Alain Hubert is a certified mountaineer, polar guide, civil engineer, and entrepreneur. But more than anything, he is an explorer.
When did you realize that you wanted to live a life of adventure?
Probably when I first reached the summit of a mountain, in Austria. The sun was setting and I had below me a sea of clouds stretching to the horizon. At that particular moment, I knew that my life would be one of a mountaineering. Through that, I became a polar explorer. But essentially, I’m an entrepreneur without any boundaries between all my activities.
You first ascended the East Ridge of the Amadablam in Nepal in 1983. How have exploring tools evolved since then? What is the biggest advancement you’ve seen during your career?
Definitely the lightness of all our equipment, and the synthetic fibers for clothing and all the technical materials, which gives us the possibility of pushing the limits while at the same time being closer to nature. One of the most important evolutions was the GPS and, later, satellite phones. Not for the progression of comfort, but for ultimate safety. Although now I am a little nostalgic when I think of the total isolation of my first expeditions.
What about watches?
My first Rolex was the Explorer II. I still use it on expeditions because I know it will not stop out on the ice and it is also the one I wear every single day of the year. In the middle of the Arctic Ocean, I’m surrounded by an environment that is white as far as the eye can see. You can only find your way by using the sun and the wind. But my Explorer can be used as a compass to help me keep my bearings in any conditions. I just have to look at my wristwatch to check my direction in relation to the sun. When I’m not on expedition, a quick look at my watch is enough to remind me that I made some fantastic expeditions and it makes me dream of new adventures.
How has the brand impacted the field of exploration, not only for you directly, but overall?
Rolex has such a long tradition of supporting exploration that the name has become intrinsically linked with it. It’s a connection with all the explorers who have experienced firsthand the fragility and exponential speed of change in the environment. This partnership with explorers and scientists has put Rolex in a privileged position. It has become a form of recognition of achievement.
What’s the most dangerous situation you’ve experienced during a climb or expedition? Is there a time you remember being scared?
Certainly my first encounter with polar bears in the Arctic. One huge male surprised me from the top of a block of ice. I had just been pushed back by an extremely strong wind while trying to cross an open lead in the middle of a big storm. I thought it was the end. And yet, at the same time, I was fascinated by the majesty of this animal, rightly called Lord of the Arctic.
In 1998, you set a world record crossing the Antarctic continent in 99 days, the longest crossing ever made on foot and ski. What other record would you like to attempt?
Nowadays breaking a record is no longer the most important goal in my life. When looking at the huge challenge of building a future—to be able to survive and live together on planet Earth as a human family—I have to do all I can. [I want to] share this new human adventure.
So how can we build a more sustainable world overall? You come from an engineering background, and developed the solar- and wind-powered Princess Elisabeth Station in Antarctica. What lessons did you learn?
The Princess Elisabeth Antarctica Research Station was designed and built with the International Polar Foundation. It is a zero-emissions station, with a micro-smart grid that produces all the energy needed for our activities. Having to adapt the rhythm of our activities to the availability of the energy, which depends on the sun and the wind, we realized that it wasn’t that difficult to change our habits—and that it didn’t imply suffering or reducing our standard of living. Building a more sustainable world will only be possible if we reconsider our relationship with energy. This is absolutely feasible. But the question is: Are we able to adapt?
Portrait & Studio Photographs by Christopher Garcia Valle
“I have a lot of anger and anxiety and sadness and also love,” Alexis Rockman says. The artist is talking about the environmental calamity that fuels his complex work, an oeuvre of ominous, baroque, pop art–inspired wildlife paintings, which evoke John James Audubon, if John James Audubon liked to watch Godzilla movies and drop acid. Rockman’s sitting on a bench in Tribeca, outside the same sparse, utilitarian studio he’s been occupying for the past 30 years. “Oh fuck you!” he screams to a passing off-duty fire truck, whose driver leans on the horn a few excruciating beats too long.
Rockman, 56, has reason to be irritable. It’s a sweltering summer morning, a Monday, and last week he buried his beloved dog of 13 years, a pitbull-lab mix named Padme, after the Star Wars princess. Today, he’s running on fumes thanks to the one-two punch of a late-night Chicago opening of his “Great Lakes Cycle”—five sprawling tableaux depicting the ecological evolution (and subsequent degradation) of North America’s greatest bodies of fresh water—followed by a delayed flight back to New York. After this interview wraps, he’ll be playing a game of hoops—something the former athlete does almost daily—and then he’s off with his wife and two children to Ménerbes, a hilltop walled village in Provence, where the restless artist has produced some of his best recent work.
