Stephen Dalton | 9 Oct 2017
There is a sign pinned to the wall of Marc Newson’s London home: ‘Believe in your f***ing self. Stay up all f***ing night.’
This is the kind of self-aggrandising gesture we might expect from a rock star of the design world, a jet-setting global citizen who counts Jonathan Ive, Benedikt Taschen, and Larry Gagogosian as friends and creative collaborators. Named the world’s most influential designer (along with Ive) in the Wallpaper* Power 200 list in 2015, Newson has posed naked for Karl Lagerfeld and modelled for Commes des Garçons. His classic designs regularly set record-breaking prices on the contemporary art market.
And yet the Australian-born designer is surprisingly laconic and laidback in person. More process-obsessed detail geek than art-world superstar, 53-year-old Newson sometimes comes across like a suburban Sydney surfer boy who still cannot quite believe he got his hands on the biggest toybox in the world.
Newson made headlines in 2014 when he joined Apple’s design team under his long-time friend Sir Jony Ive, with a brief to work on special projects including the Apple Watch and – rumour has it – an Apple car too. The pair even collaborated on an immersive festival installation for Claridge’s in London. But before that he was already globally feted for his dazzling range of award-winning furniture, kitchenware, cameras, sunglasses, luggage, airline cabins, shotguns, surfboards and even sex toys for blue-chip brands like Qantas, Louis Vuitton, Hermès, Dom Pérignon, Pentax, Smeg, Azzedine Alaïa and Samsonite.
And while Newson dismisses attempts to pin down his signature style, he emphatically favours curved lines, translucent materials, bright citrus colours and flowing organic forms. Mother Nature, he says, is the perfect designer.
Travel is woven into Newson’s DNA, his cosmopolitan magpie aesthetic shaped by decades of continent-hopping cultural curiosity. During his teens, his free-spirited single mother Carol took him all around Europe and Asia, where he got his first intoxicating taste of Japan’s kaleidoscopic visual delights. When he graduated from Sydney College of the Arts a decade later, the lure of Japan was still strong. In the late 1980s, he spent four years living and working in Tokyo, where he first met Ive, his future boss. A six-year spell in Paris followed before Newson settled in London in 1997.
Calling himself an ‘analogue guy’, Newson always begins initial design concepts in a sketchbook that travels with him constantly. Having studied jewellery and sculpture in Sydney, he describes Australia as a nation of ‘backyard engineers’. In an age dominated by 3D digital design tools, he remains hand-on in his working methods, with a close personal focus on the physical fabrics and textures used.
Newson has a special flair for using innovative materials in his designs, as well as using traditional materials in non-traditional ways. One of his earliest signature pieces, the petite yet voluptuous ‘Embryo Chair’, which premiered in 1988 and remains in production today, is upholstered in the bright neoprene fabrics normally used for Australian surfing wetsuits. His other cutting-edge designs have deployed artfully folded sheets of Tasmanian pine, extruded marble carved from a single block, and microscopic copper-coated nano-balls. The high-tech carbon fibre composites of the aerospace industry are particular favourites.
Newson’s work features in the permanent collections of more than 20 museums including MoMA in New York, the V&A in London and the Pompidou in Paris. He has always blurred the lines between fine artist, craftsman and product designer. A case in point is his iconic early creation the ‘Lockheed Lounge’, half chair and half sculpture, its curvaceous biomorphic polyurethane form clothed in figure-hugging sheets of gleaming aluminium. He completed the prototype in 1986, then fashioned a more streamlined upgrade two years later. Four artist’s proofs and an edition of 10 were eventually made.
An instant design classic, the ‘Lockheed Lounge’ caught the eye of connoisseur taste-makers including Philippe Starck, Ian Schrager and Madonna, who featured one of the chairs in the video to her 1993 single Rain. In 2006, one of the series sold for $968,000 (£735,000) at Sotheby’s in New York. Four years later, Phillips de Pury in New York sold another for $2.1 million (£1.6 million), the highest price ever paid for the work of a living designer. In 2015, the Lockheed broke records again, going for £2.4 million (almost $3.2 million) at Phillips in London
The dynamic shape of the ‘Lockheed Lounge’ was inspired by Le Corbusier, but the name references the chair’s resemblance to the riveted fuselage of a vintage Lockheed L-049 airliner. This is a typically Newsonian touch. He once aspired to be an aerospace engineer, his childhood fantasies fuelled by the flying car designs in the 1960s TV show The Jetsons. Space age optimism and the romance of travel are recurring motifs in his work, yearning for a techno-utopian future that never quite arrived.
Many of Newson’s passion projects have been high-tech vehicles, from his striking S-shaped aluminium and carbon fibre bicycles for Danish company Biomega to his luxury limited-edition speedboats for Italian nautical giants Riva. As creative director for Australian flag-carrier Qantas, he also comprehensively re-imagined the interiors of the company’s Airbus 330 and 380 fleet, designing everything from economy class spoons to business class beds.
‘As an industrial designer,’ said Newson in the book Limited Edition: Prototypes, One-Offs and Design Art Furniture (edited by Wallpaper* Germany editor-at large Sophie Lovell), ‘I work to briefs, but in the case of my limited-edition works i have none, so I can create my own parameters. I can let my imagination run free and express my enthusiasm for materials, processed and techniques - but on my own terms.’
In the more experimental realm, where practical design meets blue-sky speculation, Newson has also created some delicious one-off fantasy vehicles. In 1999, his elegantly simple 0121C Ford concept car, beautifully finished in orange and silver, made its award-winning debut at the Tokyo Motor Show. He then looked to the skies with the Kelvin40, a compact personal passenger jet composed of curvilinear contours and forward-sweeping wings, created for the Cartier Foundation in Paris in 2004. Three years later, Newson came closer to making his boyhood Jetsons fantasy come true by designing a rocket-powered passenger space jet prototype for the European aerospace consortium EADS Astrium. The project remains in development.
Newson, his British stylist wife Charlotte Stockdale and their two children have been based in London for the past 20 years. His headquarters is a former women’s prison close to Buckingham Palace, a location which must have proved convenient when he collected his CBE from Queen Elizabeth at the end of 2011. He joined Apple in September 2014, a job which he says consumes around 60 per cent of his schedule.
But outside the orbit of everyday business concerns, childhood fantasies still exert a strong gravitational pull on Newson. He remains fascinated with outer space, once bought a real Russian cosmonaut suit, and hopes to visit the International Space Station one day. Work hard. Stay up all night. Keep dreaming. To infinity and beyond.