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The High-Tech Old Soul

Industrial designer Robert Brunner infuses smart technology with an artisan’s sense of craft.

SLIDESHOW

“This Africa print was a gift from my friend Paula Scher, who does amazing paintings of maps. Everything on there is a piece of hand-done typography.”

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“The Williams-Sonoma Cooks’ Tools by Ammunition are the first cooking tools Williams-Sonoma ever made themselves. They’re so beautiful I almost hate to use them.”

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“The Tizio lamp by Richard Sapper was influential to me early in my career. I love products that have dynamic qualities that feel like they’re in motion.”

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“We purchased this art by John Patrick McKenzie through Creativity Explored. John does this sort of crazy calligraphy where he’ll pick something and write it over and over and over.”

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“These Ted Muehling cast-bronze candlesticks were a wedding gift from my former partners at Pentagram. I would never design something like this—I tend to go very basic and modernist with products—but they’re these almost whimsical turned forms.”

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“The Low Pad chair by Jasper Morrison is another inspirational artifact. It has a plywood structure but is covered in leather that’s formed into pads. It has this sleek, minimalist quality, but it feels very crafted.”

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“My wife, Elizabeth, does these amazing natural-dyed fabrics under her brand, Piece X Piece. She uses everything from rust to bark to indigo to create colors and patterns.”

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“This Pro-Ject analog turntable is a great, modern version of a big part of my audio past. It’s about as low-tech as you can get, but it’s allowed us to dig out all our ’80s vinyl again.”

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“My dad designed the first disk drives at IBM using this slide rule as his primary calculation tool.”

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“My wife gave me this Bell & Ross BR 02 watch. I totally resisted the smart-watch movement, simply because I like a real watch. This is the first quality, well-crafted timepiece I’ve owned.”

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“I love the use of felted wool on the Libratone Lounge Airplay speaker. It’s natty and textural—it feels so warm.”

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“Liz Caruna took these portraits of my kids, my wife, and me. I have three-and-a-half-year-old twins, and the others are a writer, a graphic designer, an industrial designer, and a budding photographer. I keep saying they’re going to set up their own ad agency.”

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“My son Seth made this wood-chip self-portrait in sixth grade. It really captures him well. He’s 16 now.”

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“I grew up with these chairs. One day I was browsing DWR and saw them for like $900 apiece—I was like, ‘Holy shit, those are Mom’s chairs!’ They’re Danish modern classics by Niels Otto Moller. Who knew Mom was so with it?”

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“This is the deed to my island in the Bahamas, signed by King George VI. Seriously. It was gifted to my great-aunt on my dad’s side, and he passed it on to me. It’s more or less an uninhabited pile of rocks that disappears at high tide—but I can say I own an island.”

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“Everyone wants to be like Apple,” says Robert Brunner, founder of the North Beach design studio Ammunition. He should know: As Apple’s original director of industrial design, he created some of the company’s early icons. (His Powerbook 160 laptop currently resides in the permanent collection at SFMOMA.) “What I’ve found challenging,” he adds, “is companies that just want their version of the i-Whatever.”

Instead, Brunner has gone broad in the nine years since founding the 50-person Ammunition studio, designing such cultural touchstones as the Beats by Dre headphones, the Lyft Glowstache, and Polaroid’s Cube and Snap cameras.

The San Jose native calls himself a “true child of the tech industry.” His father, a mechanical engineer at IBM in the ’60s, was one of the inventors of the technology in early disk drives. “I grew up around these giant 12-inch disk platters,” Brunner says. After a childhood spent tinkering, he honed his craft with stints at Lunar Design, Apple, and Pentagram before launching his studio. Earlier this year, Ammunition won the prestigious Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for product design.

Today, Brunner runs his company with an overarching philosophy: Make simple, meaningful things. “We’re excited when we get to build things without microprocessors in them,” he says. This winter, that will include the June Oven—a superpowered intelligent oven—and the Ember, a temperature-adjustable travel mug. Brunner invited us into his Lower Haight home for a glimpse at the stuff that inspires him, from hand-me-down furniture to his own personal island.

 

Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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