The two luminaries met in 1980, and Fuller’s influence on Apple is visible to this day.
[Photos: Tom Munnecke/Getty Images, Bettmann/Contributor]
BY ALEC NEVALA-LEE6 MINUTE READ
On October 24, 1980, a man named Taylor Barcroft drove to San Francisco. He was there to see Buckminster Fuller, the architectural designer and futurist, who was delivering a speech at a wellness conference. After the event, Barcroft headed south with Fuller and a cameraman to Cupertino, where they parked at a building on Bandley Drive. Barcroft had arrived without an appointment, and his entire plan depended on how confidently he handled himself now. Leaving Fuller in the car, he went inside and approached the receptionist. “I’ve got Bucky Fuller here for Steve Jobs.”
The visit was a gamble, but he had reason to believe that it would pay off. Barcroft, a University of Denver graduate in his early 30s, hoped to produce a series of cable television programs featuring commentary from Fuller. A segment with one of the founders of Apple Computer would be a compelling proof of concept, but instead of calling ahead, Barcroft thought he would have better luck by showing up unexpectedly with his famous guest. “I knew Steve was a fan of Bucky,” Barcroft remembered. “Anybody like Steve would be a fan of Bucky. And I wanted Bucky to meet Steve, who was going to fulfill Bucky’s dream.”
It was a risky move, but it succeeded. After the receptionist passed along his message, the first person who emerged to greet Barcroft was Mike Markkula, the chairman of the company, who spoke with him for a minute as they waited for Jobs to appear. Word also reached Daniel Kottke, a mellow but bright 26-year-old who had met Jobs nearly a decade earlier when they were freshmen at Reed College in Oregon. He had become close to Jobs, with whom he later shared a house, and was hired as the twelfth official employee of Apple.
Kottke was at his lab bench, which stood in a work area of cubicles and Herman Miller chairs, when someone announced that they had a visitor: “Buckminster Fuller’s here.” He rose immediately and hurried for the lobby, where he saw a cluster of people standing outside. His eyes were drawn at once to two men. One was Jobs, who wore his usual outfit of a casual shirt and jeans, and the other was R. Buckminster Fuller, whose face in those days was familiar across the world.
Fuller, 85, was dressed in the dark suit that he favored for all of his public appearances, and, in person, he was startlingly small. His driver’s license may have said that he was five foot six, but he had been about two inches shorter even in his youth, and his stature had been diminished by age. He had a huge, bald head with white hair trimmed almost to the scalp, a large hearing aid, and black, plastic glasses that magnified his hazel eyes into soft, enormously deep pools.
Joining the circle, Kottke spoke briefly with Fuller, whose work he had admired since high school. Kottke expected to talk to him further—he was often the one who showed guests around the office—but as the group headed off without him, he realized that Jobs wanted Fuller to himself.
As for Barcroft, he couldn’t believe his luck. He ended up at a conference table with Fuller and Jobs, who exchanged a few words while a cameraman recorded the meeting. When it was time for a tour, however, Barcroft was left behind as well. Jobs clearly didn’t want to include anyone else, and no one would ever know what he and Fuller said to each other in private at Apple, which was only months away from its initial public offering.
Afterward, Barcroft took Fuller back to his hotel. Barcroft was elated, but his plan for a cable show never materialized, and he later lost the footage of Fuller and Jobs. For his part, Fuller was unconvinced that the personal computer would enable his lifelong vision of access to information. “He didn’t believe it,” Barcroft recalled. “He thought that only mainframes could do that work.” Fuller had devoted his career to predicting the impact of technology, but he saw nothing special in Apple: “I remember him saying that he thought the computer was a toy.”
Judging from his eagerness to meet Fuller, their encounter left a greater impression on Steve Jobs, which came as little surprise to Daniel Kottke. “In my early friendship with Steve, he was interested in so many things that I was also interested in,” Kottke said. “That definitely included Fuller.” Since the ’60s, college campuses had found an unlikely hero in Fuller, whose reputation as an inventor was based on the geodesic dome, a hemispherical structure used in everything from industrial buildings to hippie communes, as well as the sculpture studio at Reed. He had been given a crucial push by the Whole Earth Catalog, an oversized guide to books and tools for the counterculture that Jobs, who avidly read it in college with Kottke, described as “one of the bibles of my generation.”
