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  • 02.13.17

The Surprising Genius Of Apple’s Dorkiest Idea

Former Disney imagineer Tony Christopher speaks with Co.Design about designing Apple’s cybercafe–and shares exclusive images.

The year was 1996.

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Apple wasn’t doing well, suffering through the awkward years between the Mac and the iPod. Jobs would return officially in 1997, but in the meantime, Apple was contemplating how to make some fast cash by licensing its name. In this gap leading to its renaissance, Apple considered a concept that feels wild, yet, in retrospect, almost inevitable: the Apple Cafe.

It wasn’t an Apple store you’d recognize today, nor was it even designed by Apple. The Apple Cafe, uncovered again recently by Armin Vit, was a retro-future diner with neon lighting and computers at every table. Like a Planet Hollywood born from Cupertino’s womb, you could teleconference with the next booth over, or order a meal with an Apple computer, all from a cafe that looked like the Back to the Future 2 backlot.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this whimsical vision was brought to life by ex-Disney talent. Former Imagineer Tony Christopher founded Landmark Entertainment Group in 1980, and Landmark would go on to create theme park attractions for Universal Studios (including early concepts on Back to the Future: The Ride), along with groundbreaking, theatrical retail experiences like the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian in Las Vegas.

In a recent call with Co.Design, Christopher recounted the development behind the Apple Cafe, which, though it went down in history as Apple’s forgotten attempt to make a quick buck, may have been foundational for the Apple Store itself. And he shared the images you see here–many of which seem to have never been released before.

Jobs’s Cybercafe

According to Christopher, Apple wasn’t sure what it wanted when it approached Landmark. But the first inklings of Jobs’s idea for the Apple Store were there:

We were contacted by Apple because of all of our experience to that point. We were the go-to guys with creating something unique in the retail space. Steve Jobs–who we never met by the way–selected the team we were working with, because he was looking for a way to connect Apple to its customers . . . a way to have the customers sort of touch Apple.

We didn’t go to the campus. It was a team put together who met with us in our office. We had little Apple Cafe jackets that they made, so we were on their team!

Twenty years ago, cybercafes were a radical idea:

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They didn’t know exactly what they wanted to do at first. I don’t know if they had the idea for a cafe or that was something we came up with. It was 20 years ago! But that’s the way we work, a lot of the time people come to us saying, ‘we’re not sure what we want . . . we’re looking for a way to connect to our customers . . . If I were a betting man, I think we said, ‘Let’s build an Apple Cafe.’ It was the world’s first cybercafe. There wasn’t a cybercafe at this time, and a lot of people who didn’t have computers were looking for a way to go use them. Back in 1998, this was a radical idea!

A Secret Design

Landmark’s designs for the cafe were a Disneyfied version of ’90s computer culture, replete with video games, teleconferencing, and futuristic design details:

It was a super secret project, because you know, at the time, the Apple Store hadn’t arrived yet. So buying a computer was done online or through computer stores. At the cafe, when you sat down at your booth, there was an Apple computer at the table. There were several programs you could call up. One was you could order your food. (There were food service people, but we wanted to make the order first.) You could play fundamental video games. And I think there were also movies you could access.

The interior design was very high tech, and we worked on it for about six months. I think we were trying to create sort of a modern-but-futuristic look, which is different than the immersive theme park stuff we do: castles and dinosaurs. I remember the designers we put on it were the high-tech, future-thinking guys. We understood that we were dealing with a computer, which was a future technology not a historic technology, and the Apple Cafe had to reflect that.

So, What Happened?

It’s hard to know exactly what killed the Apple Cafe. “The plan was to build the first one in the first location, then roll out around the U.S. and the world,” Christopher says. Yet the idea was put on hold:

The whole thing went to Steve Jobs, and basically when he saw it, he liked it, but he put it on hold because he had this idea for an Apple Store. Years later, he opened the first one . . . It’s sort of a short story. It’s interesting because this was not Apple as Apple is today. They were just a computer company. But they were interested in, again, making computers for everyone.”

The story is recounted in the book Apple Revolution with a slightly different spin, pointing out that “Apple loved the idea until the bitter end,” while it was actually third parties–assumably the U.K. real-estate investment group Mega Bytes–that pulled out of the idea.

But the amazing thing is that, as Christopher explained to us, the Apple Cafe was meant to have a retail arm, too. So it would have sold computers, much like the Apple Store that came later–an Apple Store that would have table after table of Apple computers to play with and a Genius “Bar” that would give tech support visits a vibe more akin to a club. In this sense, the Apple Cafe never really died. It just evolved into one of the most successful retail ventures on the planet.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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