Cultivating your South Florida minimalist interior the Steve Jobs way

Steve Jobs’ Nearly Empty House

Here is the iconic image of Steve Jobs, the whole brain genius who connected creativity with technology, art with engineering, at ease in his home, sitting in lotus pose in an empty room. He is drinking a cup of tea with a few books around him, a Tiffany lamp casting a yellow circle of light, the rest of the room in shadow. Records and a stereo system can be made out in the background. He seems calm, surrounded by soft music or silence perhaps. The picture is strangely still and leaves us wondering. Is he happy? Is he sad? What is he doing, really? Why does someone with so much creative power and financial resources choose to live in a virtually empty house?

Steve Jobs December 15, 1982 in living room of his Los Gatos, CA home, photo by Diane Walker (image source)


Steve and Steve in Los Gatos house circa 1982. (image source)

The Standard Western House

Steve Jobs is apparently not aspiring to the standard Western model of a well appointed home that acts as an appropriate marker for his standing in society. While we often surround ourselves with comfort, luxury even, furniture customarily in our culture such as couches, tables, mirrors, rugs, chairs, gadgets and decorations, (among a thousand other items expected to be found in a Western home), he has none of those things. We also like our fireplaces, bathrooms, kitchens with many special gadgets, in-home offices to work in, garages to store cars and other machines, workshops with equipment and material and other specialty rooms like saunas, media centers, laundry rooms — the list is endless. A bustling industry has developed to market home related wares to us and so our houses are sometimes crammed with these sometimes beautiful and sometimes not so pretty trappings.

The contents we accumulate and store in our homes say a lot about us. They reflect our egos, our tastes, our budgets, whom or what we care about — ourselves or the opinions of others. The things around us reflect the current moment in our life journey and reveals our progress in our search for pleasure and meaning, the path of our aspirations, the choices we make trying to find our way. Steve Jobs’ house is bare. What does this minimalist home style say about Steve Jobs life journey? More than one might think.

Anecdotes and Quotes about Steve Jobs’ Spare Life Style

Mark Parker, newly minted CEO of Nike, once called Steve Jobs for advice.

Steve told him ” Nike makes some of the best products in the world.  Products that you lust after.

But you also make a lot of crap.  Just get rid of the crappy stuff and focus on the good stuff.”

“He was absolutely right, we had to edit” said Parker.

” You have to pick carefully.” said Steve Jobs. ” I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done.  Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.”  You can fit the whole Apple product portfolio on one small table. All of the creations are simple and elegant.

So, Steve Jobs’  house may have been empty because Steve said “no” top crap? And most things in his playbook  apparently didn’t make the cut.

In Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Steve Jobs you can read about his spare life style, his home being furnished only with the barest essentials throughout most of his lifetime. His search for either perfection or nothing, followed down to the smallest details, resulted in the creation of some of the greatest devices and interfaces in the history of all computer technology.

Is Steve’s house empty then because he was a terminal perfectionist and nothing he found made the cut? Word of mouth has it that he espoused perfection beyond the average bear, and Walter Isaacson gives some humorous examples in Steve Jobs’  biography such as the story about the European washing machine.

A Time Magazine article reads: “The Steve Jobs who is currently running two sophisticated companies lives in a turn-of-the-century English-style country house in Palo Alto with his wife Laurene. The house is run with a distinct 1960s flavor. Laurene has planted a garden of wildflowers, herbs and vegetables all around. The rooms are sparsely decorated, the only extravagances being Ansel Adams photographs.”

 So Steve Jobs likes costly original art  and plants in and around his house. And a classy original Tiffany lamp also made the cut.

Steve Job’s house exterior in Palo Alto, CA where he lived with his wife and children (image source)

What you might not know: Steve Jobs’ Secret Mind Technology

It turns out Steve was not only a pioneer in creating groundbreaking, cutting edge products in computer technology but also a pioneer in mind technology. All his life, he used Zen mindfulness meditation to reduce stress, gain clarity and ramp up his creativity. He was quite specific as to how he practiced this discipline. He even likened Zen to coding at some point.