And Fuller’s influence at Apple was visible in even more fundamental ways. When Jobs and his partner Steve Wozniak—who later praised Fuller as “the 20th-century’s Leonardo da Vinci”—needed an industrial designer to build the housing for the Apple II, they hired Jerry Manock, a graduate of the legendary product design program at Stanford University. Manock established what became the Apple Industrial Design Group using an iterative approach that he attributed to Fuller: “He wasn’t interested in solving just one tiny design problem. He would look at the next level up, and the next level up, and the next level up.”
A year after his visit to Cupertino, Fuller received an Apple II as a gift, and his connection to the company resulted in one last tribute during his lifetime. Wozniak had spent millions on the U.S. Festival in San Bernardino, which he conceived as a Woodstock for his generation, “but maybe better.” On May 30, 1983, the crowd was treated to an elaborate video introduction to Fuller’s philosophy, which hundreds of thousands of concertgoers watched on an enormous screen before Stevie Nicks took the stage to sing “Dreams.”
Fuller died a month later, a half year before the release of the Macintosh, but his legacy at Apple endured. On September 28, 1997, a television commercial debuted during the network premiere of the animated film Toy Story. Steve Jobs had recently returned in triumph to Apple, and over a montage of luminaries—from Martin Luther King Jr. to Pablo Picasso—the actor Richard Dreyfuss offered a declaration of principles: “Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently.”
One of the 17 icons was Buckminster Fuller, who had been featured at the request of Jobs himself. Fuller had crossed paths with many of the other personalities in the commercial, including Albert Einstein, Amelia Earhart, Martha Graham, and Frank Lloyd Wright, and he appeared after John Lennon and Yoko Ono and before Thomas Edison—a suitable place for a man who had been revered by both the counterculture and the establishment.
The “Think Different” campaign was meant to sell computers, but it also spoke to an authentic vision personified by Fuller, who thought differently—for better or worse—than just about anyone else. “You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them,” Dreyfuss concluded. “About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”
IN THE SUMMER OF 1896, Swedish explorer Salomon August Andrée prepared to reach the North Pole via hot-air balloon. His equipment included a custom-made stove that dropped below the balloon’s basket, which would be lit with a string. “These precautions are taken to obviate the danger of having a fire too near the gas of the balloon,” the New Zealand newspaper The Feilding Star explained at the time. Had Andrée possessed the foresight to position that contraption above the basket, his balloon may have stood out for reasons other than its infamous failure the following year, when it crashed and left Andrée and his team to perish in the Arctic.
It took over a century for the hot-air balloon kitchen to reinvent itself, this time with more success.
Creating hot-air balloon haute cuisine is the dream-turned-reality of Dutch master chef Angélique Schmeinck. After 25 years of restaurant experience (including a 12-year run at the Michelin-starred De Kromme Dissel) and several cookbooks under her belt, she found herself wanting to venture into new territory.
Schmeinck had her “Eureka” moment in 2003 when she saw a hot-air balloon and realized, “a hot-air balloon is actually a huge hot oven!” Excited by the opportunity to build her own restaurant from scratch, she called a hot-air balloon company for help. Two weeks later, they hoisted a customized bag filled with fish and chicken to the crown of a balloon via pulleys. The flame at the balloon’s base brought the temperature to 194 degrees Fahrenheit (90 degrees Celsius), an ideal heat level for slow-cooked meals. When the balloon landed an hour and a half later, Schmeinck removed the fish and chicken. “I had tears in my eyes when I saw that it was perfectly cooked,” she says.
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That successful trial run was the starting point of CuliAir, the world’s first hot-air balloon restaurant. Since her maiden voyage almost two decades ago, Schmeinck has hosted about 50 trips each year across the Netherlands. So how has she succeeded where Andrée’ failed? Among the key advantages of her airborne kitchen are a cooking counter that hangs off the side of the balloon basket (and includes a camphor stove) and a pulley system attached to customized steel containers that allows Schmeinck to raise the food toward the balloon’s flame and lower it. Her system needs to be efficient: On board, Schmeinck has an hour and a half to serve three courses to 10 people. “Organization is the most important thing,” she says. Her kitchen is so well-designed that Schmeinck says she can find items blind.
