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20th Century Design

Marc Newson: The Future of Design

Marc Newson ponders the stability of a tumbler. “We’ve all sat through turbulence, so it’s no good having vessels that go flying all over the place,” notes Newson, the creative director of Qantas Airways. “So you start asking what can you do to make that vessel better?” And what about the functionality of an office chair? “I’ve been working on one for Knoll for, what, years now,” he muses, as he considers such issues as pricing, users’ body types and all manner of safety criteria. “I’d love to be able to present a solution that enables a lot of people not to have to make those gruelling choices again.” That desire reflects how Newson thinks of himself – as a clarifier, a curator, a refiner and simplifier. His intention is always to create the best-in-class product, so that nobody would ever need another of its kind.

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NEWSON’S ONE-OFF LEICA M CAMERA, DESIGNED WITH APPLE’S JONATHAN IVE, SOLD FOR $1.8 MILLION IN THE 2013 (RED) CHARITY AUCTION AT SOTHEBY’S

The name might not be familiar to everyone, but Marc Newson, an amiable 53-year-old Australian, might well have had a hand in influencing the landscape of products through which you move every day. Newson’s is the much-imitated colourful, organic, materials-driven aesthetic whose palette includes everything from shagreen and carbon fibre to polyethylene and steel. He codesigned Apple’s smart watch. His output includes pens and bunk beds, jets and dish racks, kettles, mobile phones, restaurants and shops, mirrors, faucets, chairs and clothes for some of the world’s leading makers of both high-end and ordinary everyday wares.

And then there are those creations that are most definitely out of the ordinary. Newson fashioned a shelf from a five-tonne block of marble and decked a speedboat in Micarta, the thermosetting plastic made from layers of resin-laminated linen. He self-built the Lockheed Lounge, an aluminium-clad chaise in an edition of fifteen, one of which became the most expensive object by a living designer offered at auction when it sold for $3.7 million in 2015. Newson’s pieces can be found in the collections of some 20 major museums around the world. Such is the draw of the Newson vision that these days, he says, “I tend to pick projects based on what I want or need. And I’ve always wanted a decent toaster. A wheelie bag, too.” That latter need was recently fulfilled: this past summer, Louis Vuitton released a line of lightweight Newson-designed rolling suitcases in hard-candy hues like orange, red and yellow. “I try to look at things from the perspective of consumers. What could they want? What do I want? The list is getting smaller.”

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THE LOW VORONOI SHELF, CARVED FROM A SINGLE BLOCK OF BARDIGLIO MARBLE

Certainly, Newson is the closest thing to a celebrity that the industrial design world has. “Design is a very contemporary phenomenon – a century ago, it didn’t exist as an industry,” he argues. “And even now there’s a novelty attached to it. Industrial designers are becoming brands in their own right.” That’s not an idea he likes much, but he acknowledges that branding is an inevitable result of living in

a consumerist world. “Design has become a vehicle by which commercial enterprises can differentiate their products,” he continues. “Things were always designed, but now companies are emphasising design in their marketing, by identifying designers as adding quality.”

One of Newson’s more challenging jobs of recent years has been a fashion capsule collection for the Dutch denim label G-Star Raw. “When I started, fashion was very foreign to me,” he admits, especially the breakneck speed at which clothing is developed as compared with the minimum two-year timeline needed to produce a design object. “I always thought that you have to acknowledge the pointlessness of fashion, yet its impact on contemporary culture can’t be ignored. And besides, I’m a consumer like everybody else. I acquire things and sometimes even in this world the choice is not available, and that irritates me. There’s something I want, even if I’m not sure what it is I’m looking for.”

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AN HOURGLASS MADE OF BOROSILICATE GLASS AND CONTAINING TINY GOLD-PLATED STEEL BALLS

While clearly Newson is conscious of his role in making even more stuff, his goal is always to design, as he puts it, “something truly timeless, because that’s the greatest compliment a design can get. Nobody likes designing landfill.” But he is also frequently taken aback by how the world is still full of badly designed products in dire need of reconsideration. Indeed, the frustration that design seems to be held in low esteem by some brands – and perhaps in turn by consumers themselves – is something of a driving force for him.

“I’ve spoken with Jonathan Ive, chief design officer of Apple, about this and we think a pent-up anger [at the design around us] is our greatest source of inspiration – looking around and saying ‘that’s horrible!’” says Newson. “And it’s just as well I can say that. If everything around me was wonderful, I’d be out of a job.” The annoyance is inspirational because it allows him to understand that “it doesn’t cost any more energy to do something differently, better. Of course, everyone has different tastes and there are many solutions to a problem, so I’m only talking about when it’s really bad.”

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AN AIRLINE SEAT FOR A CUSTOMISED BOEING BUSINESS JET

Newson concedes that the market for design is not yet a perfect one. He believes he has benefitted from working at a time when the field’s credibility has been in the ascendant and for having grown up in Australia, a country open to contemporary thinking and where young talents are not overshadowed by the giants of the past. Yet he also speaks of past work with some big corporations as being “like hitting your head against a brick wall,” with layers of management and marketing considerations all too often mitigating the point of bringing in an external designer in the first place.

He cites his job as being “to find solutions” but also “to dictate. It’s the designer who’s supposed to have the crystal ball,” not the marketing department, he says, adding that, thankfully, working with Apple, the world’s largest company, has restored some of his faith that big business can vindicate the importance of design.

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A SILVER TEAPOT FOR GEORG JENSEN

Then there is the design world’s dependence on computers as problem-solving devices rather than as tools to realise an idea born of one’s imagination – a trend that results in many designers being something more akin to stylists, says Newson. “What’s missing is the sense that the best ideas still come from deep within your head,” declares the person whose grandfather encouraged him to take things apart and then work out how to put them back together; Newson has the kind of practical skills – riveting, welding, soldering – that many designers do not.

“I’m a pen-and-paper man because if you’re always working with computers, your thinking is subject to that piece of software,” Newson says. “I can look at certain cars and tell you what software they were designed with. I don’t think that’s a phase – I think my generation is the last of a breed.

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NEWSON’S ICONIC ALUMINUM-CLAD LOCKHEED LOUNGE

We represent an old way of working that will be lost, at least until software becomes much more intuitive.”

Putting pen to paper may be a traditional approach, but as Newson’s ever-expanding portfolio indicates, it’s one that serves him well. One area he has yet to design for in depth is the car industry. A petrol-head himself, he collects vintage cars, with a 1959 Aston Martin DB4, a 1955 Ferrari and a 1929 Bugatti among them. “It’s not because I’m an old fart lost in nostalgia. [But] cars were better,” he says. “They didn’t try to meet the criteria of this politically correct, sanitised world.”

Lead image: Designer Marc Newson at home in London. Portrait: JØRN TOMTER.

Josh Sims has contributed to the Financial Times, Esquire and other publications.
Adapted from an article originally published in AM, the Aston Martin magazine. Courtesy Aston Martin.

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