Popular TV documentaries rely above all on two things: myth and cliche. The myth-making is how you justify the choice of your subject and the use of cliches is how you make that subject effortlessly digestible. And so Alan Yentob opens the episode of his BBC series Imagine dedicated to Marc Newson by describing him as “one of the hottest designers on the planet” (note: not the world, but the planet, because there is an explicit sci-fi subplot to this programme, as its title, Urban Spaceman, suggests). Yentob goes on to say that Newson is hired by corporations to “think outside the box”, that he operates at “the cutting edge” and is heading for “the final frontier”. Four cliches in ten seconds – you get the idea.
With the mass market’s acceptance of “design” as a value, or even an ideal, what society needs now are design heroes. And there aren’t many product designers who can live up to the demands of the 50-minute TV profile: Newson and Philippe Starck are probably the only ones with the mythic potential. Following the sale of his Lockheed Lounge for £750,000 at Christie’s and his show at the Gagosian Gallery last year, Newson is by far the more topical – cut to pundit Alice Rawsthorn calling him “the undisputed star of the ‘design art’ [quote marks made by her fingers] market”.
And so here are Yentob and Newson standing over the aluminium “diva” of the Lockheed Lounge – “the piece that turned Marc Newson into the design equivalent of a rock star” (myth) – with Yentob asking, “Is it comfortable?” “Well, no, not really.”
What follows is an elaboration of the myth of the designer as hero – in fact, as action hero – with Newson explaining the genesis of vehicles for extreme surfing, driving, flying and sub-orbital space travel. And Newson looks the part. Sporting a fuller beard than we’re used to on him, he’s a backwoods wildman dressed in day-glo primary colours. His screen partner, meanwhile, with white stubble and rumpled black suit, looks like a Levantine professor. But, like Lieutenant Columbo, whose shambolic harmlessness is all deception, Yentob is moulding Newson into the “Urban Spaceman”.
We see footage of the moon landings, hear references to sci-fi movies and even visit Newson’s sub-orbital craft, and all the while he remains the everyday guy who doesn’t intend things to have sci-fi overtones, “they just end up like that”. Almost in conflict with his laid-back manner, a complex picture of the designer emerges as geek, frontiersman, artist and dreamer whose imagination “knows no bounds” (cliche). Of course, if you mute the soundtrack you meet a formalist whose work is all clearly identifiable by a style. In the most telling scene, we see Newson sitting in an aeroplane cabin he’s designed, thinking, or “visualising”, with sketches wafting out of his head. Reversing modernist doctrine, Newson starts with how he wants something to look and then figures out how to make it look that way.
And how those things look has his avid collectors breathless. “It’s a very sexual form – it has a great leg,” says one, of his Lockheed Lounge. “It makes you horny,” says another, enacting the “sexy bounce” of his office chairs – apparently not just suitable for working. It is this sensuality, we are encouraged to think, that makes Newson’s work “the perfect synthesis of design and art”. Is it? Even Yentob seems to have his doubts. In the closest the programme gets to critique, he suggests that one of the marble chairs for Gagosian looks like it could be plastic or have easily been mass produced. Uh oh. You mean it didn’t need to be cut from 30-tonne blocks of Carrara marble? Quick, move on. Television is no place to debate the merits or demerits of “design art” (quote marks made by my keyboard).
Alright, we all know that it is telelvision’s nature to simplify. Given that, it’s good to see design being covered on TV in a relatively intelligent way. We may not learn much about Newson’s private life – except that he has a penchant for Japanese action figures – but he makes a likeable hero. And with a denouement that has him and Yentob planning a trip into orbit together, this is a portrait of the designer as alpha male – the antidote to the frilly cuffed curtain fondlers and pillow arrangers currently representing the discipline on TV.
Marc Newson: Urban Spaceman was on BBC One, 4 March