Pretty intrepid man

By Caroline Baum

Photo of Marc Newson; Photography Courtesy Marc Newson

Photography Courtesy Marc Newson

From that iconic metal chaise longue to a Qantas first-class lounge and the pod-like beds in the pointy end of the A380; from a plastic dish-rack, to luxe timepieces, to urban street-wear, Newson’s design is a seemingly ubiquitous force on the global landscape. He swaps time zones in private jets to attend client meetings between Asia and Europe, occasionally stopping off at his London offices and home – in Victoria, a surprisingly un-cool area of the inner city – to reconnect with his creative team and his fashion magazine stylist wife and two young children, all housed within the same innocuous building.

From here Newson is devising a unique commission, even by his own standards, Sydney’s New Year’s Eve fireworks, or rather, the concept for the entire evening, including, of course, whatever special effect the Harbour Bridge will feature. He is circumspect about the project, downplaying expectations. “I hope to add a sense of coherence to the occasion,” he says and looks almost surprised when asked if he is ever fearful when tackling the unknown.

“I am not intimidated, just curious. I’ll try anything, I’m pretty intrepid,” he says. That sense of ‘just have a go’ may date back to his days at Sydney College of the Arts, when he was a loner and, by his own admission, “driven”.

Academic distinction was never part of his game plan, after having been expelled from school.

“I was not a team player. In fact I chose art school precisely because it was an environment for individuals,” he says matter-of-factly, adding that he has not maintained contact with any of his peers. “I gravitated towards the mature-age students because they were more focused and didn’t want to just party all the time; although of course, being an art student I also dyed my hair red.”

“It might be easier to list the things Marc Newson (BVArts ’84 DVA ’10) has not designed than the things he has. His presence seems stamped on every aspect of contemporary life. ”

Relishing the opportunity to gain experience in fabrication, Newson started out with jewellery and silversmithing, focusing on the practical and technical aspects of construction. “I wanted to learn to use different types of tools; jewellery also gave me a heightened focus and eye for detail that has since become something of an obsession.”

He explains further: “I think it’s really important when you are starting out to make things for yourself. As a kid I was always taking things apart and putting them back together: bikes, go-karts, clocks.”

Of his form-meets-function approach, he says, “I always knew I wanted to be more than decorative.

“The college was a place that let me get on with it and be independent. On the other hand when I wanted to do some aluminium welding, there was always someone around at weekends who was willing to help.”

“Every project is a technical experiment and a way of teaching myself about materials, processes and techniques…”

From the get-go, metal was his favourite material and has become closely identified with some of his distinctive pieces, such as the riveted aluminium Lockheed Lounge, an astonishingly curvy, mercury blob-shaped chaise longue that graced a Madonna video and earned the highest price paid for a piece of furniture by a living artist when auctioned in 2006 at Christie’s. There is also a blade-like nickel surfboard, exhibited at the Gagosian Gallery in New York in 2007, which performed beautifully when tested in the ocean off Chile and Tahiti by a champion tow-in, big wave rider. “I do like demystifying things,” he says quietly.

Endless challenges

Perhaps Newson’s interest in designing watches and exquisite hand-blown glass timers for his Ikepod collection springs from the fact that time presents him with endless challenges: there are simply not enough hours in the day for all the things in his diary or his life. Our conversation falls victim to this at the first hurdle. His pristine white headquarters thrum with silent focus as engineer colleagues pore over models and computers. But Newson is running late, and there will be no second chance to catch up; his schedule is already over-booked weeks ahead, the tyranny of being white-hot much in evidence. What does it feel like to have every hour accounted for? Newson simply shrugs that he is a gun for hire.

“My job is to be a problem-solver and trouble-shooter. Every project is a technical experiment and a way of teaching myself about materials, processes and techniques. I like to introduce elements from one industry to another: take something from footwear into the world of luggage. It’s a way of combatting boredom and reinventing myself. That’s why I take on projects that range from the tiny to the big, from the luxurious to the utterly utilitarian.”

Image of Orgone Stretch Lounge. 1993 - Pod

Orgone Stretch Lounge. 1993 - Pod

It’s something of a relief to see that his office is not anally tidy. It has none of the sterility of some style fascists. He works at a small circular table with a lime-green surface and does not insist colleagues maintain minimalist work areas, devoid of family photographs and personal mementoes.

At any one time Newson juggles half a dozen projects, jotting down ideas with a pen in a sketchbook that never leaves his side. Later, software translates his concepts into 3D. When it comes to transport, he’s not only the creative director for Qantas, overseeing everything from lounges to luggage tags, but has also designed a bike, the interior of a space rocket (and yes, he’s booked a ride on one of the earliest spaceflights), planes, boats and a car but so far, no train. (If we are ever to get a very fast one, adding his name to the mix would give the project international prestige and perhaps attract finance.)

One thing we are unlikely ever to see is a city or any kind of urban development bearing the Newson signature. “I hate most urban planning,” he says, flaring into a moment of vehemence. “I mean, look at Canberra. I am not a fan of contemporary architecture.”

Future outlook

Currently, in development are a phone for a Japanese client, his first camera, bathroom fixtures for Caroma and a cooler for Dom Perigno.

Next year sees the launch of a monograph on his work, to be published by Taschen and featuring previously unseen photographs, unreleased prototypes and sketches.

In October Newson took advantage of a lightning trip to Sydney to meet with the NYE creative team. He has given few clues as to his intentions except to hint that there may be a symbolic object as part of the concept, a baton of some kind that gets handed on to the next artistic director – he can’t elaborate yet. So much of Newson’s work is protected by confidentiality. Many prototypes (such as the handsome Hex table for Italian furniture company Magis in his boardroom) never go into production. Sustainability is a personal priority. “I’ve always wanted to make things that last and are timeless. I’m not in favour of disposability,” he says, which may explain why to date, he has not designed a container for a bottled water company.)

With the Sydney NYE project, Newson is making an exception. Transience is an inherent quality of fireworks, celebrating the ultimate “temporary effect”. It may be an anomaly in his portfolio of now almost automatically classic designs, but one senses that even an impermanent Newson creation will somehow withstand the test of time.

Drinking Glasses. 1998 - Ittala