In recent years, one of Apple’s most important executives, its design chief Jonathan Ive, has spent much of his time working from an unusual location 50 miles north of Apple’s Silicon Valley headquarters.
Inside a brick carriage house sandwiched between the gilded mansions of San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood, not far from his own home, Mr. Ive has operated his own design studio. Apple employees frequently journeyed to the location to make presentations to the man most closely associated with the slick aesthetics of Apple products, according to three people with knowledge of the studio.
On Thursday, Mr. Ive put further distance between himself and Apple with the announcement that he will leave the company after nearly 30 years working there. Instead, Apple will become a primary client of a new independent design firm he has formed, called LoveFrom.
The departure of Apple design chief Jonathan Ive represents the end of an era for the tech giant, but Mr. Ive had become a less visible presence at the company in recent years.
The departure of Mr. Ive represents the end of an era for Apple, where he shaped the design of a candy-colored line of iMacs in the late ’90s, starting a renaissance that eventually turned Apple into one of the world’s most valuable companies. Following the announcement of his departure, Apple shares dipped nearly 1% in after-hours trading.
“Ive is leaving a hole in the company and is clearly irreplaceable,” said Dan Ives, managing director at Wedbush Securities, in a note to investors. “The major question now going forward is around future product innovation with one of the key visionaries of the Apple brand gone.”
At the same time, the change may not be so dramatic since Mr. Ive has become a more infrequent presence around Apple’s headquarters in recent years, according to multiple people who have worked with him. The shift has occurred at a time when Apple is focusing more of its attention on internet services, as sales of flagship devices like the iPhone slow.
After the death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, Mr. Ive emerged as Apple’s public icon, his profile soaring with glossy magazine profiles. But current and former Apple employees say that Mr. Ive was becoming less accessible and it was rare for rank-and-file employees to interact with him. His impact on more recent products has been unclear. He pushed a strategy for the Apple Watch that the company shifted away from and helped design prototypes of a self-driving car, which has yet to be built.
In 2015, the company announced that Mr. Ive was taking a leave from his day-to-day responsibilities as the company’s chief design officer to help oversee the construction of Apple’s enormous new donut-shaped headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., known as Apple Park.
That put two lieutenants, Richard Howarth and Alan Dye, in charge of the company’s industrial design and human interface teams’ designers, which are responsible for the look of Apple hardware and software. In December 2017, Apple said Mr. Ive had returned to a management role.
“Jony’s contributions are legendary, from the central role he played in Apple’s revival beginning in the late ’90s, through the iPhone and perhaps his most ambitious project, Apple Park, where he has put so much of his energy and care in the past few years,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said in an email to Apple employees on Thursday, a copy of which was reviewed by The Information.
The design studio in San Francisco, the existence of which hasn’t been previously reported, was the most visible symbol of his growing autonomy. On a recent visit to the building—designed by the iconic California architect Julia Morgan in 1917 and registered in the name of Mr. Ive and his wife—the blinds were open on a bank of second floor windows and the lights on, before the blinds closed. The frequency of visitors to the studio has caused complaints from neighbors, said two people familiar with the matter.
“It felt special to get invited to his private studio,” said a former Apple designer, who wasn’t among those who visited the space but spoke to people who did.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr. Ive, 52 years old, said it was the “natural and gentle time” to branch out on his own. According to a record from Delaware’s department of state, an agent registered a limited liability company called LoveFrom on Monday.
In a statement, Apple said Evans Hankey, vice president of industrial design at Apple, and Mr. Dye, the vice president of human interface design, will now report to Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer.
An Apple spokesperson didn’t have a comment for this story.
A Kindred Spirit
At Apple, Mr. Ive represented the strongest connection to the era of Mr. Jobs, Apple’s charismatic former CEO, who died in 2011. When Mr. Jobs returned to run a near-bankrupt Apple in 1997, he recognized a kindred spirit in Mr. Ive, who had joined the company in 1992. Mr. Jobs persuaded Mr. Ive, who had been planning to leave the company, to remain.
