June 28 (UPI) -- Apple Chief Design Officer Jony Ive, the man behind the appearance of the iPhone, is leaving the company after more than 20 years to start his own firm.
Ive's first major design at Apple was the iMac desktop computer.
"Jony is a singular figure in the design world and his role in Apple's revival cannot be overstated, from 1998′s groundbreaking iMac to the iPhone and the unprecedented ambition of Apple Park, where recently he has been putting so much of his energy and care," Apple chief Tim Cook in a statement.
"While I will not be an employee, I will still be very involved -- I hope for many, many years to come," Ive told the Financial Times. "This just seems like a natural and gentle time to make this change."
The departure came as a surprise to some Apple investors and customers, as Ive's been the driving force behind Apple aesthetics for decades. He joined the company in 1992 when it was on the brink of bankruptcy and helped revitalize it with new product designs. He became senior vice president of industrial design in 1997 and chief design officer in 2015.
Cook downplayed the move, saying Apple has an expanded group of in-house designers and the brand is "the strongest it's ever been."
"We get to continue with the same team that we've had for a long time and have the pleasure of continuing to work with Jony," Cook told the Financial Times. "I can't imagine a better result."
It's not yet clear who will succeed Ive, but Apple said there won't be an immediate replacement. His departure follows that of Apple retail chief Angela Ahrendts, who left in April.