So Jony Ive, Apple’s former chief design officer and consultant and the man most responsible for the visual appeal of Apple products — the man who helped turn computers and phones into objects of desire, the has made them more than mere vectors of functionality, but rather ID cards – and his former employers have reportedly agreed to sever their final ties.
What does this mean for the “mixed reality” headset, the over-the-eye gateway to the metaverse that Apple is rumored to release in the second quarter of next year? In other words, what does it mean for those of us whose willingness to engage with an alternate reality might be altered by such a device?
Finally, if a company could solve the problem of how to design a device that would make you put a device on your face that would allow you to enter another world while your body exists in this one, it would be it Apple.
If ever a company could break the precedent of Google Glass and even Oculus to make a wearable computer that didn’t look like a computer, it would be the company that would have done so with laptops, music, headphones and most importantly, the smartphone. If a brand could ever solve the challenge of fashioning access to the metaverse—a different problem from fashioning the metaverse, but one just as crucial to making the metaverse meaningful (and accessible)—they were chances are good Apple would.
Except maybe not anymore.
Without Mr. Ive, will Apple’s time as a bridge between hardware and softwear really come to an end? Are we at a tipping point between old and new Apple – between Apple as it was and another Apple as it could be – like Phoebe’s Celine vs. Hedis Celine?
What is the metaverse and why is it important?
The origins. The word “metaverse” describes a fully realized digital world that exists beyond the one in which we live. It was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash and the concept was further explored by Ernest Cline in his novel Ready Player One.
In any case, it heralds a different kind of paradigm shift.
For most tech companies, the departure of a designer wouldn’t cause much publicity, but part of Apple’s brilliance lay in the way the company borrowed from the fashion world to boost consumption.
Steve Jobs understood that fashion’s strategies could be co-opted and applied to previously bland and boring consumer electronics, making them tactilely and visually alluring – thinner, dressier, fancier – and helping the company transcend its industry. It was Mr. Jobs who recognized the value of a new model for each season; who understood how planned obsolescence, an essential premise of fashion, could be applied to function; and how a value system could be embedded into the aerodynamic lines of a device, making it greater than the mechanical sum of its parts.
And it was Mr Jobs who partnered with a young designer named Jony Ive, a Brit from London who joined the company in 1992 and spent decades defining the look of Apple and inspiring an entire fashion week of brands to create accessories ( iPad cover, iPhone cover) for the offers.
It is not insignificant that following Mr Jobs’ death in 2011, Mr Ive stepped out of the shadows to become the face of the company, along with Tim Cook, the company’s chief executive. If Mr. Cook was the humble technocrat, Mr. Ive was the visionary: friend of Marc Newson (designer of the Lockheed Lounge) and designer Azzedine Alaïa, advocate of the fusion of tech and fashion that took place around the Apple Watch’s debut in 2014 .
First there was a hiring frenzy – Paul Deneve, YSL’s former CEO, became vice president of special projects in 2013; Patrick Pruniaux, formerly of Tag Heuer, as Senior Director, Special Projects, the following year; and, also in 2014, Angela Ahrendts, former CEO of Burberry, as senior vice president of retail – and then the rollout.
There was an unveiling just before New York Fashion Week; a dinner party in Paris at Mr. Alaïa and a reveal at concept store Colette; a starring role on the cover of China Vogue; and finally an appearance by Mr. Ive as the host of the Met Gala with Anna Wintour in 2016.
But ultimately (and despite a collaboration with Hermès), the watch became less of a fashion disruptor and more of a health and wellness gadget. Mr. Deneve left the company in 2016; Ms. Ahrendts and Mr. Pruniaux in 2019, the same year Mr. Ive became an advisor.
Since then, Apple has not had a chief design officer, and there has not been a design voice in the chorus of Apple’s senior leadership; no single dominant visual point of view. Instead, Mr. Ive’s responsibilities have been split between Evans Hankey, vice president of industrial design, and Alan Dye, vice president of user interface design.
Still, Ms. Hankey and Mr. Dye worked with Mr. Ive on products like the MacBook Air and the watch for years, and it seemed like Mr. Ive had maintained his ties, nominally at least, as the Keeper of the Flame and the Aesthetic.
Until now. That’s why the upcoming headset and what it will look like is so important. Given the possible timing, it may be the last product to bear Mr. Ives’ fingerprints on its design. But maybe it could be a sign of something more.
Both Apple and Mr. Ive declined to comment on their relationship for this article. But if Apple is to prove that this could be the beginning of a new era and not the beginning of the end of its commitment to style as a signifier – not the beginning of watered-down versions of what came before, with the almost clichéd rounded edges and sleek silver body – this will be the first real test. It’s an opportunity not just to redesign a product, but to examine how we feel about the product and Apple itself. And while Mr Ive reportedly noodled on the headset in the final years of his contract, it might be preferable not to iterate as much as redefine.
The fact that the watch hasn’t proven to be a game changer or industry mover actually means Ms. Hankey (or anyone else, who knows?) has an opportunity to make her mark by creating something new, the way designers do , when they adopt a brand.
Think of it this way: Gucci and Celine or MaxMara? Turning everything we think we know on its head and reshaping it for a new reality, or just reliably, if uninspiringly, going over and over again? All signs point to the MaxMara model, but if fashion teaches us anything, it’s that brands can survive a designer change as long as the company actually cares about and supports that designer.
Once upon a time, Apple learned some valuable lessons from fashion. We’ll see if it can do that again.