The two shared a common vision for the central importance of design in building products. They were often seen dining together in Apple’s cafeteria. “If I had a spiritual partner at Apple, it’s Jony,” Mr. Jobs told his biographer, Walter Isaacson.
Mr. Jobs added that Mr. Ive had more operational power at Apple than anyone else at the company, other than Mr. Jobs himself. “There’s no one who can tell him what to do, or to butt out,” he told Mr. Isaacson.
'Ive is leaving a hole in the company and is clearly irreplaceable,' said Dan Ives, managing director at Wedbush Securities.
Mr. Ive is known for hob-nobbing with celebrity friends beyond Silicon Valley. Two years ago, he celebrated his 50th birthday at an extravagant party that moved to different locations throughout England and Europe, according to a person familiar with the event. The Irish band U2 performed at the party.
Mr. Ive, who grew up outside London, was knighted in 2012 by Queen Elizabeth. He has homes in the United Kingdom, Hawaii and San Francisco, according to property records.
While he was known for his artistic sensibility, Mr. Ive also earned a reputation inside Apple as a shrewd operator. In 2012, after Mr. Jobs died, Mr. Ive prevailed in a political struggle with Scott Forstall, then the chief of Apple’s iOS software, whom Mr. Cook forced out after the troubled launch of an Apple maps service.
Shortly before the news about Mr. Forstall’s departure was announced, Mr. Ive slipped into a meeting with Apple’s human interface team, part of the software group Mr. Forstall oversaw and which Mr. Ive then took charge of, according to a person who was present. When a designer asked where Mr. Forstall was, Mr. Ive responded from the back of the room.
“Scott isn’t with us anymore,” he said, according to the person who was present.
After the meeting, Mr. Ive took the group on a tour of the industrial design studio, a hyper-secretive, almost-sacred space inside Apple, the person said. The group saw prototypes of the Apple Watch and a big screen television, which Apple never launched. “It was super-minimal, just a piece of glass with nice details,” the person said.
For years, Apple enjoyed an unbroken string of hit new devices—from the iPod to the iPhone to the iPad—aided in part by their distinctive designs. But more recently, Apple has struggled to match its earlier successes. Grumbling about the company’s design prowess, once considered unequaled in the tech industry, has grown more common.
Mr. Ive was closely involved in the development of the Apple Watch, the company’s first major effort to enter the wearable computing category. Mr. Ive, who has spoken of his fondness for Rolex and other premium watch brands, was among the most bullish supporters of the idea of doing luxury versions of the Apple Watch, seeing it an opportunity to tap into people’s emotions, said a former Apple designer.
But last year, the company discontinued a high-end gold edition of the watch, which cost between $10,000 and $17,000. It has also closed exclusive watch-only retail stores in Tokyo, Paris and London. In spite of the stumbles, the Apple Watch has found respectable sales by focusing on health and fitness functions.
Mr. Ive also worked on early prototypes of Apple’s autonomous vehicle, known as Project Titan. Several years ago, Mr. Ive showed Mr. Cook a prototype of the car made out of wood and leather, which had no steering wheel at Mr. Ive’s insistence, said two people familiar with the demonstration. A nearby actress pretending to be Siri, Apple’s intelligent assistant, responded to voice commands from the executives, they said.
Eventually though, Apple realized the technology wasn’t ready. The company brought longtime hardware executive Bob Mansfield back in 2016 to help turn the project around, said former Project Titan employees. The company ended up shifting some resources to another hardware project working on an augmented reality headset, said one person.
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Mr. Ive also spent years working on Apple Park, the company’s new campus. Apple’s newly designed industrial design studio inside the building is five times larger than at Apple’s old campus, said one person familiar with it, allowing teams that were once spread across multiple buildings to sit under one roof.
—Matt Drange and Nick Wingfield contributed to this article.