How Britain lost Apple’s Jony Ive

March 21, 2011, 10:51 AM UTC

Lots of new details about the man it calls “the most successful designer on the planet” in Rob Waugh’s long biographical profile of Jonathan (“Jony”) Ive in Sunday’s Daily Mail, starting with the toilet design that drove him out of England:

“The manner of his departure for the U.S. is particularly galling to Clive Grinyer, who first hired Ive after he came to work with him on a placement from Newcastle Polytechnic. It came after a presentation of an Ive design to a bathroom-fittings company in Hull.

“‘We lost a great talent,’ says Grinyer. ‘We virtually created our own consultancy, Tangerine, just so that we could employ Jony (as Ive prefers to be called). And if I had to put my finger on why and where we lost him it would have to have been one day at Ideal Standard in Hull.

“‘Tangerine had a consultancy contract with the bathroom-fittings company to design a toilet. I was there when Jony made an excellent presentation to this guy who was wearing a red nose because it was Comic Relief day. This clown then decided to throw his weight around and pulled apart Jony’s design. It was ridiculous. Britain lost Jony Ive then and there.’”

Shortly afterward, Ive took a job at Apple (AAPL), where he ended up designing the iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad and all the MacBooks. Among the pieces’ other revelations:

  • The rumors that Ive is considering moving back to his “Grade II listed mansion” in Somerset, England, so that his twin children can be educated in the U.K. are false, according to Waugh. In fact, his U.K. house is empty and a former colleague says Ive is planning to sell it.
  • His first three years at Apple were “pretty miserable,” according to one of Waugh’s sources. Cutbacks forced the design department to give up the Cray supercomputer it was using to simulate new gadgets, and Ive spent much of his time designing “Newton PDAs and printer trays.”
  • Even after Steve Jobs discovered Ive and brought him in from the cold, there was friction. The translucent mouse Ive designed for the original iMacs apparently displeased Jobs, as did his choice of the USB connection technology. “Jonathan took his share of beatings early on,” says a former Apple software engineer. “To be in Steve’s world, you’ve got to be willing to take a buffeting.”
  • The famously obsessive Ive once flew 14 hours to Japan to learn how the steel in a Samarai sword is folded and refolded thousands of times to create a hard outer layer and a softer inner core. He also spent hours in a “sweets factory” researching candy colors for the first iMacs and months working on a stand for a desktop Mac “searching for the sort of organic perfection found in sunflower stalks.”

“The amazing thing is,” writes design critic Stephen Bayley in a sidebar, “Ive has proved that the consumer is not a penny-pinching moron nor a brute philistine. On the contrary, Apple’s persuasive financials show that the consumer is a sophisticated aesthete who will cheerfully pay a premium price to own products that flatter by their pristine beauty and sparkly intelligence.”

The Daily Mail’s two-part package is available here.

Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped.

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