The Consummate Designer
Arguably the most influential living designer right now, Marc Newson has become a true dignitary in the world of art and design. There seems to be no boundaries to what the 53-year-old Australian can apply his talent to.
His work with the airline Qantas, creating the stunning interiors for one of their commercial aircrafts, has been just one of many notable high points on a career trajectory that only continues to rise. Since first making a name for himself back in 1986 with his iconic Lockheed Lounge chair, Newson has gone on to establish himself as nothing short of a phenomenon, designing everything from beautiful timepieces, to cameras, bathtubs, boats and restaurants, even a small jet-powered aircraft. But beware, he is weary of being labelled a brand or buying into anything that cheapens his philosophy.
These days he is perhaps best known as the man behind the Apple Watch, joining his “design soul mate” Jony Ive at the company in 2014. Marc rarely spends time in the country of his birth but there remains something profoundly Australian about the relaxed yet finely focused way he approaches his work. We speak to the Aussie boy who came good.
The Lockheed Lounge became the world’s most expensive design object, after selling for more than £2 million last year at auction.
You and Jonathan Ive have just created this Christmas installation in Claridges but your friendship and collaboration with Jony Ive go back a long way. How did you meet and why do you think you work so well together? What have you learnt from each other?
We met in Japan in the early 1990’s, so we’ve been friends for over 20 years. We realised early on that there are not many people who see things the way we do – because a big part of designing is how you see the world. We all see the same object but how we perceive that object is very very subjective, very distinct, very different. When you tend to deal with that perception in a very solitary way it is really nice to discover somebody else who perceives things in the same way.
Your Lockheed Lounge chair is famously the most expensive object ever sold at auction by a living designer. Do you think commodity valuations can sometimes do more hurt than good to the design industry?
In terms of why it costs so much now, and do I have any issues with it? Well, people have no issue with it in the art world. I mean 50 years ago, decorative and fine art were considered very, very similar. It’s only in really recent times that there’s been this big schism. But there’s a huge degree of speculation involved—you may as well be in the stock market buying shares. So maybe you could say the design world has something to learn from that.
I’m obviously pleased that my work is appreciated, especially as for the most part, my limited edition works have always been technical experiments that required a medium in order to exist. They remain important creative exercises for me because I have no brief to work to—unlike my industrial commissions—so I can create my own parameters. But oddly, these works, such as the lockheed lounge, develop a life of their own. Each has its own personality, which seems to be quite distinct from me.
"I have no desire or intention to be known as a 'brand'"
You were living in Tokyo before coming here to London. Has that move changed the way you work? How does the culture, the art, and architecture of the cities you choose to spend time in influence you in different ways?
My main source of inspiration is popular culture in all its forms, wherever I happen to be in the world. Japan is a constant source of fascination and inspiration for me because it showcases its traditional and historic culture and its whacky new one. They exist harmoniously and are equally respected. I obsessively look around me wherever I am in the world, and observe the people and the shapes that surround me. As a designer, you have to have your finger on the pulse, otherwise you are irrelevant.
You seem to be capable of designing just about anything, from consumer objects to restaurants. Is there anything you’ve turned down because you felt that you didn’t have the vision for it, or are you up for anything?
I am generally interested in designing anything, especially for an industry I may be unfamiliar with. There have been projects I have not been interested in doing, but undoubtedly for other reasons than the brief itself!
But do you have any personal rules of design that you remind yourself of when embarking on a new project?
Design is about improving things and about looking to the future pushing the technology forward. For me, as a designer, it is a great opportunity to improve on what is already out there,to simplify, beautify, technologically improve.
What does the word luxury mean to you?
For me the word ‘luxury’ has become a catchphrase. It doesn’t necessarily speak about inherent values like timelessness and the more ethereal nature of what we refer to as ‘luxury’. Luxury should be a state of mind as well as a commercial reality.
As someone who works in the material world, an object to be regarded as ‘luxury’ has to have certain qualities. Those of constancy, and consistency. The ability to transcend fashion, to display the absolute best qualities of craftsmanship and materials, and a disregard for economics in its creation.
Taschen Milan Store, 2015
You’ve said “Industrial designers are becoming brands in their own right, which isn’t an idea I like much.” Could you expand on what you mean by this? Does the idea of becoming a “brand” worry you?
It simply does not apply to me. I have no desire or intention to be known as a ‘brand’. I like to think that there is a consistency and a recognisable quality to my work. That makes me happy, but I would not start out on a project thinking it had to have the look of a certain brand template. Each project presents itself to me with a certain set of problems that I set out to solve with my own knowledge and aesthetic, and a huge amount of research, preferably using new materials, processes and technology in its manufacture.
You’ve spoken about the fact that everything now is designed solely with computers, “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.” How important is it these days to be able to work without the help of technology? Do you think software will in fact become more intuitive and bring that raw creatively back to the design profession?
That is a possibility but I am not holding my breath for it. I am an analogue guy. I carry a sketchbook with me wherever I go and will always do so. Drawing and sketching out the ideas that are in my head is a major early part of the designing process for me. I only resort to sitting down to a computer with a colleague and 3d software eventually, to get these ideas onto the screens.
"Life is more complex now than it ever was. I don't think any of us expected it to be like this."
Most designers will tell you that the worst part of their job is dealing with clients. Do you still find yourself battling for your own creative vision?
Not at all. Part of the challenge of a brief is to accommodate the client’s wishes. It can actually produce more creativity in me simply because of the various constraints.
You haven’t lived in Australia for a long time. In a world that seems to be increasingly obsessed with national identity, how important is your home country to you and your work?
I guess it will always be home to me – something about the colours and the light there. I don’t like to think of design in geographical terms. The real problem is the reviewers who divide the world into two camps, Australia and the rest of the world. That’s such a myopic view.
A designer can no more work only in Australia than in any other single country. To be a good designer you have to forge your own way and be ready to take on projects anywhere in the world. Design, as opposed to other industries, is a truly international industry. Australians have a big advantage, they are not afraid of travelling, and that is important.
"The average person is much more design conscious than they were 20 years ago. You only have to look around you to see that design consciousness is apparent everywhere."
Atomos 568 Jaeger-LeCoultre Clock 2016
Bathroom Products 2003
Georg Jensen Tea Set 2015
Gagosian Exhibition Random Pak Chair 2007
You’ve said that “design is an international industry.” Is the fact that design transcends language and cultural barriers something that you think about a lot when you work?
I don’t think about it. I just do what I do.
What are the main ways in which you’ve seen the design industry change during the time in which you’ve been working?
Well the main thing is that the average person is much more design conscious than they were say 20 years ago. You only have to look around you to see that design consciousness is apparent everywhere.
You’ve said, “the future is not as optimistic as I thought it was going to be. That sense of utopia didn’t work out.” I what ways have you been disappointed by a lack of progress?
Life is more complex now than it ever was. I don’t think any of us expected it to be like this, especially as regards instant shared communication. Generally there are just too many choices. I think there is progress, slowly but surely. Design is all about improving things so hopefully that message will become apparent across all industries. The immediate future consists largely of what exists and a little of what is new. You can only take people into the future according to their comfort level and frame of reference. If you can create an object that is familiar yet new, as opposed to completely unfamiliar, it is an easier, kinder, and more digestible transition.
What will we most want to own in the future?
Freedom, and time, to reflect and think.
Do you have a dream project that you haven’t yet had the chance to take on?
Perhaps a passenger train or a space station?
Portraits by Louis Vuitton & Patrick Demarchelier