“If you make stuff about ecology and you’re living in New York City, how can you not be inspired by travel?” says Rockman, a New York native. His deadpan is inarguably charming.
Indeed, travel encompasses a large part of Rockman’s painstaking process, one that begins with a journalistic hunger for facts and truths, and ultimately leads to him embedding with archeologists, anthropologists, and various locals during extended, Indiana Jones–esque field visits. Over the years, these have come in the form of everything from far-flung death marches to midnight hikes in Madagascar with lemur conservationists.
Rockman took a similar tack for his Great Lakes Cycle series. He sailed across Lake Michigan, explored the area’s defunct copper mines. He even joined U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents dispatched to control sea lampreys, a breed of bloodsucking, eel-like fish that invaded the Great Lakes in the mid-1800s and have wreaked havoc on the ecosystem ever since.
Each of the resulting 12-foot-wide, wood-paneled oil paintings unfurls like a horrific hyper-lapse of the eroding millennia. On the left, you begin with pristine glaciers, schools of indigenous fish, migrating caribou; on the right, the inevitable destruction of sunken planes and ships, armadas of floating timber, the toxic green runoff of factory farms and cities. And while there are no humans present in any of these works, the message is clear: Behold the death and destruction mankind wrought.
“As someone said to me last night in Chicago, ‘You’re not really making paintings about the good news,’” Rockman says with a sardonic laugh. Even he admits to often feeling empty and depressed after dealing with the cruel, unvarnished truths depicted. “And that’s kinda the point. It’s like I don’t see any good news. If you’re into ecology, you’re in fucking dreamland if you think that there’s good news anymore.”
He talks about climate change, over-fishing, the cognitive dissonance he feels being an environmental activist who still eats meat. But while Rockman’s ecological anxiety is ever-present in his work, there are other influences in play, too. Having grown up a city kid, Rockman loved escaping to Manhattan’s Museum of Natural History, marveling at the dioramas and dinosaur fossils. Yet he was equally content losing himself in the darkness of a theater, watching monster movie matinees and sci-fi flicks. If you look closely, this is evident in his work, too.
“I’m so comfortable with my unconscious,” Rockman says. While field research is key to his art, so is forgetting everything he’s learned and allowing his subconscious—one bursting with russet, post-apocalyptic sunsets, ruined cities, and creepy-crawly things that go bump in the night—take over the process. “It’s all the same bouillabaisse of stuff.”
It’s this equilibrium of the methodical and the loose-on-the-reins that begets Rockman’s distinct and deliberate style, something he describes as “almost taboo, like very seductive paintings about decay and mortality.” What you’re left with are beautiful and intricate series like “Rubicon,” vibrant oils of animals—some familiar, some grotesquely mutated—taking over vast, abandoned cityscapes. Or “American Icons,” a lucid series of rotting landmarks including Disney World and the Hollywood sign, which to Rockman represent ideas about “tourism and disgraced symbols of American imperialism and success.”
But Rockman’s work isn’t all so ominous. In 2009, he collaborated with Academy Award–winning film director Ang Lee on the trippy aquatic visuals for Life of Pi; more recently, he produced New Mexico Field Drawings, a collection of spontaneous and lyrical drawings of the high-desert flora and fauna outside Santa Fe. For each, Rockman bagged and tagged unique soil samples, then used their pigments for his sketches. It’s a technique he developed some 25 years ago when his art supplies ran out while traveling in the Amazon. Not only does it lend his work a sense of organic authenticity, but the materials allow him to return to the place he’s painting. “When I do the field drawings, I’m using the place I’m longing for,” he says. “The work is literally made out of that place.”
Unsurprisingly, places are a preoccupation for Rockman. He rattles off those he longs to see, or see again: Tasmania, Borneo, New Guinea, Antarctica, numerous locales in Central and Southern America. Then, just as quickly, his mind is back in New York City. “Did you know there are jackrabbits at JFK [airport] under the runway?” he notes. Apparently, there were walruses at Jones Beach 10,000 years ago. “I revel in the idea of life in unexpected places.”
