words Justin McGuirk
Marc Newson is suspicious of the design world’s current love affair with the art market. “It really bugs me that there are people cashing in on this,” he says, referring to the lucrative wave of limited edition and one-off works selling through auction houses and galleries.
Certain names keep coming up, off the record, that epitomise for him the rise of the meretricious designer object and evoke the whiff of easy money. Yet last year Newson’s aluminium recliner, Lockheed Lounge, sold at Sotheby’s for $968,000 – the highest price fetched at auction for a work by a living designer – and he has just become the first designer to exhibit at the Gagosian Gallery in New York. So how is it that he is managing not to sound like a hypocrite?
In 1986, Lockheed Lounge launched Newson’s career. The then 23-year-old had made the piece with his own hands and exhibited it in a gallery in his native Sydney. He confesses that, along with some of the other aluminium pieces he made early on, it was “utterly unusable”. But this didn’t stop him going on to become one of the most prolific and recognisable designers in the world, with an output stretching from door handles to concept jets. Rather, it established a parallel vein of work that is neither strictly furniture nor art but that, in the context of the Gagosian show, he has described as experiments that needed a medium. That medium doesn’t yet have an accepted name but it has found a market. “I never made any money out of that stuff for my entire career … I look at it as payback time.”
Newson, dressed comfortably in checked trousers and Indian moccasins, is sitting in the upstairs office of Nimrod Sarl – the trading name of his Paris studio. He has another studio, Marc Newson Ltd, in London, where he lives, and he divides his time between the two but claims to spend more of the year in neither place, dealing with clients in Japan, America or Australia. The offices are neat and spacious. The only obvious signs that they belong to Newson are the Orgone chairs, plastic thrones that look like giant segments of a double-barrel shotgun warped into a brightly coloured sexual metaphor – these, and a large model of a Qantas jet.
Newson is creative director of the Australian airline, and the biggest project of his career has been to design the interior of its new Airbus A380, from bulkheads to cutlery. He talks passionately about his immersion in the aviation world but is quick to show its frustrations. “I may as well be in the army really, it’s that regimented,” he says. “The restrictions are just utterly ridiculous – you express yourself about five per cent of the time.” The work he has produced for the Gagosian show is his lifeline to sanity. “It’s the only forum in which I can express myself as much as I want to. I don’t need to be answerable to anybody.”
The gallery is exhibiting five bodies of work divided by the materials and processes by which they were produced. The large marble Voronoi shelf is an extruded irregular honeycomb structure based on the theories of Russian mathematician Georgy Voronoi and a geometry known as “random close packing”. There are also folded chairs made of an early 20th-century linen and resin composite called Micarta, light sculptures made of vacuum-pressed glass, a jewel-like folding knife, a series of nickel chairs called Random Pak that also derives from complex geometries and is an experiment in growing metal directly onto substrates ... and a surfboard. The pieces range in price from $70,000 to $400,000.
Just by using marble, with its inevitable connotations of artistic endeavour, Newson is placing himself in a noble lineage. “It’s actually a material that I’ve wanted to work with for a long time because I couldn’t understand why no one’s done anything particularly interesting with it in a contemporary sense,” he says.
The Voronoi shelf was machine cut from a single block of marble and then hand finished. There is nothing linking the form with the material. In fact there is almost something contradictory about these cell formations – the product of recent science – being carved from this ancient, unpliable substance. But it is precisely the unlikelihood of it, and the craftsmanship involved in making it, that seem to interest him. The unique product of an artisanal process, it is also definitively exclusive, and I wonder whether Newson, who has said that he would rather not be known for this kind of work, is concerned that he is in elitist territory.
“I’m really not at all concerned about that because at the other end of the spectrum I design mobile telephones, cutlery and mass-market objects in plastic. What I’m most concerned about is that these are not throwaway objects,” he explains. “The marble things, you could stick one in your garden and it would be there for the next thousand years. It will be the most durable thing that I’ve ever designed in my life.”
