Suzy Menkes talks to Jony Ive and Marc Newson in the opening session of the inaugural Condé Nast International Luxury Conference
Since its announcement last September and subsequent release earlier this month, it is safe to say that the Apple Watch has caused less of a stir and more of a tidal wave, straddling the fashion and technology industries like no other product before it. So who better to open the inaugural Condé Nast International Luxury.
Conference — fittingly staged in Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance — than man of the hour Jony Ive, senior vice president of design at Apple. Joined onstage by one of his most revered contemporaries and friends, designer Marc Newson, who helped to create the Apple adornment, Ive explained to the conference’s host, Suzy Menkes, how the company’s approach to 21st-century luxury compares with traditional luxury as we know it.
“At Apple we don’t look at the world through predetermined market opportunities. What we’ve done fairly consistently is try to invest tremendous care in the development of our products,” Ive explained. “It’s not so much about things being touched personally — there are many ways to craft something. It’s easy to assume that just because you make something in small volumes, not using many tools, that there is integrity and care — that is a false assumption.”
“Machines for us are like tools for the craftsman,” Newson agreed. “We all use something — you can’t drill holes with your fingers. Whether it’s a knife, a needle or a machine, we all need the help of a device.”
As Ive and Newson’s creations directly compete — both in price and the marketplace — with other coveted items on the luxury spectrum, bags and jewellery among them, how does the new compare with the old?
“We don’t think about what we do in those terms,” said Ive. “Our focus has been doing our very best to create a product that’s useful. When we started on the iPhone it was because we all couldn’t bear our phones. The watch was different. We all loved our watches, but saw that the wrist was a fabulous place for technology, so there were different motivations. I don’t know how we can compare the old watches we know, with the functionality and the capability of the Apple Watch.”
Apple is, without a doubt, well placed to cater their latest product to what they know customers want, thanks to another of its revolutionary inventions: the iPhone.
“One of the things that we have learnt through the iPhone is that there are fundamental things that people use all of the time. And what we’ve been struck by is that people use it for different reasons. With the watch it is the first time that we can assume someone has something intimately connected with them for most of the day — you can’t do that with the phone, so it opens up new ways of communication.”
But they weren’t always creating the latest must-have in technology. Both men come from artisanal backgrounds — silversmithing to be exact.
“Both Jony and I love and appreciate the skill that it takes to put something together,” said Newson. “We’re not just designing in our heads and then on a computer. We both have the ability to understand certain materials; we come from a standpoint of being taught manually.”
This is something that, in a world where a click can outweigh craft, they are keen to impart to the digital generation.
“We both grew up making things ourselves, and I don’t think you can design in materials without understanding their exact attributes,” said Ive. “For the watch we developed our own gold because we loved how it felt. It’s that love of the material that drives so much of what we do.”
Bringing a concept like the Apple Watch to fruition takes ambition, patience and serious guts — lucky then, that Ive and Newson have plenty of both.
“We’ve known each other for 20-odd years. Practically everything we’ve worked on we’ve talked about the challenges faced, so the step towards actually working together was an organic thing,” explained Newson. “What inspired us enormously is what we didn’t like. We knew what irritated us – and as a designer you’re always inspired to work by what you’re unhappy with.”
“One of the reasons we became friends very quickly all those years ago, is that we perceived the world in a very similar way,” added Ive. “It’s nice that the conversation started and we sat down together and began to draw, and sculpt prototypes. I’m not one of those people that finds technology isolation seductive — I’m excited about what it can do.”
As to the more traditional brands, many of which are well represented in Florence for the next couple of days, should they be intimidated by this dream team and what they have created?
“I think that we’re on a path that Apple was determined to be on since the Seventies, which was to try and make technology relevant and personal. If people struggle to use the technology then we have failed,” said Ive. “The consequences of that path? I don’t know. Sadly so much of our manufactured environment testifies to carelessness — something that was built to a price point or a schedule. The products that we have developed describe who made them. I hope that people will like the watch and find it a beautiful item.”