As if on cue, Rockman’s attention zeroes in on a dragonfly. He stares in genuine wonder, and you can see him mentally cataloging the insect’s otherworldly anatomy, its crepe-paper wings, its pixelated compound eyes. “Hey, check this out,” he shouts at a passing stranger on the sidewalk, a flood of enthusiasm cracking his cast of cynicism. “There’s a beautiful dragonfly right here!”
The painter Michael Kagan does. This April, sitting in an a Williamsburg studio built one brackish spray away from the East River, he spoke about portraying men on the edge of other boundaries.
“Eugene Cernan knew he was going to be the last. He was up there, looking at earth—not religious at all—he said it didn’t really hit him. ‘There’s earth.’ And then he turns around and looks at the blackness of outer space. That was it. The profound thing was seeing nothing.”
Seeing nothing is an odd aspiration for a visual artist, especially one like Kagan, whose large-format oil paintings are predominately figurative, and often include real figures. His main preoccupation, and most fruitful artistic ground, is men like Cernan—the astronauts who flew during the height of the Cold War in the 1960s and 1970s. Rendered in oil, his portraits combine the slickness and formal strength of their source material: old NASA publicity photos, with a bright palette of black, white, and only a couple of dabs of color. As seen most often, condensed into a square on Instagram—Kagan has more than 19,000 followers—the paintings are entirely sensible and compact, taking no more than the duration of a swipe to comprehend.
As Kagan says, “It’s like—boom, astronaut.”
That consumable nature, a stylish repurposing of midcentury propaganda, caught the eye of Pharrell Williams—himself a man who makes serious coin tweaking material from the Space Age. (Williams’s 2014 smash “Happy” is both wholly his own work and a retread, in vocal style and sonic exuberance, of Curtis Mayfield’s 1970 hit “Move On Up.”) In 2012, having seen a profile of Kagan’s work, Pharrell purchased the rights to three paintings. A year later, they appeared on pieces from his streetwear line, Billionaire Boys Club. Half a decade on, they still trade above retail.
All of which is to say that Kagan’s paintings work great in miniature. On a screen, on a card, printed on T-shirts, the spacemen appear antiseptic and tight, with a geometry befitting the era of rocket science. This, the “seeing something” version, works very well.
But sitting in the artist’s studio, an arm’s length from some canvases, you see how Cernan’s appraisal of oblivion, or at least of an indiscernible world, appears in Kagan’s work alongside all this order and shapeliness.
Take “Mercury 7,” an 8-by-8-foot canvas painted from a pre-flight still taken of the Mercury Seven, the name NASA gave its first class of astronauts. Initially, it seems quite heroic.
“These guys were the ultimate rock stars,” he says of Buzz Aldrin, Leland Melvin, John Glenn, and the others in NASA’s pioneering space programs. “People would clap when they walked into restaurants. They had huge parades down Fifth Avenue in New York. Everyone was behind it in a positive way.”
In the painting, the seven men are posed indoors, but washed, somehow, in the harsh, high-contrast light of the sun unfiltered by the atmosphere. With their visors up, you see that the figures are clean-cut pilots, handsome instruments against Communism. Their transgressions—boozing, speeding, and sexual opportunism—quashed by NASA’s press office, scrubbed from the official portraiture.
Yet, in person, you realize that the smooth convexity of those NASA helmets is rendered by Kagan in topographic daubs of oil paint, used as if its didn’t cost $200 a tube, applied with a squeegee as often as with a brush. The forms waver; the balance shifts. The strokes are dispersed, disordered.
It’s a small violence: To approach a Michael Kagan painting is to watch the pristine whites of a space suit disintegrate.
Kagan likes that conceptual wiggle—from seeing something, to nothing, and back again.
“Some people say I should take a side photo of my paintings with a raking light, but I don’t want to,” he says. “I like that it tightens up in the small Instagram format, but up close, it falls apart.”
It’s the touch of vertigo that swells between “something” and “nothing” that makes Kagan’s work about more than rockets and space. Where Eugene Cernan had an encounter with the void, we, the earthbound, have the opportunity to encounter art, in hopes of forcing a perspectival shift—to see our institutions as edificial and then, in three steps, dissolve into artifice.
