Star man: Marc Newson (Financial Times How to Spend it)

Pssst, want to buy a Marc Newson Lockheed Lounge? You’re in luck – the Holy Grail for the collector of furniture-as-art is available from the Vitra Design Museum. Exquisitely crafted in sheet metal, it’s a prized limited edition – there are only 500 in the world. It’s also a snip at €593.81. The catch? You can’t sit on it – it’s a 1:6 scale miniature.

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The 1986 Lockheed chaise, with its hammered patchwork Enola Gay surface and mercury-in-mid-pour shape is the icon of the furniture editions market; the exclamation mark at the end of the statement: ‘In the 21st century, chairs and tables are the new art!’ It has an aura like few other items of furniture – it has appeared in 1001 interiors magazines as well as a Madonna video. One of the 10 in existence fetched a record breaking $1.5 million at Christie’s and the prototype has a market value of $2.4 million. The Lockheed Lounge is the Rosetta Stone for the interiors collectibles market and the reason why the world’s most powerful art dealer, Larry Gagosian, now represents Newson alongside the likes of Jasper Johns and the estate of Andy Warhol. Little wonder, then, that as well as being the prized possession of a handful of museums and collectors, the Lockheed is also one of the priciest pieces of dolls furniture of all time too.

For Sydney-born Newson both the significance of the Lockheed and his own celebrity are overrated. Turning up for his own opening of editions cut from Carerra marble at the Mayfair outpost of Gagosian’s gallery empire in March, he looked every inch the rock star in his canary yellow jumbo cordurouy suit and Yves Klein Blue vest. His girlfriend, Charlotte Stockdale, one of the most powerful stylists in the fashion industry, was at his side with their baby daughter Imogen, and Manolo Blahnik was seconds behind. Click, click, flash, flash. Far from basking in the glory, Newson was exhausted by another frantic week of planes, trains and automobiles. ‘I just want tonight to be over’, he said while shrugging off any suggestion of his own celebrity: ‘You know, this is a very obscure industry. A lot of the people I work with have never heard of me, and outside of rarified design circles most people have never seen a Lockheed Lounge.’ A star then, but a modest one.

Compared to an IKEA best seller, Newson’s furniture may be relatively low profile, but just like his yellow suit, when it’s in the room, all eyes are on it. Didier Krzentowski is the most influential furniture dealer in Europe and Newson is one of his most high profile properties. He’s been working with him for over 12 years and calls him ‘The Star of Design’. Krzentowski’s Galerie Kreo is at the heart of the burgeoning global editions market and his apartment in a mansion block overlooking the Eiffell Tower is as much a showroom as it is a family home. The rooms are a Who’s Who of contemporary furniture design, fashioned out of wood, steel, carbon fibre and neon: Jasper Morrison; Martin Szekeley, Andrée Putman et al. The most attention grabbing piece of them all, right in front of Krzentowski’s desk, is Newson’s mirror-surfaced Alufelt chair. With its bone-like curves and its meticulous sheen it’s almost unnervingly perfect, as if the product of some incomprehensible alien technology. Krzentwoski sees Newson’s work, particularly his early 90s alumininum pieces, as meticulously engineered totems:  ‘For me Marc is not only a designer, but the representation of a generation and a way of life’.

Born in 1963, Newson’s formative years were played out against the space race and the Moon landings. Like fellow product designers Karim Rashid, with his bright pink and orange podular pieces, and the white-bearded fluoro-clad Ross Lovegrove who, like Newson, has created prototype cars a century ahead of their time, and a super flash flatbed airline seat, he is trying to craft the future that was promised to him but didn’t materialise. There is a retro futurist sensibility to Newson’s work that was forged in the late 60s and early 70s. It is in the vocabulary of his work and a certain repetition of pattern: His rectangles and squares are soft, bowed and asymmetric, as if melting into more dynamic yet also more physically appealing, ergonomic shapes. He has said in the past that his idea of a perfect object is an egg. Instead of the circle he favours either more amorphous shapes or the hexagon – it appears everywhere from the mirrors of his Lever House restaurant in Manhattan to his Qantas departure lounge carpeting in Sydney, where the hexagonal grid pattern appears to be pulling into focus, like a disorientating visual effect in an old science fiction film. It is simple but quite literally, sensational.

‘The future used to be really futuristic’, he says, ‘There was a sense of utopia about how it might be. We didn’t know that when we got there it was going to be so banal.’ Newson has made a career out of creating a better looking future – one that’s sexier… more fun.

