There is a special breed of designer often likened to the superstar. It is a category reserved for those who carry with them a broad and diverse oeuvre. Those whose name signifies the grit and perseverance, as well as the image and charm necessary to remain at the top of the industry for decades. One such name is Marc Newson – CBE, global citizen and trailblazer of a designer. Newson has tried his hand at designing nearly everything, and his work often sells out quickly, at exorbitant prices. His portfolio is jam-packed with everything from Louis Vuitton luggage, bottles of Hennessy, trainers for Nike, to the Claridge’s annual Christmas tree and the Apple Watch. Even a samurai sword can be found somewhere among the unsuspecting pages upon pages of chairs, tables, toys and pens.
Marc Newson was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1963. He spent his teenage years traveling Europe and Asia with his mother, which no doubt influenced his international lifestyle as an adult. He studied at Sydney University and graduated with a degree in jewelry and sculpture. Newson picked one of the few available courses where students could actually produce things. As he explains, “You couldn’t be a designer back then, it just didn’t exist. I thought I might go into some sort of trade.” Since, he’s lived and created in his homeland, Japan and Paris, before settling in London in 1997.
The Lockheed Lounge
It was a particular chaise longue that kick-started his career as a designer. He presented an early version of what came to be known as the ‘Lockheed Lounge’ at his very first solo exhibition at the age of 23. To date, the piece has been auctioned off at record-breaking figures – in the millions. The records broken were, amazingly, his own previous achievements no less than four times. Newson’s seminal lounge has repeatedly been crowned the “world’s most expensive design object” and “most expensive object sold by a living designer”. But back in Sydney’s Roslyn Oxley Gallery in the late eighties, Marc Newson was an unknown, unknowingly unveiling one of the most important works of the late 20th century. So, what was it about the Lockheed that wrote it into the chapters of design history?
The chaise longue was constructed from sheets of aluminum beaten into shape and riveted around a reinforced fiberglass shell. The hefty price tag of the Lockheed may have something to do with the fact that there are only 15 in existence, with Newson having built each himself. And so, it gained status as a limited-edition objet d’art, into which its maker instilled his aerodynamic vision of the jet age. The sculptural, curvaceous design was truly groundbreaking for a multitude of reasons. The Lockheed anticipated the rise of designer-makers along with figures like Tom Dixon; it evoked both the machine aesthetic of Modernism as well as the flashy boldness of the postmodern, without really adhering to either. It also anticipated the organic, futuristic signature of Newson’s work. Its inclusion in museum collections and academic validation comes as praise of its nonconformist design. On the other hand, its inclusion in public consciousness as an indicator of wealth and status was fueled by the media and influential figures like Philippe Starck and Madonna.
Creating a Style
The year after the Lockheed, Newson moved to Japan, where he worked closely with Tokyo-based design company IDÉE, as well as sparking a partnership with Italian manufacturer Capellini. It was there that he began developing a discernible style, visible in several notable designs from the period. The Embryo Chair was a breakthrough in this respect, with Newson himself considering it one of the most recognizable items he has designed. It stands as a clear representation of his biomorphic aesthetic combined with technologically advanced application of improbable materials, as well as curvaceous lines juxtaposed against industrial elements. Characterized by an undulating body covered in wetsuit neoprene, with metallic legs protruding from the squishy-looking seat, the Embryo is a bright and friendly interpretation of the technological future. It represents Newson’s optimistic take on a subject often shrouded in darkness.
The Embryo was followed by the highly successful Orgone series, whose distinct aesthetic was born as a continuation of Newson’s previous design studies. The hourglass shape of the Embryo was to become a recurring theme of Marc’s work. Finding new ways to apply aluminum to his fluid designs was also a preoccupation.
While working towards what eventually became the Orgone Chair, another design that is still in production with Capellini was created – the Felt Chair. On first glance, the two designs are similar. The Felt Chair is the Orgone with a sliced off bottom, and with a fiberglass instead of aluminum body. Essentially a bent extrusion of its curved cross section, the chair expresses the playful simplicity of a design deceptively made to look like it was created with one swift motion. The Orgone is similar in that sense. Deceptively because there is nothing simple about the engineering of the design which was the result of prolonged studies of new production processes and materials.
Rebel in Watchmaking
Marc Newson relocated to Paris in 1993, where he began working with an entire range of European design companies. Starck, Magis, Flos and Alessi to name a few. In 1994, he co-founded Ikepod, a watch manufacturer, with Swiss businessman Oliver Ike. “Ikepod has always had a history of being outrageously creative. It was known as the rebel independent of the watchmaking world which dared to challenge the status quo and inspire trends in watchmaking design.” The description on the website is heavily reminiscent of the designer behind the brand. Newson had already tried his hand at watch design at the age of 23 with the “Pod”.
From the very first Ikepod design, the “Sea Slug”, it became evident that the company would be very different to convention – a risk which paid off. Ikepod became a serious luxury watch brand with seriously high prices. Newson’s style is evident in the recognizable sleek and futuristic style of the timepieces. The brand also had a hand in setting the “large watch” trend in the late nineties, something that is now widely popular.
Of course, all of this was way before the rise of the smart watch, and more specifically, the Apple Watch. The tech giant put a definitive nail in the coffin of the wrist watch at the turn of the twenty first century with the iPhone, but now they are having a hand in returning the trend. Apple had always been conscious of the design savvy consumer – a major factor of the company’s success. To bring the likes of Marc Newson on board their design team in 2014 hardly comes as a surprise. Under his close friend Sir Jony Ive, Newson worked on the development of key projects, including the Apple Watch. In late 2019, the pair left the company to start a design venture called LoveFrom together, but will continue to work with Apple via their new joint platform.
Analogue in a Digital Age
Since 1997, Newson has been overseeing his own company in addition to the countless collaborations that take him globe-trotting for the majority of the time. Over the decades, Newson has forged a reputation as one of the most influential designers of his generation. And his generation had much to do with forging his reputation. Growing up in the sixties and seventies, the achievements of the space-age brought a sense of optimism about technology and the future.
The highly-engineered organic forms of Newson’s work proclaim a harmony between Mother Nature and technology. 3D digital design tools have since dominated the industry and sleek curved forms have never been easier to produce than now. It is often forgotten that these forms were crafted by hand only a few decades ago. Designers today can often become detached from the physical aspects of the design process. However, Newson’s ‘analogue’, hands-on approach developed in his youth, paired with his penchant for the experimental gives him the best of both worlds. As a result, his work is both highly tactile and cutting-edge, both crafted and engineered. Marc Newson is the retro-future he so wistfully articulates in his work.
Featured image: Marc Newson at the FT’s Business of Luxury Summit 2011. © Financial Times is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / cropped from original