Since the last true breakthrough product, 2015’s Watch, Ive has been slowly distancing himself from Apple. Now with LoveFrom, it looks like the luxury sector will be his first target
Ask most technology and business journalists who would be their dream interview and the chances are Apple’s design chief Jony Ive would feature at or near the top of their list. He and Steve Jobs forged the most creative partnership modern capitalism has seen. In less than two decades, they transformed Apple from a near-bankrupt also-ran into, briefly, the most valuable corporation on the planet, at the time worth more than $1 trillion (£790 billion).
I asked for an interview once a year for ten years, starting in 2003. Every year Ive – or rather Jobs – said no. Jobs liked to handle all press for Apple. The power of Jobs’s legacy meant that it was not until two years after his death that I finally got to sit down with Ive – in 2013 – and then, remarkably, again the following year – for two articles for the Sunday Times .
Spending four to five hours in Ive’s company might not seem much, but it is a good deal more than most writers have, and it means I can, as much as anyone, try to sum up his personality, put into context what he has achieved at Apple, and explain what is behind his decision to leave the firm to set up his own design venture: LoveFrom.
The 52-year-old Briton is the most unremarkable remarkable person you could meet. You might think you’d recognise him if you passed him on the street, but you wouldn’t. He’s not particularly tall, has a shaved head, two-day-old stubble and dresses like dads do on weekends – navy polo shirt, canvas trousers, desert boots. He speaks slowly and softly in an Essex accent totally unaffected by living in America for more than two decades. He was born and grew up in Chingford.
The intensity of his ideas is leavened by warmth and humour, much of it self-deprecating. “After almost 30 years in America, I can’t even bring myself to say math, instead of maths, so I say mathematics. I sound ridiculous,” he once told me. Nor has he succumbed to the west coast vogue for cleansing juices or single-batch, cold-press coffee. He remains dedicated to tea (his assistants have strict instructions to have Earl Grey on hand).
For each interview with Ive, he has chosen pared-down meeting rooms with just a few props to enable him to illustrate his points. That’s partly for PR reasons. A blank canvas reveals no secrets. But it also reveals a truth. Ive hates fuss and relishes the elegance of simplicity.
You can see that from his products. They may be revolutionary, hi-tech boxes, but they look so elegantly simple that you know what they are for and how to use them the moment you first pick them up. The iMac banished complicated, hard-to-use beige boxy PCs from our desks, making computing easy and tasteful. With just a small white box with a scroll wheel, the iPod put 1,000 songs in our pocket. The iPhone was so touchy-feely, it trashed the fiddly BlackBerry in a heartbeat. Five-year-old children can pick up and use the iPad.
It is simplicity, rather than any other quality, and certainly any single object, that Ive finds the most gratifying – and infuriating – element of this work. “People think simplicity is the absence of clutter. But that’s not the case. Something that is truly simple communicates what it is is in a very direct way. It’s very hard to design something that you almost do not see because it just seems so obvious, natural and inevitable,” he told me. That’s why he gets so angry when he sees his designs ripped off – the iPhone is the most copied invention of the modern era. “What’s copied isn’t just a design, it’s thousands and thousands of hours of struggle. It takes years of investment, years of pain.”
Ive’s relationship with Jobs fascinates anyone who has even a passing interest in technology. Their creative abrasion seemed to bring the best out of each other. Was Jobs as tough as people said he was, I once asked. Stories abound of him humiliating underlings and even – perhaps especially – top executives, Ive included. “So much has been written about Steve, and I don’t recognise my friend in much of it,” Ive said. “Yes, he had a surgically precise opinion. Yes, it could sting. But he was so clever. His ideas were bold and magnificent. And when the ideas didn’t come, he decided to believe we would eventually make something great. And, oh, the joy of getting there!”
Jobs’ presence still looms large at Apple. Outside the corporation’s meeting rooms Jobs’s sayings have been printed in huge letters on the wall. One reads: “If you do something and it turns out pretty good, then you should go do something else wonderful, not dwell on it for too long. Just figure out what’s next.” Jobs probably did not want Ive to figure out that the answer to ‘What’s next?’ was ‘Quit Apple’. Indeed, his decision announced last week to set up LoveFrom came as a shock to most.
