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 the creative director of Qantas. “So you start asking what can you can do to make that vessel better? And then you realise that, with just a glass, say, the life of that object is brutal. It goes through a punishing regime. Then it also has to meet different protocols in different countries...”
Such a small, seemingly insignificant object, such a considerable design challenge. Or take, for example, the functionality of an office chair. “I’ve been working on one for Knoll for, what, years now,” muses Newson, a man who has consequently spent a lot of time looking at office chairs. And, he adds, the issues are more complex than anyone might imagine: how the chair has to meet constraints of pricing, work for all types of physique, acknowledge all manner of health an safety criteria. “I’d love to be able to present a solution that enabled a lot of people not to have to make those gruelling choices again,” he says. “Of course, that means another office chair, and just more choice. But I think there’s the potential there to clarify for the consumer.”
Indeed, that is how Marc Newson conceives of himself — as a clarifier, a curator, a refiner or simplifier — his intention always to create the best-in-class product, such that nobody would ever need another of its kind.
The name might not be familiar to all, but Marc Newson, an amiable 52-year-old Australian, might well have had a hand in influencing the landscape of products through which you move every day. His output includes pens and bunk beds, jets and dish-racks, kettles, torches, cellphones, restaurants and shops, mirrors, taps, chairs, shotguns and clothes for some of the world’s leading manufacturers of both high-end and more everyday products.
And those definitely not everyday. He has designed a space plane. He co-designed Apple’s smart watch. He designed the Lockheed Lounge, one of his very first, self-built products, an aluminium-clad chaise longue that sold last year for £2.4m (US$3.7m) and became the most expensive design object sold at auction by a living designer. His pieces can be found in the permanent collections of some 20 major museums around the world. Such is the draw of the Newson vision, in fact, that, as he puts it, “I tend to pick projects based on what I want or need [these days], on purely selfish terms. And I’ve always wanted a decent toaster. A wheelie-bag too. I try to look at things from the perspective of a consumer. What could they want? What do I want? And the list is getting smaller.”
Newson’s is the much-imitated colourful, curvy, organic, materials-driven aesthetic, in which everything and anything from shagreen to carbon fibre to polyethylene to steel might play on his palette. This is the man who made a shelf from a five-tonne block of marble and decked a speedboat in micarta (made from layers of resin-laminated linen).
Certainly, in a world where artists, musicians, actors and even architects are fêted, Newson is as close as an industrial designer has yet come to being an international celebrity.
“But then fashion and architecture have existed for thousands of years,” he argues. “Design is a very contemporary phenomenon — a century ago it didn’t exist as an industry. And even now there’s a novelty attached to it. Industrial designers are becoming brands in their own right, which isn’t an idea I like much. But it’s an inevitable result of living in a consumerist world.”
That is a world Newson, more than many, is especially attuned to. One of his 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 a very foreign to me,” Newson admits — and not least the breakneck speed at which clothing is developed, relative to the minimum two-year timeline to produce a design object.
“I always thought that you have to acknowledge the pointlessness of fashion, yet its impact on the world of 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. I think that’s probably more an issue for men. Women seem to have that problem less.”
Of course, Newson is conscious of his role in making yet more stuff, even if the goal is always to design, as he puts it, “something truly timeless, because that’s the greatest compliment a design can get. And, besides, nobody likes designing landfill”. But he is also frequently taken aback by how the world is still full of badly designed stuff in dire need of reconsideration. Indeed, the frustration that design seems to be held in such low esteem by manufacturers — and perhaps in turn by consumers — is something of a driving force.
Design is a contemporary phenomenon — a century ago it didn’t exist as an industry
“I’ve spoken with Jony [Ive, chief design officer of Apple] about this and we’ve both said 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 the designer who trained not in design but in sculpture jewellery-making, successfully persuading his college tutors that he should be able to submit a chair for one project because it was, in a sense, something one wore.
“And it’s just as well I can say that,” Newson adds. “If everything around me was wonderful I’d be out of a job. But that anger is inspirational because you understand that it doesn’t cost any more energy to do something differently, better. Of course, everyone has different taste and there are many solutions to a problem, so I’m only talking about when it’s really bad. And design doesn’t always result in quality. After all, there’s a lot of lip-service paid to the idea that something is ‘designed’, especially when you’re working within the imperative of the market, which is about offering choice for choice’s sake.”
Newson concedes that the market for design is not yet a perfect one. On the one hand, he has benefitted from working at a time when design’s credibility has been in the ascendant, much, he argues, as he did from growing up in Australia, a new country open to contemporary thinking and not overshadowed by the shoulders of giants on which new talents are meant to stand.
But on the other, he speaks of past work with some big corporations as being “like hitting your head against a brick wall” with the layers of management and marketing all too often mitigating the whole point of bringing in an external designer in the first place. He cites his job as being “to find solutions” but also “to dictate”, so sees little point in a company hiring him and then subverting his take on a product. “It’s the designer who’s supposed to have the crystal ball [not the marketing department],” he notes, adding that thankfully working with Apple, the world’s largest company, has restored some faith that big business can vindicate the importance of design.
Then there is the design world’s over-dependence on computers as problem-solving apparatus rather than as tools to realise an idea born of one’s imagination — resulting in all too many self-proclaimed designers being something more akin to stylists. “And increasingly so. What’s missing is the sense that the best ideas still come from deep within your head,” says the man whose grandfather encouraged him to take things apart and then work out how to put them back together again, the man who has the kind of practical skills — riveting, welding, soldering — that many more armchair designers do not.
“I’m a pen-and-paper man because I know that if you’re always working with computers your thinking is subject to that piece of software,” Newson adds. “I can look at a car and tell you what software it was designed with. I don’t think that’s a phase — I think my generation are last of a breed. We represent an old way of working that will be lost, at least until software becomes much more intuitive.”
What’s missing is the sense that the best ideas still come from deep within your head
It’s an old way of working, but as Newson’s ever-expanding portfolio indicates, one that still works. If only the same could be said of the car industry, one he has yet to design for in depth (though rumours abound of an Apple car in the pipeline). A petrol-head himself, he collects vintage cars, with a 1959 Aston Martin DB4, 1955 Ferrari and a 1929 Bugatti among them, cars mean a lot to Newson. So he no doubt finds it especially frustrating to cite the car industry as particularly guilty of producing bland products offering little real distinction or advantage.
In fact, Newson reckons that if he was given £100,000 he wouldn’t be able to find a car he’d want to own. “There’s still so much c**p out there. 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, sanitized world. Okay, so it has to be said that people died a lot in old cars. But the cars still looked better.”