“When you’re in space, you don’t see borders. You just see the globe. Everyone comes back and they question why there’s so much fighting and political strife. One of [the astronaut] goals was to see in the future if space travel could be a normal thing—could we take a bunch of politicians up? Could we take people up and see what good could come from that perspective and new way of thinking?” Kagan says.
From space, through a reinforced window that shares Instagram’s aspect ratio, the world is tidy, creamy, and perfect. Only on the ground, after the Command Module has plopped into the sea, do all the jagged divides make themselves visible, and the sense of unity collapse.
Super-custom, highly collectible steel bikes that look (and ride) like works of art.
Here’s a little-known fact the cycling industry would prefer you ignore: the bulk of today’s carbon-fiber racing bikes are made in Taiwan, spit out in the same automated factory. Yes, even those beautiful Italian models steeped in all that history.
Pegorettis, on the other hand, are bikes of a different breed. Forged from steel, splashed in an array of colors befitting a Basquiat canvas, tailored to fit like a classic Neapolitan suit, every handmade Peg is—to those who still believe in the simple poetry of a bicycle—a timeless entity. So is the man who makes them.
“The first thing a bike should do is give the rider a sense of familiarity, second a sense of security, and third a sense of trust,” says 62-year-old Dario Pegoretti, his raspy Italian voice rising and falling like a sonata. “Then we can start talking about performance. Already the first three things are difficult to achieve.”
Dario should know. For over four decades, he’s been crafting the world’s finest bespoke bicycles. It’s something he likens to a love affair, one that began in 1975, when he apprenticed for legendary Italian frame builder Luigino Milani. Dario—then a university student—initially took the job because he needed money to go out on Saturday nights. It quickly evolved into his life’s calling. By the 1990s, he was secretly building custom bikes for that decade’s best racers, from five-time Tour de France champ Miguel Induráin to Italian climbing ace Marco Pantani, who slapped their own sponsors’ decals over Dario’s hand-welded frame sets.
Today, in a sport dominated by carbon-fiber construction, electronic gearing, and data-spewing fitness apps, Dario remains a throwback figure, a silver-haired savant who works in steel. Every day, he shuffles around his workshop in Verona—a concrete studio, housed in a former train depot—wearing a pair of loose-fitting jeans and floppy Birkenstocks, listening to jazz and blues records, sipping espresso as he builds a few hundred bikes a year along with his small staff. His clientele has shifted from racers to cultish enthusiasts, who flock to Verona from all over the globe to get their hands on one of the man’s coveted custom rigs. (Notable among them, the late Robin Williams; at one point, he purportedly amassed the largest Pegoretti collection in world.)
Most customers fiendishly ride their bikes, marveling at its just-right fit, swearing that Dario’s steel can somehow read the road’s subtle textures and rhythmic turns. Others just mount their Pegs on the wall as art. Either way, these bikes are extensions of both builder and rider; a singular bond stems from the former’s dedication to the latter, and vice versa. One particularly besotted client even asked to have a few strands of Dario’s hair sealed into the bike’s clear-coat finish.
“In recent years, I’ve finally learned to say no,” Dario says. He seems confounded, almost—not only by the off-the-wall customization ideas, but at the sheer fanaticism of his devotees. “Now, when a customer’s request doesn’t match what I think I am able to do, I say no. This happens a dozen times each year.”
And yet, despite his reticence to bend to buyers’ whims, despite his propensity to only work with those who trust his old-school methodology, despite the cancer that nearly killed him in 2007—a form of lymphoma that triggered a collective freak-out among his many fans—Dario is anything but standoffish.
His process, much like his persona, is laid-back. Tranquillo.
“He’s literally smoking a cigarette and has a tape measure and is jotting your measurements down with a pencil,” recalls Ian Harris, a 29-year-old former bike racer.
Four years ago, Harris made a pilgrimage from his native New York to get fitted for his first Pegoretti. Ian’s father, who’d ridden a Peg for years, sold his son on the idea of owning a bike that would last forever, rather than some trendy technology piece.
“I was a little worried,” the younger Harris admits. For him, the Dario Experience included a dog yapping at his feet and a bottle of single malt whiskey. “Here I am about to drop the most money I’ve ever spent on any single item and this guy seems to be eyeballing it.”
