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HE'S hardly a household name but Jonathan Ive is the British-born designer who made computers sexy.

Dubbed the David Beckham of design, Ive tore up the rulebook which said computers had to be beige boxes when he created the Apple iMac.

The Ive revolution at Apple spread across the world of technology. Computers and gadgets became colourful, sexy and easy-to-use - and Ive, 36, from Chingford, Essex, earned the tag "Armani of Apple".

Now his genius has been recognised here by his peers who this week named him the first-ever Designer of the Year.

In the decade Ive has worked at Apple's California HQ he has been responsible for the iMac - which sold two million in its first year alone - the iBook, PowerBook, the Cube and his latest sensation, the iPod MP3 music player.

He is the computer giant's vice president of industrial design, earning a reputed pounds 2.8million a year.

But when Ive first headed across the Atlantic in 1992 it was a different story. After leaving Newcastle Polytechnic, he worked at London firm Tangerine, as part of a team designing products as diverse as a new comb to washbasins for bathroom manufacturer Ideal Standard.

But in a twist of fate, Tangerine was chosen by a then-struggling Apple to toss around a few ideas for the emerging portable computer market.

Ive's undoubted potential was spotted, he was poached and he and writer wife Heather, who he married while still at Newcastle, left for San Francisco.

One of their first visitors was Tangerine colleague Peter Phillips, now an independent design consultant based in Surrey.

"They were living in a cramped city flat in those days," says Phillips.

"I think he struggled in his early years at Apple. I remember a couple of times he said he was ready to come back. But he persevered and when Apple's founder Steve Jobs returned to the company in the mid 90s everything changed.

"Jobs was not simply money-driven and realised he had a jewel in Jonathan. It was a real meeting of minds.

"There is a rumour they had designed the iMac and the existing boss was not that interested, so they put it away in a cupboard and when Jobs returned and asked what ideas they had Jonathan brought it out and the rest is history."

Long gone is the small apartment. Instead Ive and Heather, regular church-goers, live in a pounds 4.2million mansion outside SanFrancisco.

Jobs rewarded Ive for his work with a large slice of Apple stock, which he sold at near the height of its value.

Even without his mega-bucks salary he is very wealthy, reputedly worth more than pounds 10million, allowing him to indulge his passion for fast cars.

After a string of Saabs and classic Jaguars, Ive's current toy is a pounds 210,000 Aston Martin DB7. "He really deserves his success," says Phillips. "Jonathan is a really nice bloke, a very gentle man and completely dedicated to design.

"He can design so effortlessly. It's quite a complicated subject, but whether it was drawing, conceptualising or come up with new ideas he was just so gifted.

"Just like David Beckham makes football look so easy, so Jonathan made designing look so easy. With them both it is a completely natural skill - but backed up with some very hard work."

Two men are central to the success story. Jobs is one and the other is Ive's father Michael, who is himself highly regarded in the tight-knit world of design.

Michael was originally a silversmith, who became a teacher and then OFSTED inspector for design and technology, for which he was rewarded with an OBE three years ago.

"Michael had a huge influence on the teaching of design in our schools and I am sure a lot of Jonathan's qualities came from him, such as his patience and passion," says Clive Grinyer, a former colleague at Tangerine and now director of customer experience with telecoms giant Orange.

"I first met Jonathan about 15 years ago when he came for the summer to a firm where I worked.

"We hit it off immediately and he invited me to Newcastle, where he studied for his final-year design showcase.

"There's this legend - which turned out to be true - that he built 100 models for his final project, a system of hearing aids for teachers and deaf pupils in schools.

"Normally students make five or six at most. He had refined it so much that you realised he was totally dedicated to his art."

But the roots of his genius lie in his remarkable ability for lateral thinking - finding the true appeal of an object and exploiting that, often ignoring the traditional approach to design.

Grinyer says: "When he built a pen for a Japanese company he built in what he called a 'fiddle factor' because he knew that was what people liked to do. That's always been a trait of his. He looks for something people will latch on to. We are all very proud of him."

Ive's first job was with a design firm in 1989 after co-owner Barrie Weaver spotted his potential. Weaver says: "You know talent, you can just see it. He had a beautiful way of drawing - that was what hit me, his lovely economic way of describing things in line and colour.

"And when he made a model it was absolutely precise and accurate. He was what a designer calls very detail conscious and that's rare in someone so young.

"He'd done a few projects which, to be frank, were a bit weird. One was a bizarre telephone with a receiver you held by your waist. It was off-the-wall but it showed he thought about things in a different way.

"Plus he was a very nice chap. Talented but terribly hard-working. I have to say what really has made Jonathan's success is having the right patron.

"It's like the Renaissance when a great painter needed a rich patron. And in Apple, Jonathan has found a company who really appreciate what he does.

"If he had gone to another company his talent might not have flourished. I think with Steve Jobs and Apple he's very lucky. When you have that kind of backing, you can do fantastic work."


ORIGINAL: The iMac; GIFTED: Apple designer Jonathan Ive; SENSATION: The iPod; SEXY: Powerbook; STRIKING: The new iMac
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Copyright 2003 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jun 5, 2003
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