Shapes of Things to Come: Steve Jobs and Japanese Ceramics

Steve Jobs helped shape the modern world with his products at Apple, and it seems we can partly thank Japan’s unique ceramic aesthetic for some of his most iconic designs.

In the spring of 1996, the wife of an antique business owner in Kyoto noticed a couple of strangers peering through the store window. She had no idea that 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 chose three pieces of pottery and Jobs returned the next two days.

At the time, Jobs was not revolutionizing the world of computing, as he had done at Apple in the 1980s and again in the 21st century. Instead, he worked for animation giant Pixar Studios, where he had recently served as executive producer of the hit film, toy story.

Syokando Gallery, which Jobs visited in April 1996.

“Unusual level of interest”

The previous weekend, Jobs had also attended an exhibition in Kyoto featuring the work of a Japanese potter. Shakunaga Yukio specializes in Etchu Seto-yaki style, and Jobs immediately fell in love with her designs.

Shakunaga remembers seeing the couple there. He says Jobs showed a real appreciation for the finer points. “He didn’t just look. He had to touch,” says Shakunaga. “And he seemed to enjoy the warmth and softness of the clay – a real sense of compassion for the pieces.”

Shakunaga explains how Jobs appreciated his works.

Shakunaga says Jobs even asked where he bought the clay. “I told him how I got it from a nearby mountain. “I make different types for different pieces and bake them in kilns depending on what I’m going to use them for,” he says.

“Mr. Jobs was very interested in how the clay was transformed by the kiln. This level of interest is unusual.”

Clay is soft due to its fine particles.

An appreciation for round edges

Jobs visited the exhibit three days in a row. On the last day, he bought several items, including tea cups, vases, and coffee mugs. He also placed orders for plates – with detailed instructions on size, texture and color.

A plate ordered by Jobs.

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 angled corners because it makes it easier to hold things. He understood that people want to hold round objects in their hands.”

Jobs vase and teacup ordered.

It was not until leaving the exhibit that Jobs introduced himself and gave Shakunaga a book on toy story. Those three days marked the start of a ten-year relationship during which Jobs ordered products from the artist four times.

Jobs gave Shakunaga a Toy Story book.

Back strong, and back to Japan

Several months after his trip to Kyoto, Jobs returned to Apple after an 11-year absence. His first objective was to overhaul the management of the company. The small team he assembled quickly became the standard bearer for personal electronics – starting with the iMac desktop computer.

It was an instant global phenomenon, with a curvaceous design that became the most recognizable on the market. The iMac became the company’s best-selling product and marked Jobs’ second coming to the world stage.

The iMac is synonymous with the resurgence of Jobs.

“Like a kid in a candy store”

In 1999, Jobs was the biggest name in the tech industry. He returned to Japan to give a talk about his recent successes, but he also had something else on his mind: pottery.

At the time, Robert Yellin was a journalist for an English-language newspaper in Japan, and also a specialist in ceramics. Apple staff contacted him, asking him to arrange a tour of several Tokyo-area stores for Jobs. Yellin agreed and soon received a particular set of instructions from the company.

  • Don’t let smokers near him. He doesn’t like to smoke.
  • Do not use four-letter words or foul language.
  • Try to keep him away from crowds.
Robert Yellin currently runs an antique shop in Kyoto.

Yellin admits to being a little wary of the rules. But he also says Jobs couldn’t have been more charming. The men visited two galleries displaying both antiques and modern objects, as well as an individual pottery collector in Tokyo.

“He was like a kid in a candy store,” Yellin says.

Steve Jobs

Jobs was particularly interested in a 16th century pot made in shigaraki-yaki “uzukumaru” style. He held it, and Yellin recalls muttering, “Oh. Alright,” as he enjoyed the tactile nature of the surface.

“uzukumaru” style Shigaraki-yaki items

Yellin believes the experience had a profound effect on Jobs. “He really liked the curved shoulder of the pot. He told me he wanted his products to have that smooth shoulder.”

Yellin recalls Jobs saying the word “sublime” several times that day. The visit was supposed to last two hours, but it lasted five hours. Yellin says there were Apple employees who told him they had never seen Jobs so happy.

Tea cups with an ash glaze

Jobs’ passion for Japanese pottery never wavered until his death in October 2011 at the age of 56.

About a year before he died, Jobs was again in Japan. This time he visited Koka, a city famous for ceramics, where he met Takahashi Rakusai the Fifth – a centuries-old master of the art Shigaraki-yaki style.

Takahashi Rakusai the Fifth remembers talking with Jobs.

Takahashi quickly identified Jobs as a pottery lover when he asked for a cup of tea with a haika buri ash glaze.

The phenomenon occurs when ash from the wood firing of the kiln falls onto the surface of the clay to form a glass-like finish. Unpredictable colors and patterns make each piece so unique. As Takahashi says, this aesthetic is “the decision of the gods”.

A flower vase and large bowl with ‘ash glaze’ purchased by Jobs.

Jobs picked up a large bowl from Takahashi’s workshop. At the time, it was the potter’s finest work. “Even today it makes me happy to think he picked it. He really got it. I think he was a real aficionado.”

The secret passion of Steve Jobs

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