Harris’s misgivings faded as soon as Dario went to work. The craftsman begins with a conversation; invariably, it goes well beyond bike geometry, bleeding into food, art, music, charming even the most skeptical of skeptics. In the end, Harris even opted for Dario’s “Ciavete” paint job, one that gives the legendary builder carte blanche to cast your brand-new, one-of-a-kind machine in whatever color scheme he feels like on that given day.
“The paint scheme reflects my mood,” Dario says. He can be influenced by anything, from recent photography exhibits to a “lady’s magazine” he flipped through at the hairdresser. “If it’s not a perfect day, the black color will flow a lot along the tubes. In contrast, the white and yellow will flow if the day is okay. Sometimes, I think that a rainy or sunny day affects what I do.”
“The paint job, I told him, ‘You take care of that,’” says Aldo Sohm, Chef Sommelier at New York’s three-Michelin-starred Le Bernardin. “I’m not going to tell Michelangelo how to paint the Sistine Chapel.”
Sohm, an Austrian native, was bitten by the cycling bug four years ago, and quickly began amassing a trove of high-end Italian racing bikes.
“It’s like buying watches,” he says. “You buy the first one, then you buy the second one, and you’re hooked.”
His burgeoning obsession eventually led to Pegoretti; he was fitted for a bike when Dario was visiting New York. The two met outside a barbecue joint in Brooklyn (Sohm suggested this, having heard about Dario’s love for meat and American cuisine, a habit that—along with his smoking—must grate his oncologist), and Dario measured him right there on the street. The finished product soon became Sohm’s favorite ride, outperforming all the modern bikes in his collection.
“When you descend on a Pegoretti, it’s like you’re sitting on a razor blade,” Sohm says. “It’s just so precise. And if you go over cobblestones, you just glide over them.”
Next on Sohm’s agenda is organizing a ride for local Pegoretti owners in New York City. Unsurprisingly, they’re a rare breed, which is probably what engenders such a feeling of clubbiness among them.
“What’s the expression?” Harris says with a laugh. “Game recognizes game?”
He says he’ll always get waves from fellow Peg Heads, the requisite nod and nice bike! Once, he was chased down the west side of Manhattan by a guy in a car, who rolled down his window to say that he, too, owned a Pegoretti.
“It’s like having a very obscure, vintage Tag Monaco,” says Harris. “If you see someone wearing it, you think, ‘This guy must know a lot about watches.’”
Working alongside Steve Jobs, a young watch collector named Tony Fadell helped create the iPhone. Ten years later, he reflects on the fallout—and shares his vision for building a better future.
By Oliver Franklin-Wallis Portrait by Céline Clanet
It’s a crisp January morning in Paris’s 13th Arrondissement, and outside Station F, the former freight terminal that is the epicenter of France’s startup scene, twentysomethings climb out of cars hailed using iPhone apps. They approach the huge, glass-fronted concrete arches, heads bowed over screens, thumbs dancing out social media updates, pristine white earphones poking out from under beanies or from behind shoulder-length hair. The gates are activated by QR code, so they hold out their iPhones to get into work, where they’re probably building iPhone apps themselves, to connect our homes, cars, everything, to the device in our pockets.
This is the world that Tony Fadell helped build. Fadell is known in Silicon Valley as the father of the iPod, which, with its iconic wheel and those classic white earbuds, helped transform Apple’s fortunes from a struggling computer manufacturer to the most valuable public company in history. He played a central role in the creation of the iPhone, helping Steve Jobs and Jony Ive usher in the smartphone age. After leaving Apple, in 2010, Fadell founded the smart-home company Nest, which Google bought in 2014 for $3.2 billion. Few have played bigger roles in shaping today’s technological landscape. No iPod, no iPhone. No iPhone, no Instagram, Snapchat, Uber, or Pokémon Go.
But lately Fadell, like many in Silicon Valley, has been reconsidering the changes he and his colleagues have brought about. In recent months, several former engineers and executives from Google and Facebook—including the inventor of the “like” button—have spoken out publicly about the dangers of smartphones, in particular the design of apps that are intentionally addictive. In June 2017, Fadell told an audience at London’s Design Museum, “I wake up in cold sweats every so often thinking, What did we bring to the world?” This January, after two of the largest investors in Apple called on the company to take action against smartphone addiction in children, Fadell joined in, publicly urging both his former employers to do more.
