Interview with sculptor/painter Tom Eckert

The cover of “Apple Magazine” (Volume 2, Number 2) featured a wooden sculpture of an Apple ///, a photo with which most “Sarasaurs” are familiar. We managed to track down Arizona artist Tom Eckert, whom Apple commissioned to create the piece back in 1980, and while Eckert declined to come on the air with us, he was happy to provide some insight into his creative process. Below, you can read our interview, which includes some never before published photos of another Apple-commissioned piece. We are grateful for Eckert’s participation.

DTI: Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions about your famous wooden Apple /// sculpture.

TE: The old Apple III was a grand computer for the day. The other computers ran DOS as the system software while the Apple III had SOS. This system proved to be way advanced for the time. I understand it was the computer that they sent to the moon.

DTI: How did you decide to do a sculpture of the Apple ///, as opposed to the more popular Apple II computer? Was this a commissioned piece or did you find something in the design of the machine that you wanted to express in this medium?

TE: It was a commission from Apple. Computers were just coming to life then so I was intrigued to take it on as a subject for a piece. The Apple III was brand new and I created the sculpture for the cover of “Apple Magazine”. I knew nothing about computers at this time, around 1980, but I found the design “Star Wars” -like, futuristic with mysterious implications. My son, who was around 12, had friends with computers and was aware of some of the games. It was through his excitement and the commission that I got interested in computers. I purchased a VIC-20 for my son and an Apple II for myself. I believe it was this early contact with computers that led to my son’s career. After pursuing a graduate degree in robotic engineering he is now a Bay-Area sculptor involved extensively with computing and creating kinetic sculpture. He currently has a solo exhibition up at the Museum for Craft and Design, San Francisco.

Apple Magazine Vol. 2, No. 2
Apple Magazine Vol. 2, No. 2

DTI: How long had you been working in wood sculptures at the time?

TE: Prior to the Apple commission, I had been with wood for just a few years. My undergraduate degree is in painting and drawing, and sometime during graduate school I evolved into a sculptor. My earlier sculpture was mixed media, but primarily plastic. I switched to wood as my media of choice after learning about some of the health concerns inherent with plastics – toxic dust and harmful vapors. When I discovered what I could do with wood I went a little crazy, pushing the material to extremes. Prior to the Apple commission I created “Tank Chair” and “Bomb Clock”. Both pieces illustrate my early compulsion with the material.

"Bomb Clock," an early sculpture by Tom Eckert
“Bomb Clock,” an early sculpture by Tom Eckert
"Bomb Clock" detail
“Bomb Clock” detail

DTI: What influenced your decision to use sugar maple (a very hard wood), rather than a softer wood that perhaps would have been easier to shape?

TE: I chose maple mainly because it lacks figuring (found in many other hardwoods) and is somewhat anonymous. It also works well and holds fine detail.

"Tank Chair"
“Tank Chair”
"Tank Chair" detail
“Tank Chair” detail

DTI: When did you begin working on the sculpture?

TE: I think it was around 1980.

DTI: What tools and techniques did you choose for the piece? Were these decisions informed by the particular design of the computer or the type of wood you chose?

TE: This piece was constructed, not carved. Pre-formed parts were assembled to create the finished piece. The commission goes back to a period of my working time that I refer to as my “small parts period”. I would make individual parts and then assemble them together. The Apple III sculpture is formed of many parts that were pre-formed and then assembled. The equipment used was typical to woodworking – table saw, lathe, router. The techniques used were not informed by the design or the wood used, but were consistent with the work I was doing at the time.

DTI: Does that mean that the individual keys move like a real keyboard when you press them? What about the disk drive door – does it open? Do power switches or other external parts move like they do on the real machines?

TE: None of the parts on the III work mechanically. On the Lisa, however, the plugs do plug in.

DTI: How long did the /// take to finish?

TE: As near as I can remember, it took me several months to complete. Because of the cover shoot date, Apple had a rigid deadline and I ended up working around the clock for days. I recall spraying the piece in the early morning of the due date, under set-up lights because it was still dark. Thanks to FED-EX Overnight, it just made it.

DTI: How much did the finished piece weigh?

TE: The piece is hollow and weighs less than ten pounds.

