By Alexei Oreskovic
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - His name may lack the broad brand recognition of Apple Inc co-founder Steve Jobs, but his touch on Apple's popular line of products is unmistakable.
Jonathan Ive, Apple's head of industrial design, has played a key role in Apple's success, dreaming up the distinct look and feel of the phones, computers and other gadgets that have become consumer must-haves.
With Apple's executive team now rallying around newly-appointed Chief Executive Tim Cook in the wake of Jobs' death on Wednesday, it will be up to Ive and his studio of designers to carry on the artistic legacy that has proven so vital to Apple.
"Jony brings the form factor" for Apple products expected by consumers, said BGC Partners analyst Colin Gillis. "That's critical. It's their look."
"The key thing is you don't want to lose him. You want to keep the team together," said Gillis.
A native of Britain, the 44-year-old Ive is said to be soft-spoken and private, with a knack for blending the aesthetically beautiful with the functional.
"He just has a wonderful eye of making things that are simple and elegant. But he also understands that it has to be usable by people," said Don Norman, the co-founder of usability consulting firm Nielsen Norman Group.
Norman, who served as Apple's Vice President of Advanced Technology in the mid 1990s, recalled working with Ive at Apple on efforts to make it easier for PC users to open the machines and swap out computer memory.
Among the iconic Apple products on Ive's resume are the translucent, colorful iMac computers that marked the beginning of Apple's revival after Jobs returned to the company in 1997, the iPod music player and the iPhone.
Apple declined to make Ive available for comment.
Dubbed the "Armani of Apple" in a 2002 BBC profile, Ive lives in San Francisco, drives a Bentley and opts for a casual work attire that typically includes a dark T-shirt and sneakers.
"He's quiet but insightful. He's not this big booming personality," said one industrial design expert who has worked with Ive in the past.
At the heart of Ive's aesthetic is an obsession with materials. Ive once traveled to Japan to meet with a master Samurai swordmaker and to observe first-hand the painstaking process of creating the beautifully polished, razor sharp and extremely durable steel blades.
In awarding Ive its product design award in 2007, the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum cited his "sculptural, desirable objects."
Much of that high-tech oeuvre is the result of a close partnership with Jobs, who, like Ive, was famously obsessive about details and design.
The industrial design team that Ive leads works out of a large, open studio on Apple's campus in Cupertino, California, with music blaring through giant sound system and access strictly limited to a small portion of Apple's employees, according to a 2006 profile of Ive in Business Week.
"They prototype a lot, to the level which is ten times what anybody else does," said the industrial design expert who has previously worked with Ive and wished to remain anonymous.
"They are there to break the rules and then propose ideas," he added. "They were kind of the muse for Jobs."
As Apple enters its new era, it will be up to Ive and his team to find new ways to inspire.
(Reporting by Alexei Oreskovic, editing by Bernard Orr)