In my most recent interview with him in 2014, he was then full of optimism about Apple’s future. No doubt he was looking forward to the reveal of the Apple Watch in 2015, perhaps the last major design coup for Ive and his team because, as with the iPhone, iPod and iPad before it, it completely invented a new product category. “We are at the beginning of a remarkable time, when a remarkable number of products will be developed,” he said. “When you think about technology and what it has enabled us to do so far, and what it will enable us to do in future, we’re not even close to any kind of limit. It’s still so, so new. At Apple, there’s almost a joy in looking at your ignorance and realising, ‘Wow, we’re going to learn about this and, by the time we’re done, we’re going to really understand and do something great’.” So the best of Jony Ive, the best of Apple, is still to come, I pressed. “I hope so,” he replied.
Ive may have looked forward to a remarkable number of revolutionary products but, in reality, apart from the Watch, what followed was a stream of iterative redesigns and improvements, both big and small, to existing products. Apple has not had a break-out hardware hit – at least by its high historic standards – since the iPad in 2010. As smartphone, tablet and laptop markets reach maturity, just as with hi-fi and televisions before them, mid-market brands step in to offer design and functionality remarkably similar to the higher end players. Just look at the slew of iPhone-alike models available in 2019 for a fraction of the original’s cost (which understandably irks Ive so much).
Perhaps Ive was privately thinking of this eventuality in our final conversation when he gave what now looks like the clearest hint as to why he announced his departure last week. If times changed, if Apple could no longer make stuff that shreds, not pushes, the envelope, what would he do, I asked. Would he give up? “Yes. I’d stop,” he replied without hesitation. “I’d make things for myself, for my friends instead. The bar needs to be high.”
According to Bloomberg, after the Watch launched, Ive began to shed responsibilities. Day-to-day oversight of Apple’s design team was reportedly reduced to coming to headquarters as little as twice a week. Meetings began shifting to San Francisco, where Ive occasionally met with team members at employees’ homes or hotels. Ive even went as far as to set up an office and studio in San Francisco, further distancing himself from Apple HQ.
Making things for himself is now what Ive is going to do. But what? The clue actually comes from Ive himself back in 2013, when I met him with his friend and right-hand man, Australian designer Marc Newson, who is also leaving Apple to join him at LoveFrom. The two men wanted to show off a collection of their favourite “stuff” that would be sold at auction, with the proceeds going to RED, the charity set up to raise awareness and funds to help eliminate HIV/AIDS in eight African countries. “These are the objects we would really like to own ourselves,” Ive said at the time.
There was a Leica Digital Rangefinder camera “which has the minimum number of buttons. It doesn’t even have a ‘hot shoe’ bracket on top to mount a flash gun”. There was a Range Rover, with red accents in the metal exterior and leather interior “because the Range Rover is one of the very few cars that has stayed true to its essence”. Also, desks, desk lamps, chairs, pens and watches (analogue, surprisingly, not smart like the Apple Watch). It is these things – luxury goods – that Ive will craft next.
Newson, of course, has been creating such pieces throughout his career, unfettered by being tied to an individual corporate brand – pens for Montblanc, bags for Louis Vuitton, clocks for Jaeger-LeCoultre, even a shotgun for Beretta. This breadth of work was what attracted Ive to Newson in the first place. And from his enthusiasm during his reveal of those RED products, it seems clear that Ive coveted Newson’s freedom to work across multiple categories of product, rather than merely technology – albeit groundbreaking.
“We’re surrounded by anonymous, poorly made objects,” Ive told me. “It’s tempting to think it’s because the people who use them don’t care — just like the people who make them. But what [Apple has] shown is that people do care. It’s not just about aesthetics. They care about things that are thoughtfully conceived and well made.”
It is this inherent passion for purity, integrity, for giving a damn that is the most powerful force driving Ive to leave Apple, just as it pivots from from his beloved hardware to services. (The firm’s biggest recent launch has been Apple TV+, its telly streaming services.) Designing innovative, beautiful luxury products for what will no doubt be very high-paying clients is his future. Ironically, the first of these clients will be Apple itself, as it jealously guards its hold on its former design chief, mining his expertise while at the same time stopping direct competitors rushing to commission him. The comfort of a safety net for Ive when stepping out on his own is obvious, even if the chances of his actually needing one are slimmer than a MacBook.