In the last month, we’ve seen an unusual amount of interviews from Jony Ive, Apple’s intensely private and notoriously shy Chief of Design. After the iPhone launch, Ive spoke to USA Today and BusinessWeek with Craig Federighi, Apple’s software chief, and today, Vanity Fair released an interview the designer did along with fellow designer Marc Newsom about their collaboration on a limited edition Leica camera they designed for a (RED) auction. The result is, of course, gorgeous:
The camera is based on the Leica Digital Rangefinder and was manufactured by that company as a custom item. The overall shape is similar to a conventional camera’s, but the finished object looks altogether different. It is made of brushed aluminum, and the controls are sleek and understated, as on Ive’s products for Apple. It does everything the regular Leica does, with the same lenses and the same functions, but the controls no longer seem intrusive, like silver barnacles on a black metal beast. Instead, every button and every lever is a tiny sensual moment, subsumed into the overall form of the camera.
When they say “limited edition” they mean it. Only one of these cameras was made and will auctioned next month in New York City. I was curious to see what Ive would do with a brief like this. Obviously very different than his work at Apple, this camera never needs to be available to the mass market. Though the duo used that to their advantage with production reportedly taking 85 days the end result looks surprisingly utilitarian. This could easily sit next to a Macbook Air or an iPhone in an Apple store. Reading the Vanity Fair piece, I realized this is what Ive has been working towards his whole career:
The democratization of high modern design was a dream that began with the early modernists in Europe nearly a century ago, and for a long time it was mostly an illusion. The Bauhaus designers in Germany in the 1920s, for example, espoused theories about modern design as a popular movement, but they produced mainly expensive, handcrafted objects. The rare Bauhaus designs that have become common, like Marcel Breuer’s Cesca dining chair of cane and tubular steel, are generally compromised versions, cheap copies that are easier to manufacture than the more complex originals. Jonathan Ive’s designs for Apple are different: the mass-market version is the pure version, done without compromise. Ive, who was knighted last year, is one of the first designers to have actually achieved the Bauhaus dream of bringing high-end modern design to almost every level of society.
For the last twenty years he’s worked to combine high design with mass market availability. I’m reminded of the famous Andy Warhol quote:
What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.
That was the goal of the Bauhaus. And that’s pretty much Apple now, right? Though this camera doesn’t fit that notion—it’s more an art piece anyway—it looks like it could. I know I’d buy one.