He told his biographer, Walter Isaacson,  about how he meditates:

“If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there’s room to hear more subtle things–that’s when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more. Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment. You see so much more than you could see before.”
He further described to him how his Zen practice and Zen principles have been part of his life and have influenced everything he has touched, both personal and business.
He lived spare as described, dressed in the same clothes like the that ever present black mock turtleneck of which he bought a hundred pieces from Issey Myake designs, ate mostly Vegan, had no TV for the kids and designed the Apple product line like a Zen monk following Zen precepts.

So while Steve definitely had minimalist and perfectionist tendencies, he lived in empty houses mainly because he was a Zen Buddhist practicing mindfulness meditation and lived according to Zen precepts, and therefore saw things differently than most Westerners. Whatever the mix of personality traits and spiritual and mental practices, it worked astonishingly well for him. And for us as well, because we benefit from his simply magical inventions that sprang from his imagination and were made real through his engineering genius.

What are the key Zen design principles Steve adopted that were responsible for his ultimate success? Apart from his main belief as to the basis of his success being to ‘Never Give Up, Never Surrender”  your vision, your own idea and your projects of passion, what other checklist was in place here to generate products of genius and excellence, imbued with beauty and finesse, yet elegantly simple and intuitive? Where did Steve source this perfect “less-is-more” motive expressed without words in that iconic photograph?

Apparently by his understanding and use of  Zen principles of design, of which, ironically, there are many, given such deceptively simple results. Herewith I give you the Zen ideal of Shibumi, which explains both Steve’s empty house and his beloved Apple creations.

First, Shibui or Shibumi is somewhat elusive to define. Much like Zen as a whole. Here are some attempts.

Per wikipedia, “Shibumi (or Shibui) is an enriched, subdued appearance or experience of intrinsically fine quality with economy of form, line, and effort, producing a timeless tranquility. ”  

Garr Reynolds of Presentation Zen defines Shibui in his blog: “Shibui/Shibumi (渋味Beautiful by being understated, or by being precisely what it was meant to be and not elaborated upon. Direct and simple way, without being flashy. Elegant simplicity, articulate brevity. The term is sometimes used today to describe something cool but beautifully minimalist, including technology and some consumer products. (Shibui literally means bitter tasting).”  Like Steve’s creations, maybe?


How Does This Apply To You and Your Home? 

With such an appetite in our culture for these types of product designs, let us see how the beneficial effects of Zen practice, especially its design principles, could be applied to our homes. Firstly, if you pay attention to what worked for Steve Jobs, cultivate mindfulness meditation. It is likely to have beneficial effects on your acuity of perception and success in this world. Steve Jobs’ use of this mind technology put him far ahead of the pack for a lifetime.

The mind technology of meditation has since gone mainstream. According to a recent article in The Atlantic, companies as diverse as Target, Google, General Mills, and Ford have begun to teach their employees the same kind of mindfulness meditation that Jobs embraced decades ago.

Per Isaacson’s new biography, Steve fancied himself a Zen Artist more than anything else. He talked to him about “what real artists do”. You can read more in “The Steve Jobs Code” by Matthew E. May.

“In the mornings and evenings he would meditate and study Zen…” writes Isaacson, and that “Jobs’s interest in Eastern spirituality, Hinduism, Zen Buddhism and the search for enlightenment was not merely the passing phase of a 19-year-old.” Jobs told him that “Zen has been a deep influence in my life.”

Enjoy bringing some of the most prized design features into your home by taking the Zen view of things. Steve Jobs did, and he designed some of our most loved and valued possessions we could not live without.

To benefit from Zen design principles as used in his Apple products line, and to make our homes more peaceful, tranquil and supportive of our mental and creative endeavors, read more here about The Shibumi Seven Design Principles of Zen.


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