For Better and Worse, We Live in Jony Ive’s World
The archetypal telephone, the Model 500, designed by Henry Dreyfuss, had a clunking rotary dial, a heavy base, and a coiled cord that connected to a curved handset. It had, surprisingly, some mobility: you could hold the base of the phone in one hand, ideally with your middle and ring fingers, while walking around a room to the extent that the connection to the copper-wire outlet would allow. But it was the handset that was the product’s masterpiece. Molding itself to your hand and also to the crook between your shoulder and ear, it was a perfect instantiation of how a designer could shape everyday technology to the form of the human body, while anticipating the instincts—such as the desire to speak hands-free—that would guide the use of that technology.
The Apple iPhone, in the various iterations that the industrial designer Jony Ive produced, is the opposite. Few objects so continuously in use by human beings are as hostile to the human body as this slim, black, fragile slab, recalcitrant to any curve of head or shoulder or even palm, where it usually rests. It is made for a world without liquids, secretions, or hard surfaces, all of which threaten its destruction. Except for the curve of the edges, where the bevel of the glass screen has been painstakingly fused to the phone’s body, it is the shape of a photo, not a face. When speaking, you shove it against the side of your head, or bark at it. It meets you mostly at your fingertips. It rests hard against your thigh, glows through light clothing with every portentous notification, and attempts to replace any other object—a card-and-cash-thick wallet, a set of keys—that happens to reside in your pocket. Ive and his team reportedly wanted to create the appearance of an infinity pool, where the water rises to meet the edge. But no infinity pool is the depthless black of the iPhone. A more suitable comparison is the monolith from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which, like the iPhone, threatens everything with oblivion.
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Ive, the most famous industrial designer in history, announced his departure from Apple on Thursday, in a move received by the business world as the unnerving end of an era. In fact, it was eminently foreseeable. After the death of Steve Jobs, Apple, under its new C.E.O., Tim Cook, reportedly adopted a more forgiving policy toward its employees’ downtime, and Ive was not averse to the arrangement. (Jobs was known for relentlessly calling people back from vacation.) In the past few years, Ive has often worked outside the company, designing, with his longtime collaborator Marc Newson, a one-off camera for Leica, an all-diamond ring, and a Christmas tree. He has appeared on television shows and bought Jobs’s private jet. According to the Wall Street Journal, he was dispirited after the underperformance of the Apple Watch, and failed to show up to meetings. His new company, which has the head-scratchy, Marianne Williamson–esque name LoveFrom, will continue to work with Apple, but not exclusively. The smooth, minimalist Ive aesthetic will make its appearance among other products in the world, to the extent that all of those products haven’t been already subsumed by Apple products.
Some of Apple’s designs are classics, and Ive played a chief role in very nearly all of them. The son of a silversmith, he grew up in Britain with an appreciation for materials and for ruthless simplicity. Early on in his training, he designed a new landline phone: a question-mark-shaped white plastic tube not so distinct from a detachable shower head. His work for Apple included the swooping, multicolored iMac, from 1998, one of the bright lights in the development of personal computing, when most of the competitors were gray, drab, hard-cased. He and Jobs developed a storied partnership that ranks, in its level of private, intuitive understanding and its longevity, with the relationship between the San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and the fifteen-time All-Star Tim Duncan.
The best result from those years was the first Apple iPod. This extraordinary object, with its brilliant plastic casing—a “shockingly neutral” white, in Ive’s words, which, combined with its transparent Perspex acrylic cover, put “almost a halo around the product”—and its fantastic circular dial, represented both a deference to past design masters and a technological advance. Pocket radios and tape players had begun promisingly—Sony’s blue-and-gray Walkman from 1979 is a beautiful thing—but had ultimately descended into a bulky chaos of protruding buttons and belt clips. The Discman was an unwieldy abhorrence. The iPod famously gestured to an earlier era, to Dieter Rams’s clean designs for Braun, and retained from those years the sense of physical activity in the act of searching for a song. This was accomplished through the dial, which obliquely referenced the rotary dial on a phone. The whiteness of the casing meant that it kept your fingerprints and got dirty: a treasured sign of actual use. But, in an omen of what would happen to the entire world, later versions of the iPod had the screen overtake the dial, and the circular scroll became the downward or upward swipe. Once the iPhone came into being, and became a container for music, the iPod’s demise was inevitable.
The iPod signalled a world in which digital storage would reign, but it did not fundamentally transform public space. (The MP3 player already existed.) The iPhone was different—the introduction of an entirely new force into the world, the catastrophe of which, in terms of our attention and our ability to exist in an unmediated public world, has not been fully reckoned with or understood. Ive is not solely responsible for its existence, but he is responsible for making it respectable to take out what is essentially a computer in any setting. Noodling around on your little handheld computer has become acceptable to a degree that would have been unfathomable to generations prior, when whiling away hours at a screen was still associated with sweaty nerdiness. The practice of whipping out your phone at the slightest pretext, including a period of distracted semi-coma between entrées and dessert—in dining out there is always a third, iPhone course—is in no small part due to the sinister beauty of the object that Ive and his team produced.
The ultimate consequence of Ive’s designs—though, again, it’s not entirely his fault (not all smartphones are iPhones)—has been the slow ransacking of the physical world. A previous era of industrial design resulted in the proliferation of objects, from paper to books to records, and of the furniture required to manage and display these things. The late architect Robert Venturi praised the designers Charles and Ray Eames for bringing back “good old Victorian clutter” into modern design. Nothing similar could be said of Apple, whose designs are intended to absorb and centralize—and, in some cases, to wish the physical world out of existence. (Steve Jobs was opposed to technologies that catered to readers of books, because he anticipated the eventual demise of book-reading altogether.) A single company now largely controls the way we look or think about anything—and, as everyone knows, its products don’t last. Dieter Rams, Jony Ive’s avowed inspiration, still works with the furniture and products that he designed more than a half century ago. One wonders if Ive might have learned more from him.