The spa at the Newson-designed Qantas First Class Lounge looks, quite literally, out of this world. Clinical white-on-white and raw stone surfaces are juxtaposed with an arresting wrap-around floor to ceiling vertical garden that flips the axis on which you’d expect to see flora; emerald Spider Plants grow upwards, across and out of every square inch of wall. It feels like the oxygen harvesting garden quarters of an intergalactic cruiser. As the masseurs and facialists busy themselves like so many 22nd century doctors or flight technicians, there’s a sense of wellbeing but also the serenity of being off-world, in orbit. This cinematic sci-fi snapshot isn’t a one off: ‘I find film very inspiring’, says Newson. ‘It is fantastical… Ken Adams’ sets and 2001 have always stuck in my mind.’ Similarly, his Azzedine Alaia shoe boutique in Paris looks like a zen, marbled Space Odyssey escape pod.

Science fiction is integral to the Newson look, and even the names of his products: There is the Event Horizon table, refashioned out of Carerra marble for the Gagosian show this year; the Black Hole Ikepod watch, produced in an edition of just 66, and his 2004 Talby mobile phone in brushed metal named after a character from the movie Dark Star.

The Talby retains a cult following in Japan where it was released with a variety of different fluorescent coloured keypads – Newson has never shied away from bold use of colour. In his vision of the future, black and white or the fussy maximalist reaction to monochrome are not the only options. His colours are boldly artificial and in clean blocks – they are overtly engineered shades and resonate proudly with a celebration of the artificial. His collaboration with the denim label G-star on a range of jeans and printed sweatshirts wouldn’t look out of place amidst the recent OTT nu-rave fashions that trickled down from Shoreditch hipsters to Top Shop, while his suitcases for Samsonite are in acid yellow and lava orange; great for photographs, and for promoting Samsonite as a progressive brand, but… practical? ‘We embrace contemporary design and Newson’s vibrant colours inject energy and vibrance’, says Samsonite’s Global Creative Director Quentin Mackay. Newson, meanwhile, claims he wanted to work in brights because people want easily identifiable bags. But what about the impact of a few whirls around the baggage carousel? Wouldn’t that take the shine off the meticulous Newson aesthetic? Contrary to what the flawless, android overtones of his work suggest, the designer believes that human interaction completes the process; he doesn’t get twitchy about wear and tear, he embraces it.  ‘Only yesterday my girlfriend was packing and dragged her bag off my carbon fibre table, putting a bloody great scratch right through the middle of it. She was almost in tears but I was just like, whatever… that’ll be the first of many scratches.’ Similarly, his fondness for plastics, with all their connotations of disposability, belies his underlying design ethic. ‘I am obsessed with the idea of quality’, he says. ‘I love the idea that products live, and you form an attachment with them. I like the concept that you buy a product, keep it forever, and never have to buy another one’.

As well as being born into a world dreaming about jet packs and holograms, Marc Newson belongs to the first generation of truly global citizens. Though he has homes and studios in both Paris and London, he says that ‘the reality is that I spend more time elsewhere than in either’. He works on the road, and in the air. ‘I tend to do no design work in the studios’, he says. ‘They are about administration. Design for me takes place in my head. I sketch incessantly until I feel that it is out of my hands and exists in the real world, then I get someone at the studio to work with it on computer, which I’m hopeless at.’ While he believes that what he does transcends geography and ‘is one of the only truly global creative expressions’, some identify a deeper significance in his Australian heritage. American retailer Murray Moss talks of a ‘reference to Aboriginal artefacts through an evolving filter of advancing technologies’ in the work. Moss points to the sculpted shape of his products that ‘aren’t so much organic, more shapes that were born angular and worn naturally and slowly over time, as if by the sea, into smooth undulating curves.’

Newson’s personal state of perpetual motion and his obsession with the technology and aesthetics of flight led to his most important collaboration to date: His creative directorship of Qantas. For him the job is integral to everything he does and will ever do: ‘Aerospace is where technology is invented’, he says. ‘So for me to have first hand involvement puts me one step ahead of the game’. Given the aviation motifs that have been a part of his work since he started, the Qantas appointment really is, as Newson says, ‘an example of life imitating art’. It also represents the boldest move by any airline stylistically since the heyday of Braniff’s 60s and 70s ‘end of the plain plane’ campaign, their Pucci-clad cabin crew and Warhol TV adverts. He created the Qantas Skybed J-class seat in 2003. With its dark hexagon-patterned shell that creates perfect, rigid, personal space, it has the ever so slightly sinister look of a Star Wars Tie Fighter. Qantas have been equal parts savvy and brave to employ him to his full capability – when Ford commissioned his 021c car it never made it past the concept stage despite immense demand, something that Newson puts down to corporations often believing that ‘it’s easier not to do something than do it’.

While Newson describes working in such a pressured and conservative industry as being ‘one step away from being in the army’ and ‘one big obstacle’, his excitement at being handed the opportunity to design the new Qantas A380 interior from nose to tail is obvious: ‘This rarely happens in anyone’s career’, he says. Lesley Grant, Qantas’ General Manager for Customer Product and Service describes working with Newson as ‘amazing’. ‘The most important thing is that he’s a frequent flyer, so he was just as engaged with talk of the experience of flying as the look and design.’

