Steve Jobs' Glass Houses

(right) Apple Store Architect Peter Bohlin
Steve no longer wanted his lovely objects flogged with the rest of the plebeian merchandise at the local Sears. He imagined his very own Apple stores that were not just retail, but social spaces, more like a clubhouse. Steve’s dream-store was a special place for true believers to make a pilgrimage rather than simply order a Mac online.
He travelled to other side of America to visit an old architect called Peter Bohlin in his home outside Scranton, Pennsylvania. Peter is a cheerful and gentle-natured man old enough to be his father. He is also totally computer illiterate. During their first of many meetings, Steve talked about the store Apple had leased in New York’s Fifth Avenue Plaza. The basement space below the General Motors tower had been an embarrassing failure, despite its prime location. How do you encourage people to descend into a basement?
While Steve spoke, Peter picked up his favourite Japanese Itoya pencils. He began to sketch.  His father ran the Faber pencil factory in the 1940s. Peter is the last of the generation who sketch on paper rather than fire up a laptop. In his mind’s eye, he saw the narrow General Motors tower. He imagined the stern looking men who designed this dinosaur of a broken industry. Peter was inspired to think different. He drew the delicate outlines of an ethereal glass cube in front of the tower. It was light as air, as if it would float away from its sullen and heavier neighbours. It has become one of the most photographed places on the Flickr. “There has always been something magical about a glass building,” Peter says.[1] Steve and Peter got busy adorning major cities around the world with Apple’s frosty glass emporiums.
At the posh Regent Street Store, a six-year-old London boy learns how to make music using Apple’s GarageBand software. The largest Apple Store in the world has a youth group, just like a church. Like a cathedral, the Apple Store is designed for visitors to bask in the glory of something greater than themselves.  Meanwhile, outside on the cobbles, actor, comedian, and self-confessed Apple fanatic, Stephen Fry signs autographs. He is the most watched Twitter user in the world. Before, during and after his visit to his local Apple church he tweets furiously about how Apple touches people, while reassuring us he is not paid a cent by Steve to say such things.

A group of Parisian MacHeads gather at the Apple store on Carrousel du Louvre. The space is so beautiful that it blends perfectly with The Louvre. They gather around an Apple “Creative” who is running a free workshop. He shows off the sleek interface of Apple’s Aperture photographic editing software. She directs the class to examine how legendary photographer, Doug Menuez, uses Aperture to manage and edit his work whilst on the road.

A Japanese woman books a One-To-One session at the monolithic Ginza Apple store wherein most of the staff speak several languages. She ascends to the fifth level in an elevator that could only have been designed by Steve - it’s built without buttons. The session has all the intimacy of a confessional. She confides that she has been a lifelong Windows user. Her penance is that she must learn that it’s “simple to switch“. The Apple website describes a One-To-One session:
We’ll show you tips and tricks that will help you do things faster, with an element of cool only found on the Mac. With these techniques under your belt, you’ll not only be thinking smarter, you’ll be thinking like a Mac user.
Afterwards, she waits in line to take part in the store’s New Year’s Day tradition of purchasing an Apple “mystery bag”.
The largest Apple logo in the world burns bright within the 700 square-meter glass atrium of the Sydney Apple Store. Musicians from all over the country have performed under the phosphorescent apple since the store opened in 2008. The first to score a gig inside the fishbowl was Powderfinger.

According to its head of retail, the store boasts the largest sheets of laminated glass ever built.[2] These perfectly engineered German panes have twice been replaced after damage caused by “a propelled hard object”.[3] Not everyone is an Apple fan.

Inside the emporium, a man in a grey Wayne Cooper business suit stalks past Doc Martin-ed kids playing with 300 dollar Skull Candy headphones. He climbs two flights of glass stairs that seem at once both ethereal and rock-solid. Steve’s name is on the design patent as he instinctively knew everyone would want his staircase (A broken Apple step was sold on eBay for US$9,950 in 2010). The businessman takes a seat across from his Apple consultant to discuss decorating his uptown office with suite of svelte iMacs. The Apple site claims:

Everyone needs a good business partner… And you’ll find one at the Apple Retail Store… We’ll be waiting for you when you arrive.[4]

New Yorkers hover like moths around a ten million-dollar flame that burns 24/7/365 at the Fifth Avenue Store. A man descends deep into its basement by taking a ride in a glass elevator that reminds him of a half-forgotten Roald Dahl children's story. A couple rendezvous for a date beside a row of iMacs showcased like fine art sculptures. Scores of Macheads are enjoying their clubhouse - just as Steve imagined. The store has become “a video arcade for grown-ups with credit cards” as one New York Times Journalist and Machead wrote.[5] The staff are chosen for their casual renegade cool – Steve’s projected image of himself. There is a genius bar built with blond farmhouse timber, handpicked by Peter.
The official Apple website explains the Apple Genius:

When you have questions or need hands-on technical support for your Apple products, you can get friendly, expert advice at the Genius Bar … home to our resident Geniuses.[6]

The real genius of the Genius bar is that you are tempted to buy stuff while waiting for a Genius. PC World journalist Rob Griffiths grew bored while waiting for his appointment. He gazed longingly at the femme fatale hardware displayed like sparkling Swarovski crystal-ware. Rob's total purchases by the time he spoke to his appointed Genius amounted to about twice the price of the item he had brought in to fix.[7]
The trouble with promoting brilliant customer service is that it creates impossible expectations in the minds of some customers.  The biggest complaint is the queue to see a Genius. Interestingly, their impatience is sometimes mixed with homophobia.  Technology weblog, Gizmodo published many stories of Apple customers behaving badly. One man stormed into Apple’s glass boutique, dumped his hardware on the bar, and stormed out without describing the problem. A few weeks later, he stormed back in demanding to know why his computer wasn’t fixed yet. He screamed, "It's not done yet? But you’re a Genius! You’re a Genius! You’re a Genius!" As he left, the unhappy customer asked one of the staff, "What's it like to work with fags all day?" Another man decided a Genius was taking too long to solve a problem and yelled, “f….ck you, faggot”, before throwing a right jab into the Genius’s face. 

The downside to nurturing a myth that your over-priced products are superior in every way is unreasonable customer expectations. A woman visiting a Genius accused Apple of stealing from her:

It's your responsibility for the damage because you should have known that somebody's dog would eventually pee in the computer and should have done something to protect it, like make it waterproof.[8]

A yellow puddle formed under her laptop on the once pristine white Genius bar. There are other stories of people releasing cockroaches and even pet tiger fur from their computers at Steve’s spotless show rooms.
These “war stories” clash with Steve’s idea that his customers are somehow more refined than the average Dell jockey. 

[1] Saffron, I. (2010, March 22) Old-school architect creates an iOpener. Inquirer Architecture Critic. 

[2] Dockrill, P. (2008, June 18) INSIDE the Apple Store Sydney: sneak preview. Australian Personal Computer.

[3] (2010, August 30) Sydney Window Damage Repaired—Again.  Retrieved from


[5] Kukzynski, A. (2006, February 6) A Jammed Video Arcade for Grown-Ups. New York Times.


[7] Griffiths, R. (2009, September 25) The Real Genius Of The Genius Bar. Macworld.

[8] Buchanan, M. (2010, January 22) Genius Bar War Stories. Gizmodo. Retrieved from

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