleries featuring both antiques and modern items, and an individual pottery collector in Tokyo.
"He was like a child in a candy store," Yellin says.
Jobs was particularly interested in a 16th-century pot made in the shigaraki-yaki "uzukumaru" style. He held it, and Yellin remembers him murmuring, "Oh. Okay," as he enjoyed the tactile nature of the surface.
Yellin believes the experience had a profound effect on Jobs. "He really loved the curvy shoulder of the jar. He told me that he wants his products to have that smooth shoulder."
Yellin remembers Jobs repeatedly saying the word 'sublime' that day. The tour was supposed to last for two hours, but actually went on for five. Yellin says there were staff at Apple who told him that they'd never seen Jobs look so happy.
Teacups with an ashen glaze
Jobs' passion for Japanese pottery never wavered, right until his death in October 2011 at the age of 56.
About a year before passing away, Jobs was in Japan again. This time, he visited Koka, a city famed for ceramics, where he met Takahashi Rakusai the Fifth – a master of the centuries-old Shigaraki-yaki style.
Takahashi quickly identified Jobs as a pottery lover when he requested a teacup with a haikaburi ashen glaze.
The phenomenon occurs when the ash from the wood firing the kiln falls onto the surface of the clay to form a glass-like finish. The unpredictable coloring and patterns are what make each work so unique. As Takahashi puts it, this aesthetic is "up to the gods."
A glazed vase and bowl similar to the items purchased by Jobs.
Jobs picked up a large bowl in Takahashi's workshop. At the time, it was the potter's finest work. "Even today, it makes me happy to think he singled it out. He really got it. I think he was a true aficionado.”