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Friday, 18 January, 2002, 17:43 GMT
Jonathan Ive: Apple of the iMac
Jonathan Ive
With the release of the new iMac, its chief designer Jonathan Ive has cemented his reputation as the Armani of Apple. So what motivates the man whose motto remains "Sorry, no beige"? Caroline Frost of the BBC's News Profiles Unit reports.

It's a long way from a toilet laboratory in Chigwell, north London to the heart of Silicon Valley, California. But in eight years, Jonathan Ive has covered this distance to establish himself as one of the world's most celebrated and sought after designers.

In his role as vice president of industrial design at Apple, he has been responsible for a whirlwind of innovation, including the original iMac computer and its portable cousin, the iBook.

The new iMac
Sunflower or reading lamp? You decide
This week sees the release of the new iMac. With its 15-inch floating screen, table-top dome housing all the hard bits, and a chrome neck joining the two, it's been modelled on a sunflower.

Apple boss Steve Jobs has hailed it "the quintessence of computational coolness". To others, it resembles a desk lamp.

But for Ive, every apparent gimmick of his new toy has a practical foundation. The former bathroom designer found only a dome base ensured screen positioning of 360 degrees. That means the fans are very low down, which allows for more vents, and so on.

Ive says he "loves the obviousness of everything". But if he makes his work sound deceptively simple, he makes the same light of his meteoric career path.

A student of art and design at Newcastle Polytechnic, Ive worked briefly at a London consultancy before setting up his own Tangerine design house with clients that included Apple.

The computer giants were so impressed with his work for them that in 1992 they enticed him across the world to Cupertino, Silicon Valley, to turn around their ailing design division. All this, at the ripe age of 30.

Thinking different

Ive is notoriously self-effacing, but his colleagues call him a genius.

Steve Jobs
Ive's boss Steve Jobs
This prodigy goes to work in worn trainers and T-shirt. His 70-hour working weeks mean his pallor is untouched by the Californian sun. But Ive's casual appearance belies his hallowed position at the heart of corporate America, a long throw from his trendy London design house.

Ive has no regrets about his big move. He says, "It's difficult to do something radically new, unless you are at the heart of a company."

Something radical certainly appeared in the prodigal return of Steve Jobs to Apple's top spot. After a few frustrating years on the West Coast, Ive found himself working with a kindred spirit, a CEO for whom innovation was paramount.

Enthralled fans

The Briton experienced Jobs's trust first-hand one year into the design of the new iMac. Leading Ive around his wife's vegetable patch, Jobs encouraged the designer to rethink the entire concept. Between the pair of them, the final result was never going to be another beige box.

Very often design is the most immediate way of defining what products become in people's minds

Jonathan Ive
While Jobs insists that "every component stays true to itself" and Ive laments "an industry that measures success in the number of gigabytes, the speed of the chip", it seems the pair share an almost Zen-like approach to their work.

This lack of corporate agenda allows Ive to create more than a machine, but a creative statement. When his first iMac appeared with its distinctive curves and translucent candy colours, it became an advertiser's dream, and made Ive into "the Versace of computers".

And despite Apple's small share of the overall market, within the creative and non-business communities, it enjoys an almost fanatical following. Two million iMacs were sold in the first year of its distribution, transforming the fortunes of the then ailing Apple.

The original iMac
"Do you have it in lime?" One of the first batch of iMacs
For Ive, when he's not creating the first computer for the Anglepoise generation, free time is spent "living a serene life". This consists of dabbling with techno-pop, computer generated music, and relaxing with his colleagues.

His former teacher in northern England described Ive as "almost frightened by his own talent".

Ive reveals this himself when pondering his future. "Perhaps I'd like to design cars, but I don't think I'd be much good at it."

But if he now has the pickings of a queue of head-hunters, he remains in the fortunate position of sharing the philosophy of his employer, and being paid huge sums to do what he loves best.

Jonathan Ive says "Apple really was born to innovate". He could just as easily be describing himself.

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08 Jan 02 | Business
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