DTI: Do you still have it? If not, do you remember where it ended up?

TE: No, the last I heard it was housed in a Plexiglas vitrine at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, CA.

Eckert's sculpture in the mini-museum at Apple's Infinite Loop 4 building.
Eckert’s sculpture in the mini-museum at Apple’s Infinite Loop 4 building. (Source.)


DTI: If it’s not inappropriate to ask, how much did Apple pay for the ///?

TE: I can’t remember how much the commission paid but a new Apple III was part of my payment. I think there was also a check but I am not sure of the amount.

DTI: We’re fascinated by your current work, especially the realist pieces. Did the challenges in creating the Apple /// sculpture in any way influence your style on future works?

TE: Thank you. My latest work has to do with illusions (the impossible, magic). I am so challenged to make these pieces. I am getting more and more interested in painting. Funny, I seem to be going full-circle. Yes, I think the Apple commissions were a prelude to some of my current work. In addition to the Apple III, Apple also commissioned me to create my version of the Lisa, as I understand the first personal computer to use mouse technology. It was intended to be a going away gift for John Couch (I think) who was the mouse developer for Apple. As it turned out the piece took me longer to make than expected and he never received it. For my commission I received a Lisa valued at around $10,000 back then. I never even opened the box and quickly sold to a businessman who used it to run his shop.

"Lisa Computer" sculpture
“Lisa Computer” sculpture
"Lisa Computer" detail
“Lisa Computer” detail


DTI: Did you ever find out where the Lisa ended up? The photos you sent are the first I’ve heard or seen of that piece. 

TE: I have no idea what happened to the Lisa after I shipped.

DTI: Was the Lisa made of the same materials and small-parts techniques as you employed with the Apple ///?

TE: The Lisa was made in a similar way as the Apple III. The curly cord that attaches the keyboard was the biggest challenge. It was produced by wrapping several thin strips (veneer thickness) of maple around a cardboard tube with glue between each layer – the tube served as the form. The tube was then crushed and I had a spring form. This wooden “spring” was then shaped by hand.

DTI: Do you remember who within Apple commissioned the pieces?

TE: My contact within Apple was Phil Raymond. I believe he was Apple’s design director at the time.

DTI: Did Apple send you sample machines to reference while you worked, or were you restricted to pictures/plans, etc?

TE: Yes, I was given both an Apple III and a Lisa (Phil said it was a low production number).

DTI: Did you take any pictures of the pieces as you were working on them?

TE: I have a vague memory of some working images but not sure if they still exist. These commissions happened before digital photography, making progress shots of work much less convenient.

About Tom Eckert

Tom Eckert received his M.F.A. degree from Arizona State University, with advanced study at California State University at Northridge. He uses a wide variety of woodworking techniques in his sculptural pieces, including laminating, bending, carving, turning and painting. Exhibited in over 150 national and international exhibitions since 1966, his work is shown throughout the United States and the Netherlands, and was part of the Craft in America traveling exhibition. Solo exhibitions include Scottsdale Center for the Arts (AZ), Tempe Center for the Arts (AZ), Mesa Center for the Arts (AZ), Lois Lambert Gallery (CA), Mobilia Gallery (MA), Himovitz Miller Gallery (CA), West Valley Art Museum (AZ) and Gallery Materia/The Hand and the Spirit Gallery (AZ).

Numerous publications include Scientific American – Mind, Studio Furniture, American Craft, Art Space, and Fine Woodworking. His many commissions include McDonald’s Corporation, OSI Industries, Arizona Governor’s Award, and Apple Computer Inc. His work is included in many private and public collections including Los Angeles County Art Museum (CA), Racine Art Museum (WI), Museum of Fine Arts (MA), Museum of Arts & Design (New York), Albuquerque Museum (NM), Tweed Museum of Art (MN), Sheldon Museum of Art (NE), El Paso Museum of Art (TX), Tucson Museum of Art (AZ), Coconino Center for the Arts (AZ), Yuma Fine Arts Center (AZ). He received a Visual Arts Fellowship from the Arizona Commission on the Arts twice and was awarded WESTAF/NEA grants in 1993 and 1989.

Visit Tom Eckert on the web here.

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