The designer behind the original Apple store concept

Mr Tim Kobe. -- PHOTO: DESMOND LIM
Mr Tim Kobe. -- PHOTO: DESMOND LIM
Known for the early designs of Apple stores such as those in Osaka, Mr Tim Kobe is now working on villas (above) in Boracay which are inspired by the traditional white houses on Santorini island in Greece. -- PHOTO: D PRIME
Known for the early designs of Apple stores such as those in Osaka, Mr Tim Kobe is now working on villas (above) in Boracay which are inspired by the traditional white houses on Santorini island in Greece. -- PHOTO: D PRIME
Known for the early designs of Apple stores (above) such as those in Osaka, Mr Tim Kobe is now working on villas in Boracay which are inspired by the traditional white houses on Santorini island in Greece. -- PHOTO: EIGHT INC
Known for the early designs of Apple stores (above) such as those in Osaka, Mr Tim Kobe is now working on villas in Boracay which are inspired by the traditional white houses on Santorini island in Greece. -- PHOTO: EIGHT INC
Known for the early designs of Apple stores such as those in Osaka (above), Mr Tim Kobe is now working on villas in Boracay which are inspired by the traditional white houses on Santorini island in Greece. -- PHOTO: EIGHT INC
Known for the early designs of Apple stores such as those in Osaka (above), Mr Tim Kobe is now working on villas in Boracay which are inspired by the traditional white houses on Santorini island in Greece. -- PHOTO: EIGHT INC

Architect Tim Kobe worked with the late Steve Jobs to raise the tech giant's profile in retail

He came up with the original concept for Apple stores, worked closely with the tech giant's late chief executive Steve Jobs and designed the homes of several Apple directors in the United States.

Four years ago, however, Mr Tim Kobe decided to uproot from his native California and move to Singapore. The architect, who is the founder and chief executive of design firm Eight Inc, did so to move his company's focus to Asia. The move was influenced, in part, by Jobs - or rather, the lack of.

"We worked with Steve every week for about 12 years. When we became aware of his illness and its severity, we were devastated," says Mr Kobe, 57. "Working with him was an inspiration and a challenge. Near the end of his life, he was there less and the idea of continuing at Apple as intensively was not that appealing.

"I wanted to look at more meaningful work than selling more electronics and see if we could apply our experience with Steve in new areas."

More than a third of Eight Inc's work is now concentrated in Asia. Among Mr Kobe's projects are a series of villas in Boracay in conjunction with local real estate management firm D Prime; and a project for Japanese bicycle-part manufacturer Shimano at the Sports Hub, designed to excite people about the world of cycling.

Mr Kobe, who grew up in the Shasta Lake area in California where his family owned a marina, was trained at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, earning a degree in environmental design. Since setting up Eight Inc in 1989, he has worked with clients such as Virgin Atlantic Airways and Nike.

In 1998, Jobs returned to Apple after an absence of more than a decade from the computer company he co-founded in the 1970s, and roped in Mr Kobe's firm to suggest a new retail concept for the brand. Eight Inc came up with the original concept for Apple stores worldwide and designed the standards that were to be used in creating them.

"At that time, no other computer company was doing that kind of retail. Most of them sold through third-party resellers. The problem with that is you can't tell the story of your brand and you end up being counter-sold," he says of Apple's reinvention and move to consumer electronics.

For Apple to tell its own story, it had to have its own channels of retail and the whole experience of being in the store should help tell that story.

Mr Kobe's team set about designing the details of the new retail concept, from what the environment should look like to how the staff should behave. It also added now signature elements, such as the Genius Bar, customer service counters manned by Apple expertsand kids' areas.

In retail, a brand has to keep reinventing itself every five years to stay on top of the game. But Mr Kobe says: "Apple has been lucky that its rivals have been copying it instead of competing with it. Apple is still rolling out stores that were designed six or seven years ago, but it's still doing great."

Today, his firm has a presence in seven cities, including San Francisco and Tokyo. The Singapore office in Duxton Hill has 15 people. He says when he was deciding where to locate the firm's South-east Asia headquarters, Singapore's Economic Development Board helped woo Eight Inc here.

"The board was instrumental in influencing our decision. It was supportive and interested in having Eight Inc in Singapore," he says.

The board provided support in terms of helping to build relationships with local players and providing tax incentive opportunities, he explains. His firm has invested more than half a million dollars to set up here.

He is a big fan of Singapore. "Everything about the country is very considered," he says. "Good design is about the consideration of many factors to create things that matter to people. When you see any system implemented in Singapore compared with other countries, it seems to have been deeply considered from a user and objective perspective."

Singapore has done more right than wrong design-wise, and one of the things it has done right is maintaining a diverse architectural fabric, says Mr Kobe, whose favourite buildings include the Esplanade, Raffles Hotel and the glass-domed Catalunya restaurant in the Fullerton Pavilion.

He lives in a shophouse in Joo Chiat with his homemaker wife and their younger son, who is almost two years old. They hope to become permanent residents here. His three other children live in California: His elder son, 23, and daughter, 26, are both architects. His younger daughter, 16, is a high-school student.

"Singapore recognises that great experiences come in part from great architecture. Keeping shophouses and less dense areas is a smart move and will add to the richness of the fabric," he says.

He adds that architectural landmarks in Singapore, while aimed at and popular with tourists, do not alienate locals.

"In San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman's Wharf have become tourist destinations with little interaction with local users," he says, pointing out that many Singapore residents regularly visit and enjoy the Gardens by the Bay and Botanic Gardens, for instance.

"It is the emotion that connects us to places."

jennanid@sph.com.sg

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