When I meet him, two weeks later, the subject is still on Fadell’s mind. To be clear: He doesn’t blame Apple—“We can’t say all iPhones are bad”—or even social media companies, although he admits there are “what some people judge as bad actors out there.” Instead, he believes that today’s shocks are a symptom of society reckoning with an unprecedented technological change.
We’re sitting on a bright yellow sofa in Station F, where he has set up his own investment firm, Future Shape. At 48, he is a lean, energetic presence, wearing a teal V-neck, cords, and black zip-up boots. “My first son was born three weeks before the iPhone was released, so my kids have never known a world without them,” Fadell says. He believes that Silicon Valley’s current crisis of conscience can be traced back in part to the architects of the mobile age having children and seeing the impact of their creations. “Your worldview changes dramatically when you have your first kid. You change from ‘me, me, me’ to family and community.” Fadell has three children and, although two of them have smartphones, the family imposes time limits, “screen-free Sundays,” and parental controls.
“When I think about digital well-being, I go back to packaged and mass-produced foods,” he says. “We have created a nomenclature around fats, sugars, proteins. What is obesity? What is bulimia?” Like food, Fadell argues, apps should be subject to their own health classifications. But our smartphones, he says, are just refrigerators. “They’re not going to cause you to be an addict or not. But they always stock themselves, and will give you the ability to buy anything you want.”
When Fadell stepped back from Apple in 2009, the family went traveling. They fell in love with Paris; the city suits Fadell, who has a taste for European culture and design. They later moved back to the Bay Area when Fadell was working on Nest, but when he quit Google in 2016 the Fadells moved to France for good, buying an apartment in the Seventh Arrondissement, and enrolling their children in school.
Station F might be downtown Paris, but it feels very Silicon Valley. It’s midmorning, and young startup workers are playing foosball over cappuccinos. There’s a “Creative Zone” complete with craft supplies; food trucks linger outside. Funded by the French telecommunications billionaire Xavier Niel, it’s vast, with space for a thousand companies. Facebook, Microsoft, and LVMH have already moved in. France’s high taxes and red tape have previously been seen as inimical to startups, but that’s changing: President Macron toured Station F last summer, and the government even has an office here.
Future Shape was still settling in when I visited. The space wasn’t much to look at: a few tasteful chairs and a conference table in a glass-fronted former shipping container. Fadell had ordered a clock—it currently hangs in London’s Ham Yard Hotel—but it hadn’t arrived yet.
Fadell began investing nearly a decade ago (he won’t reveal the extent of his personal wealth, but given Apple stock and Nest’s sale, it’s likely substantial) and has stakes in around 200 companies. They range from OpenROV, a manufacturer of underwater drones, to Grenoble-based Aryballe, which develops biosensors to detect smells and tastes, and Karius, a medical startup that claims to be able to diagnose more than 1,000 infectious diseases from a single blood test. “We get to put ourselves in two hundred different scenarios—in agriculture technology, food technology, financial technology, pharma, and drugs. For me, that kind of stuff is oxygen,” Fadell says.
Living in Paris has also given him time to work on personal projects, such as Ressence, the Brussels-based luxury watch brand, which has won acclaim for its blend of traditional craft and modern technology. Fadell met its founder, Benoît Mintiens, after buying a Ressence Type 3, which has an innovative oil-filled display. (He’d explored similar approaches when developing touchscreens at General Magic in the early 1990s.)
“When I saw it, I was like, ‘This must be a Photoshop.’ Because it was stunning. The dial was just so pristine,” Fadell says. “Then I started reading the description, and I thought: that’s genius! I need to get this watch. I went crazy.”
The week before we met, at the 2018 Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie watch fair in Geneva, Ressence unveiled the “E-crown”—a mechanical movement that connects to a smartphone to regulate its own time, meaning it never requires winding. It’s being acclaimed as a breakthrough timepiece. Fadell, a longtime watch collector, whose tastes range from vintage Heuer and Ikepod to contemporary Panerai and Patek Philippe, consulted on the design.