On first sight of the new A380 designs it’s clear there’s been no reinvention of the wheel here. There is still traditionally ordered seating and the look is subtle compared to something like Newson’s EADS Astrium Space Plane which, with its hammock-style grey and yellow moulded seats is the embodiment of so many of the designer’s Jetsons fantasies. But then the EADS project is being developed for space travel and the A380 is for commercial transit and, as John Borghetti, Qantas’ Executive General Manager says, ‘aviation has conservatism culturally built in’. Notwithstanding that conservatism, there are radical elements to what Newson is doing for Qantas in the A380 and beyond, from the sexy red leather sofas in the new business cabins to the foot cradles in economy. The First Class lounge, meanwhile, is a Marc Newson tour de force, from its retro-style clackerboard announcing departures to the vast sweep of its picture windows overlooking the runways and the bathroom fittings from Newson’s commercially range with Ideal Standard.

Borghetti promises there are radical Newson plans still to come, but that they need to ‘take the customer with them, show it to them and sell it to them’. The most radical aspect overall of the new plane is in the holistic approach to design, ensuring Newson’s swank seating isn’t undermined by naff panelling or signage. It may be relatively subtle, but it’s beautiful and part of Borghetti’s vision for ‘a seamless Qantas experience’. There are some fantastic details worked into the projects, and the futurist flash, inherent in the ‘DNA’ that Newson frequently talks of is in every detail: when your coffee arrives at 30,000 feet in one of Newson’s beautifully tapered white Space Odyssey-style mugs, which Borghetti singles out as his personal favourite element of the Qantas makeover, you can’t help but want a set of them immediately; they are a gorgeous paradigm of the Marc Newson DNA.

It’s odd that there aren’t more domestic Newson products on the market. One could argue that his strengths are within interiors, editions and industrial projects. Certainly his interiors projects have been uniformally remarkable. When Aby Rosen, the owner of Manhattan’s landmark Lever House building was looking for a designer for the tower’s basement restaurant space, Newson’s US agent, Stuart Parr, hooked him up with the job. For such a power-dining environment it was an avant garde and risky choice, but Parr says Rosen was ‘beyond happy’ and is currently a major collector of Newson’s work. Anyone who ate in either Oliver Peyton’s Coast in London or Mash & Air in Manchester while they were open will remember their poured floors and sculpted lines, a style echoed today in the Qantas lounge in Sydney but on a more lavish scale, with perfectly curved-off pre-cut Carerra marble corners where ever wall meets floor or ceiling – in Marc Newson’s vision of the future, there is no such thing as a squared off corner.

Back on the factory floor level of product design, companies tend to use Newson for window-dressing limited editions, like the 1000-run lime green £500 Dom Perignon ice bucket, subsequently followed up with an aluminium version. ‘He has created a contemporary icon for us’, says Daniel Gaujac, the Executive Vice President of the champagne house. The cooler may not be functional or mass market, but it’s certainly an ingenious pop art photo-opportunity. Newson has, it must be said, enjoyed some success on a domestic level – Vicky Richardson, the editor of Blueprint, singles out his pepper mill for Alessi as one of his greatest achievements. ‘I have it at home’, she says. ‘It’s so heavy that it feels as if it’s turned from a block of solid wood. Using it every day makes you realise that the enticing curves of his collectable work translate into products that are functional and really satisfying to use’. Tefal produced a range of cookware with Newson in 2004 and Smeg launched a range of Newson-designed hardware this April in Milan. He is currently working on a range of optical products with Swarovski. Busy, busy, busy.

The Marc Newson star is still very much in the ascendant. ‘We’re working on a book together, but it’s going to take years because of how young he still is’, says Didier Krzentowski. Right now, the collector’s market for his work is buzzing. ‘It caught fire about six years ago’, says Stuart Parr. ‘Particularly in the case of the American market – Apple computers was the only company that really had a contemporary design language in the States, and it’s taken a long time for that to impact on commerce and change the culture. Now a lot of contemporary art buyers are buying his work’.

Marc Newson’s unparalleled success in the editions market has liberated him and expanded his power base. As an artist, he works without the constraints of the industrial world and on more and more commercial projects he is given carte blanche: ‘When I started working, when I created the Lockheed Lounge, everything I did was limited in number as I couldn’t afford to do more than one or two at a time’, he says. ‘Now I have the confidence of clients and, with the editions, I’m not beholden to anybody except myself. It’s come full circle. Now it’s more like… a hobby’. As hobbies go, there are few as wish fulfilling or indeed lucrative.

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One Response to “Star man: Marc Newson (Financial Times How to Spend it)”

  1. […] Then he opened his Gruppo restaurants: Coast, Mash and Mash & Air, each with its own remarkable Marc Newson-designed, Andy Martin-constructed interior. There was also the Martin-designed Isola and the […]

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