It seems ironic that it is by returning to an ancient form of artisanship and patronage that designers – or rather, design stars – are finally striking gold. With the rise of the collectables market, Newson can make more money selling one or two pieces than he ever could from royalties. But this is not the point. “The thing for me is that this is not how I generate my livelihood,” says Newson. “It’s very much something that I need to do.”
Newson has an earnestness about him. He has the air of a worrier and confesses to being a micro-manager. All of which is at odds with the glamorous, poster-boy image that the media – with Newson’s acquiescence – has been generating over the last 20 years. Perhaps it is just that the image was established so young. After all, he was in his twenties, he was good-looking, he surfed.
Newson studied sculpture and jewellery at Sydney College of the Arts. He was not one of those Australians who, like the art critic Robert Hughes, looked to Europe and America and felt painfully “one’s cultural irrelevance”. Three years after graduating, flush with success from the Lockheed Lounge, Newson moved to Tokyo and worked for Teruo Kurosaki at the design company Idée, where he made Black Hole table. Europe did eventually beckon, though, and after moving to Paris in 1991 he started to design for Italian furniture manufacturers while continuing to create limited-edition aluminium pieces such as the Orgone chair and the Event Horizon table. Newson came to embody a Nineties aesthetic, a colourful retro-futurism that was all curves and voids. A quintessential stylist, he was also versatile enough to apply his signature touch to restaurant interiors, watches, a concept car for Ford and more recently to clothing labels such as Nike and G-Star.
Newson exploited his image cannily, occasionally even modelling next to his products in advertisements. But nowadays he says he finds the “rock star designer” epithet that was thrown about by the media “enormously embarrassing”. “The reality is that I’m not living a pop star life; I don’t have pop star wealth,” he asserts.
On the client-based side, the glamour has been replaced by a workaday pragmatism. Compared to making aeroplanes more comfortable for people, which is how he describes the majority of what he does, he finds designing new chairs for high-end Italian manufacturers “irksome”.
“I just don’t think the world needs any more of those kinds of seats. They need more good aeroplane seats – you know, so people don’t keep dying of deep vein thrombosis.”
In many ways, the body of work at Gagosian is the culmination of a more serious period of investigation, heavily influenced by Newson’s access to the technology of the aviation industry. The Newson of the Nineties was a formalist, and as such he was sometimes taken less than seriously by the design community. The inspiration he derived from science fiction – whether it was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or the film sets of Ken Adam – manifested itself as smooth space-age blobbiness, as “look”. Now he has crossed into the realm of science fact, and is exploring the potential of new structures and materials.
“All the technology that I’m interested in typically filters down from the aerospace industry, most of the time for the military,” he says. “I’m able to cross-fertilise, and that for me is what’s really exciting about what I do.” This has included vacuum-forming aluminium to create a bicycle frame, and in the case of the latest work, appropriating a process called electro-forming, which is the growing of a metallic culture onto surrogate forms that then become redundant. “It’s for making shapes that can’t otherwise be fabricated, like complex manifolds for jet engines.”
Newson used the process to make an intricate network of cells rather like asymmetrical chicken wire for the Random Pak. But he gets far more animated talking about how he used the process to design a new kind of surfboard for tow-in surfing, otherwise known as big wave riding. “When you’re going down the face of an 80-foot wave at almost 100km an hour they need things of an exact weight that don’t flex and there aren’t that many materials you can do that out of – fibreglass won’t cut it.” The same kind of nickel used to make helicopter rotor blades was grown onto a foam board. The object is beautiful but it also looks decidedly lethal.
In a sense, surfboards embody the contradiction between the haptic and hand-crafted and the technological in Newson’s work. “I’ve always been fascinated by surfboards,” he says. “They’re such wonderfully technological things yet there are no books about how to make one. These people just sit there shaping these incredible things that perform absolutely flawlessly and hydrodynamically, and making subtle modifications that affect radical changes in the way they perform – they’re really sophisticated.”
Perhaps only Marc Newson could get away with exhibiting a surfboard in a gallery. For him it’s an honest product of a personal enthusiasm and a unique technological process, but for those inclined to hear it, it also has a sweet ring of subversion to it.