“Two and a half years ago, Benoît sends a text message and says, ‘Hey I got an idea. It’s really secret, but I want to make a next-generation mechanical watch. We have watch winders today that are little robots. So let’s put [one] inside.’ That’s where the two of us started brainstorming,” Fadell says. “He had a whole list of things that he wanted. I had my list of things, both electronically and mechanically, that I wanted. We had to find and strike the right balance … The whole magic was, how do you make a better mechanical watch, not [just] a smartwatch?”
“We look at products in a similar way,” says Mintiens. “Tony is someone who is putting the user in the center. In the end, with watches, it’s about: How efficiently do you express time?”
For Fadell, user experience is everything. “If we look at the major Cambrian explosions of digital technology, it’s always come from a disruptive combination of cutting-edge technology with cutting-edge user experience,” Fadell says. Every detail should be intuitive and create delight from the moment of unboxing; it was this, he says, that drove Jobs to create Apple Stores and ship iPhones with pre-charged batteries. “When you get that experience right, you put that device in somebody’s hand and they go, ‘Wow.’”
The first time Fadell tried to create the iPhone, it was 15 years too early. Born in Detroit, Fadell picked up engineering from his grandfather, a lifelong tinkerer who helped Fadell buy his first computer. Fadell showed a prodigious talent for computing; in college, he even sold a new microprocessor design for the Apple II to Apple itself.
After graduation, Fadell joined General Magic, a now-storied Silicon Valley company (alumni include eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and Android creator Andy Rubin) that was working on an early personal communications device. “We had email, we had downloadable games, downloadable apps, we had shopping, we had books,” Fadell recalls—in other words, the key features of today’s smartphones. General Magic built two devices, for Sony and Motorola, but neither took off, and the company folded. “It was too soon,” says Fadell.
Shortly afterwards, Philips appointed Fadell, then just 25, as its chief technology officer. It was at Philips that Fadell started thinking about digital music. “He had a vision for music being liberated from CD players—how music and portability could be reinvented,” recalls the designer Yves Béhar. The pair sketched out ideas for a portable MP3 player.
In 1999, Fadell formed his own company, Fuse Systems, to build it. However, as the dotcom bubble burst, the company struggled to raise money. Then, in 2001, Fadell was approached by Apple to consult on the design of an MP3 player—what would become the iPod. Steve Jobs hired him to run the new division.
Today, it’s easy to forget the iPod’s significance. “When I started, [Apple] had $25 million in the bank and $500 million in debt,” says Fadell. The iPod, with its navigation wheel and crisp white aesthetic, was far superior to anything on the market. But it wasn’t an instant success. “Steve was always saying the iPod’s going to help us sell more Macs, so the iPod can only work on the Mac,” says Fadell. Infuriated, he lead a skunkworks effort to make a PC-compatible version. “[Steve] said, ‘Over my dead body.’” It was only after Jobs relented that the iPod exploded, selling by the hundreds of millions. Mac sales also began to take off. “It was the gateway drug.”
When Jobs decided to build the iPhone, he initially appointed two rival teams to develop it. One, headed by Fadell, worked on integrating phone functions into the iPod’s click wheel design. The other, lead by then head of software Scott Forstall, attempted to slim down the Mac’s operating system to work on a touchscreen. Ultimately, the latter won out, but given Fadell’s experience with the iPod, he was brought in to oversee the hardware development. Inside Apple, Fadell had a reputation for being a troublemaker. He’d argue fiercely with Jobs, and occasionally quit or get himself fired. “His aggressive, combative style is what endeared him to Steve,” says David Bell, a friend who then worked for an Apple semiconductor supplier. “[But] he would sometimes be too argumentative, and that would piss people off.”
When Google bought Nest, in 2014, Fadell’s style caused conflict again, and although the products racked up design awards, the connected home didn’t take off as expected. After Google restructured in 2015, becoming Alphabet, Nest came under financial pressure. “When Google decided they wanted to sell Nest, I said, ‘Fine, I’m not staying,’” Fadell says. (Alphabet reportedly tried to sell Nest in 2016, but failed to find a buyer. This February, Nest was rolled into Google’s hardware team.)
In Paris, we talked about what Fadell has learned about mentorship. “When someone works for me, they say, ‘Tony pushed me harder than I ever was, and it was frustrating, but I did work that I never thought I’d do,’” he says. “That’s what people did for me. They pushed me when I wasn’t thinking properly, when I was being an idiot.”
