Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products, by Leander Kahney, Portfolio, RRP£14.95/$27.95, 320 pages
It isn’t hard to argue the case that Sir Jony Ive is the most successful designer in the world. The iPod, the iPhone and the iPad are the defining products of our age. When Ive puts his mind to something, he makes everyone else’s ideas look obsolete.
Apple’s laptops are exquisite. The iPhone and iPad still look to me like something out of science fiction, even though I use them every day. They have been compared to the mysterious black slabs that drive the apes wild in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Intriguingly, there is a moment in that same film when the astronauts use tablets that look remarkably like iPads – this is in 1968. Kubrick aside though, Ive was always ahead of the game. His position at Apple, senior vice-president of design, might sound like one of those titles they give to someone after years at the company to make it sound like they’ve progressed. But at Apple, it really is an important job. This is a company that values design. What else, after all, is Apple, besides design?
Ive became Steve Jobs’s confidant and chief ally. In Jony Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products, Leander Kahney quotes an interview given by Jobs to Fortune magazine in which the then Apple chief executive says: “In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer … But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a man-made creation”.
When Jobs died two years ago, Ive was, in all but name, anointed his successor. Tim Cook may be chief executive but it is Ive, apparently, who is the heart of the company. That, at least, is the narrative of Kahney’s book.
So how did this modest Brit born in Chingford, raised in Stafford and educated at Newcastle Polytechnic become the world’s greatest designer? The problem is that the answer is not very interesting. After qualifying, Ive joined the agency Tangerine, where he designed a bathroom suite that was rejected. In 1992, he was offered a job by Apple and moved to California. He’s been there ever since. He is extremely good at what he does. That’s about it.
Apple is notoriously secretive; Ive was apparently not even allowed to talk to his wife about what products he was working on and Apple’s research department is out of bounds for almost everyone in the company.
Kahney is a journalist but also an Apple geek (he has written three other books on Apple as well as a blog) and the combination of that enthusiasm and a clammed-up corporation is not particularly successful. Ive remains, at the end of this book, as unknown a quantity as he is at the beginning: a popular, unassuming person who likes to listen to techno music while he works.
As Kubrick’s filmic anticipation of the iPad makes clear, Ive’s devices have been imagined before. Think of Ettore Sottsass, the Italian who made Olivetti the Apple of its time, designing typewriters and early computers with flair. Or Dieter Rams, the German designer whose products for Braun defined the company and are among the most beautiful products of the 20th century (and whose designs profoundly influenced Ive, even down to the rounded corners). Ive is far from unique as a designer who is synonymous with his company. What is new is the ubiquity of the products and the way they have insinuated themselves into every aspect of our lives.
Apple’s products are so beautifully and mysteriously constructed (where are the joints and bolts?) that they somehow mirror the obsessiveness of this secretive corporation. All of which makes them difficult to write about. Arguably what is most interesting is why they have become such a success, the social, political, aesthetic and cultural context which they have slotted into – or remade. And why have other companies not managed to emulate Apple’s design-led model?
Ive, in spite of his shaven head and fierce non-disclosure, is not quite the charismatic high priest that Jobs once was. But while Apple owns more and more of our lives, while Ive keeps the crowds happy with new votive objects, and while devotees sleep outside the stores to be first to receive them, there is no reason to doubt the company’s continued success.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture and design critic