Guests receive notification on where to meet mere hours before takeoff. CuliAir uses 20 different takeoff locations to accommodate the wide range of flying conditions. Weather can alter landing times or how high the balloon flies, an especially important consideration given the balloon flame’s dual function as oven and engine. Higher elevations require a higher flame, which means an increase in cooking temperature. Since the food that Schmeinck cooks requires temperatures between 194 to 230 degrees Fahrenheit, she works with the balloon’s pilot to ensure that course adjustments don’t affect a dish.
When guests arrive in the designated takeoff meadow, Schmeinck serves them an appetizer—such as melon, goat cheese, and dried capers—followed by champagne. Meanwhile, a ground crew sets up the large orange-and-white balloon and attached basket that can accommodate up to 12 people. The basket lays on its side, allowing guests to climb in and lay horizontally until the flame fills the balloon with enough heat to lift everything off the ground (and pull passengers upright). Once fully airborne, Schmeinck gets cooking.
The first in-the-sky course is typically a seafood cocktail. The natural, fresh ingredients can be prepared raw, cooked low, or cooked slow. This summer, Schmeinck has served langoustines (a Norwegian lobster-like delicacy), fresh clams, and lobster with passionfruit, lightly fermented yellow carrots, and glasswort (a saltmarsh plant that Schmeinck dubs “sea veggies”).
During the flight, Schmeinck serves wine and gives more information about her dishes. Standing-room only encourages interactions between the chef, pilot, and other diners as the balloon sails above the countryside, taking in the view from a cruising altitude that ranges 500 to 2,500 feet. “Sometimes when the clouds are low, we can go right through them,” says Schmeinck. “It’s a little bit misty. Then we’re above the clouds and see the sun shining. That moment is unforgettable. It’s amazing for me, after all these years.”
Schmeinck’s second course arrives 45 minutes later: royal sea bass pulled down from the suspended steel containers and served in a 12-year bouillabaisse sauce alongside seasonal vegetables, such as asparagus and artichoke. Schmeinck cooks these on the stove that dangles over the balloon basket’s edge with “a nice vadouvan oil,” a French spice blend that derives its ingredients from masala. While all other dishes and ingredients rotate according to season, her sea bass is a staple. “It’s the best fish for balloon cooking because it has a little more fat, which goes well with low and slow cooking,” Schmeinck explains. That, plus the inimitable bouillabaisse sauce, makes for a pairing that mirrors the balloon ride: rich and intense, light and adventurous.
The third course trends toward fowl, although lamb made an appearance earlier this year. Schmeinck’s most recent menu includes duck confit that is cooked in the raised containers, then glazed in its own juices. She pairs it with summer mushrooms and a salsa of lightly fermented cauliflower and pumpkin that she seasons with lemon, star anise, and cardamom.
After serving the third course, Schmeinck cleans up as the pilot navigates the balloon to the ground. Landings can range from smooth to bumpy. Back on terra firma, live music welcomes guests back as they enjoy a dessert (a recent offering was white chocolate and passionfruit mousse topped with a crispy rainbow meringue, raspberry, and basil syrup). Sometimes, Schmeinck will even serenade the guests herself with a guitar.
Given the precision necessary for running a successful CuliAir voyage, one must ask: Does anything ever go wrong? “The challenges are when we have to land earlier,” Schmeinck says. If the weather turns rough, the pilot will make a safety landing and the chef serves the main course in the meadow. Another time in CuliAir’s early days, “the control [for the suspended cooking containers] didn’t go down. It was stuck in the balloon so we could only eat vegetables.”
Sometimes the bumps along the way aren’t even related to air travel or the food: Marriage proposals are common, though not always well received, Schmeinck says. And what happens in the balloon doesn’t always stay in the balloon, as was the case with a flyaway black towel that she mistook for a bird. But overall, each voyage delivers an exhilarating experience. “The guests are having a great adventure, so all the senses are very open,” she explains. “The composition of the food and the flavor combinations must have the same adventurous character. It must not be boring, or too soft. . . . It must not be too heavy, or have too much cream, but it must be as light and elegant and fresh as ballooning itself.”