Last spring, an eclectic mix of designers thrilled an auditorium full of their peers at a conference called Radical Craft, put on by the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi told inspiring stories of his rise to fame. Artificial intelligence pioneer Danny Hillis showed off a topographical computer display that could render anything, even the Himalayas, in three dimensions. Dutch inventor Theo Jansen brought one of his VW-size "beach creatures" made of plastic PVC tubes that "walked" across the stage like some George Lucas-inspired interstellar crab.
But the headliner of the show made a decidedly less showy impression. Shambling onto the stage with a nearly shaved head and dark T-shirt, Apple Computer (AAPL
) Senior Vice-President for Industrial Design Jonathan Ive looked like grad student who had gotten lost on the way to Starbucks (SBUX
). The 39-year-old Brit slouched unfabulously in his seat and quietly answered questions from conference host and award-winning editor, Chee Pearlman. Despite countless invitations, he refused to trumpet his own design prowess or to dish on what it's like to work with his perfectionist boss, Steve Jobs.