Swellboy on… design geniuses

A paean to Marc Newson and Jony Ive: the Crusoe and Vermeer of our time

Image: Brijesh Patel

I enjoy judging at the Cartier Style et Luxe concours d’élégance at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. The cars are always interesting. This year I was much taken with a Mercedes that had a boot scraper built into the running board and a dash panel faced with mother-of-pearl. Meanwhile, the selection of finned monsters from the Eisenhower era of prosperity in America merge in the memory to form one tennis-court-sized automobile that seems unable to decide whether it is a jukebox or a spacecraft.

However, the panel of judges is, if anything, even more interesting: Viscount Linley and Sir Anthony Bamford, Rowan Atkinson, a couple of Olympians and designers Marc Newson and Sir Jonathan Ive.

I have known Marc for many years. I forget how we first met; it was probably through watches – he had a watch brand for some time. As well as being good company, he would be a great bloke to be stuck on a desert island with: in addition to having a good sense of humour and designing watches and clocks, he can turn his hand to anything. If you wanted to kill something for supper, he could whip up a gun (he designed a gorgeous-looking shotgun for my friend Franco Beretta). And by the time one had tired of the castaway life, Marc would be putting the finishing touches to an aircraft design. When I was over for the 30th birthday knees-up of the Fondation Cartier, his compact personal jet was on show. Robinson Crusoe would have been a shorter book if Marc had been washed ashore.

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It is with Marc that I have met Apple designer Jony Ive. His knighthood is one of those instances of an honour actually being bestowed in recognition of genuine achievement. He has gone out to the west coast of America as a professional Brit to do something other than become a butler or the stock public-school-accented English actor that Hollywood requires from time to time. The problem is that he is so understated about having changed the world – or at least the world of relative plenty that those of us in the developed countries inhabit – that one forgets the staggering scope of his genius.

Like all late converts and reformed characters (new non-smokers tend to be the most messianic), I am pretty much unbearable on the subject of the religion that I have recently espoused or the vice I have recently renounced. And so it is with Apple products. Having indulged my contrapuntal side for several years and favoured Microsoft and BlackBerry, you will recall that earlier in the year I finally succumbed to the inexorable iPhone, which, rather like those gateway drugs, is leading me on to the hard stuff.

It has also caused me to consider the whole role of technology in our lives. Technology is just so much personal infrastructure, and in a way I have come to regard Jony as a sort of Vermeer for the information age. Just as Vermeer delighted in depicting the banal events of the bourgeois life of his age and thus elevated the quotidian to a higher level, so Jony has taken the mundane and repetitive acts that we all perform – viz consulting the internet, making telephone calls – and made them somehow aspirational and exciting, thus enriching our lives just that little bit. Plus, he has designed stuff that mankind had done perfectly well without for millennia and then made us want it very badly indeed.

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Marc and Jony have a formed a good-natured double act, a sort of Lennon & McCartney, Butch & Sundance, Morecambe & Wise, Thunderbolt & Lightfoot pairing, and together they put on a blockbusting charity auction last year that made headlines around the world. Before long I can see them appearing at Wembley or Shea Stadium to design stuff in front of tens of thousands of shrieking fans… For all I know, as well as next summer’s Cartier Style et Luxe, they may have already been booked for Glastonbury.

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