Bob Greenberg talks about how his past informs the future.
Bob Greenberg likes to feel connected. Entering the glass-walled office at the New York headquarters of his international design innovation company R/GA, he gently closed the sliding door behind him as his team continued their work in the vast open-plan space beyond.
A self-confessed technology lover, he has been invited to curate the 16th installation in the ‘Selects’ series at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, in which designers, artists, architects and public figures guest curate an exhibition, choosing objects from the museum’s collection. For his presentation, Greenberg has brought together 42 items to illustrate how he thinks design and technology have shaped modern human life.
In his trademark black beret, he pulled up a chair and gesticulated towards the main windows where snowflakes were falling onto the streets outside. It’s 40 years since the release of Superman, the feature film whose iconic title sequence catapulted Greenberg into the limelight and kick-started a lifelong career in ground-breaking motion graphics. When asked how his childhood defined his character, Greenberg chuckled, “I’m just a Jewish bloke from the suburbs of Chicago. I think we were middle class – I never wanted for anything, particularly.
“Dyslexia, on the other hand, had a tremendous impact on my life. I had a terrible time and really struggled with it. My parents thought I was slow with lots of learning disabilities and at school, I was taken out of mainstream classes and put into the remedial groups instead – we were treated like we were stupid. Dyslexia affects people differently, it can be a difficulty in reading, the inability to add without a calculator, struggling with locations or issues with speech. I didn’t find out I had it until I was 35 when I wound up going to see a psychoanalyst. By sheer luck, his expertise was dyslexia, so that’s when I learned I had it and was told I was actually doing very well. I don’t know if it’s maybe better, or less good to overcome it yourself. Nowadays it’s more recognised. There are special tests and people have help with the aid of computers.”
Greenberg told us that many designers at R/GA have mild cases of dyslexia, especially those working in user-experience. He pointed out that pattern recognition can be used in place of more familiar methods of problem-solving. Aged 70 and looking back at the obstacles he has overcome he concluded, “It’s actually been a great benefit to me.” It certainly hasn’t held him back. R/GA now has more than 2,000 employees in offices around the world.
As a teenager, JD Salinger’s ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ was a significant influence on Greenberg: “It was quite helpful when I started working in Hollywood because the general theme there is phoniness. Part of the problem is cultural, and part of it has to do with the entertainment industry in general. It’s a business where actors are desperate to get the job and producers are desperate to have a successful movie. It’s a place where people that have issues, and the ones that are okay with being phony, tend to gravitate towards. I guess the best example of that character type would be President Trump, but anyway…it became an interesting book to me and I found myself re-reading it a lot. It was partly connected to how I was sailing through life with a reductionist vocabulary, not unlike Hemingway, who I later became a major fan of. As a dyslexic, his writing is much easier for me to deal with because it’s clean – which leads to advertising copy, which leads to print posters and also to product design. It’s all about simplicity, and to me, it felt like a natural fit.”
Dyslexia may have led him towards authors who demonstrated a neutral and restrained attitude in their prose. Plain writing leaves space for the reader’s imagination. A reductionist approach allows a broader group of people to understand and appreciate something.
By the age of 16 Greenberg became interested in the household products designed by Dieter Rams. Transfixed by the shape, functionality and use of colour, he remembered one particular Braun item fondly, “I collected his things because I thought they were beautiful, but you know, it’s weird when a kid buys a hairdryer just for the buttons, but I was in love with them! I’m pretty sure my mom thought it was strange.”
Young Bob was a Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson enthusiast too, especially admiring the mid-century glass houses. Fast forward to 2018 and it has become clear that his appreciation for good design was more than an adolescent phase, it has become his obsession. Determined to make his own glass house, he commissioned Japanese architect Toshiko Mori to create a home on a secluded spot at the edge of dense woodland in upstate New York.
“We have four small single-story houses and a garage that are all connected,” Greenberg said of his system of buildings on one plot. “The main house is glass all around, which sadly meant that works of art, photography or oil paintings would be damaged if they were left on display.” The search to find resilient but beautiful objects that could withstand the sun’s rays led him to acquire one of the largest collections of Chinese Buddhist sculptures from the Qi and Wei dynasties: “Dug up from the earth after thousands of years and they still look magnificent. They are timeless pieces, largely unaffected by the elements.”
The struggle to balance a love of physical objects with the desire for simplicity led Greenberg to recall a meeting with a revered British minimalist architect who told him that most clients had to rent storage for their belongings. “It’s actually very difficult to be a minimalist,” Greenberg conceded. “Our houses aren’t very big. Three are 1000 sqft, and one is 1200 sqft, which means we’ve had to think very carefully about everything we put inside them.”
“Building an extremely minimalist, connected house like ours is even more complex than you would expect because you see everything – because it’s so hard to do, you appreciate it more. Innovating and pushing everything to the edge is a lot of work. But for me, breaking new ground is always the fun part.”
He understands that to make things that will be remembered, an element of risk-taking is required. Not one to let the constraints of present technologies deter him, his knowledge of innovations of the past leads him to break new ground.
“The Superman titles are a good example of how humans work better when they are forced to be experimental. The technology that had to be developed was the same as Kubrick was using for 2001: A Space Odyssey, but because we didn’t know that, we had to do it all on our own. It involved inventing new film stocks, lenses, computers to assist that had never been used before for animation cameras or optical printers. I remember when we were putting it together in London; Richard, my brother, and Stuart Bell finished it around 5 in the morning. Stuart caught the Concorde because it was the only way it could be integrated into the film – they didn’t have another minute!”
Embracing advances in technology is something Greenberg explores in his exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt. Perplexed at why the older generations view it as a threat, he considered the wider implications: “I think the big problem is that when people find themselves out of work and feeling not relevant today, they end up quite angry. That’s what I feel very sad about.
“As a society, we have to find ways of training people before they get displaced by technology. It won’t be long before there are driverless trucks and driverless cars. Everybody wants the developments to stop, they complain they are tired of it, but it’s going to be exponential, and we’ve not even started talking about what’s going to happen with robotics! There are robots that can fold towels coming out of Japan and people chuckle at it. It’s not going to be such a chuckle when it replaces someone’s job.
“But all of this is great for older people who are immobile and need to turn off the lights, change the TV channel or turn up the heat. The sophistication is incredible, and the products are relatively inexpensive – it’s the future, and I’m all for it.”
An appreciation for objects, some of which have remained relevant for hundreds of years, has enabled Greenberg to better understand the future. His celebration of industrial design, architecture, and sculpture inform how he makes the digital world that pervades modern culture feel more human.
Greenberg’s selection for the Cooper Hewitt exhibition is presented in four groupings, one of which is Dieter Rams’s ten principles for good design. Here Greenberg has chosen 11 objects that he considers best embody these principles including usefulness, honesty and unobtrusiveness, such as Rams’ HLD 4 No. 4416 Hair Dryers (1970), ET55 Calculator (1980) and AB 21/s Alarm Clock (1978).
‘Selects’ runs from February 23 to September 9, 2018, in the Nancy and Edwin Marks Collection Gallery at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, New York. If you’re unable to make it, Greenberg has created an app to guide you through the exhibition by sharing audio tours from Bob and other design experts speaking about objects that hold a special meaning to them.
With the sun going down and lights coming on in the main office, we suddenly became aware of the time. As the signal came from his team, he thanked us for the welcome digression with a smile and was absorbed back into the hubbub of the R/GA offices. His singular vision was needed elsewhere.