“It’s difficult. You’re not always loved, and you’re not always liked.”
Recently, he’s started taking meetings in museums. “Steve Jobs and I would go on walks. You’d just walk and talk, and get to know somebody,” he says. In museums, “you get to be inspired, and also get to know the person. How do they think about that art? Can they look at things and think differently?”
He likes the notions of artists having creative periods. I ask if, after Nest, his own entrepreneurial period is over. “Maybe there’s something that pops up that’s like, ‘I have to do it,’” he says. “I’ve been close. But everything takes time.”
Today’s technology landscape is very different than when Fadell started. Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook loom above everything, with near-infinite reach and financial capital, buying every promising startup—as Fadell himself experienced. I ask if it’s possible that the next big breakthrough could come from outside those companies.
“[If we thought] that you can’t unseat giants, we would have never made the iPod,” says Fadell. “When we were doing that first iPod, I said ‘Steve, Sony is the number one in the world. They own every single audio category. How are we going to beat them?’ And he goes, ‘We will beat Sony. Watch me. If you guys build this, we’re going to put every single marketing dollar behind it.’ And where is Sony in audio today? Where is Nokia?”
His focus on “deep tech” companies at Future Shape—the portfolio includes new types of transistors and microscopic LEDs—is intentional, he says. “I’m doing the things that I know can unseat the big guys. If we get [the technology] right, we can build product companies around it.”
One area that particularly excites him is biotechnology. “Computational synthetic biology is a whole new world,” he says. “We can literally write code, like you would write code for a computer, synthesize it in DNA. We are at the cusp of making biological computers.” Future Shape’s investments include Impossible Burger, which makes lab-grown meat substitutes, and Modern Meadow, which has created a lab-grown leather alternative. “He’s been more than an investor,” says the latter’s founder, Andras Forgacs. “Tony really understands where design and technology come together to create great consumer products. That is not common among investors.”
Fadell is skeptical about the current hype around autonomous vehicles. “The self-driving cars world is making lots of progress, but there’s so much more to do. People don’t understand: They don’t work in certain weather, they don’t work in certain times of day, they don’t work in a fog.”
Robotics and artificial intelligence, Fadell thinks, are also further off than most people think. “We are so far away from being able to create real humanoid kinds of robots,” he says. “These robots are so fragile. And we’re not even talking about intelligence. We’re just talking about grasping and picking up and and walking.”
“The one thing I learned, especially from my General Magic experience, is sometimes the technology is not there, and sometimes society is not there yet.”
Fadell is starting to think about the generation that will succeed him. In 2015, Fadell cofounded an electric go-kart company, Actev Motors, with David Bell. “I said: ‘What was the experience that I had that was formative for me?’ And that was being in a workshop with my grandfather, fixing things, building the soapbox derby racer, and learning about different technologies.”
Actev’s go-kart is designed to be taken apart and modified: Parents can set speed and safety limits, while kids learn about electronics and basic coding skills. “It gives kids some opportunity to do ‘do it yourself,’” says Bell. “It’s really a modern version of what he and his grandfather would do.”
I ask Fadell about one of the tech industry’s growing problems, planned obsolescence: the relentless cycle of waste driven by constant product updates. Apple has recently been the subject of global furor and ongoing lawsuits after it was revealed that the company intentionally limits the performance of older phones, supposedly to protect battery performance. “Everyone went really crazy with the iPod because it [had] a sealed battery,” he recalls. Today, he worries about the environmental impacts of devices. “Reuse is really important. We have limited resources on this planet. That was the reason for Nest,” he says, noting that the company’s products are designed to last decades.
Increasingly, Fadell thinks the next generation of technology designers should commit to a kind of Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm. He has lobbied Apple and Google to introduce a “digital scale” function, to help us track our smartphone habits. “They’re tracking our physical well-being. Why don’t we have the same thing for our digital life?” At Future Shape, he’s pushing founders to think about impact early. “What is the purpose? How does it affect society?”
Fadell remains optimistic about the future. He often thinks back to his childhood in Detroit, building racers and taking apart radios with his grandfather. “What my grandfather would tell me is, ‘If a human made this—and they did—you can fix it,’” he says, his eyes shining. “‘And you can make it better, too.’”