In 2007, when the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS) announced plans to start private space tourism by the year 2012, it was no surprise that they tapped Australian industrial designer Marc Newson to create the interior of the spaceship. After all, the 45-year-old Newson had already designed everything on earth. His career arc has yet to actually arc—it’s pretty much a straight shot up. His early pieces, like the now-iconic Lockheed Lounge (1986) and Embryo Chair (1988), are examples of works that didn’t just revolutionize furniture design, but crept over into the realm of high art. With his solo exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in New York in 2007, Newson broke the barrier between art and design—ultimately certifying design’s place in contemporary collections. But Newson isn’t only an artist—he’s, at heart, a problem solver. In the past, he’s designed watches, recording studios, doorstops, concept cars, plane seats, benches, and restaurants. In the new economy, the dream of million-dollar space travel may be floundering for the time being, but Newson, who now lives and works in London, isn’t giving up on the future. Friend and collector Peter M. Brant talked to the visionary designer about what it’s like to create the objects of the 21st century.
PETER M. BRANT: I’ve been following your work since the early ’90s. The first work that I noticed was the Embryo Chair, which you did in 1988. You did that for a museum, correct?
MARC NEWSON: That’s correct. A lot of the early pieces were made in small numbers—the Embryo Chair, the Wood Chair, the Orgone Lounge. There were a handful I manufactured by myself. Not only did I make the prototypes, but I put the chairs into limited production. I probably made anywhere up to 50 pieces of each one. I was in Australia, and I had no access to this sort of industry or manufacturer, so the only thing I could do was to do it myself. The Embryo Chair came about for a museum in Sydney called thePowerhouse. It was essentially a decorative arts museum, and they were the ones who put up the money. They were putting on an exhibition ofinterior décor and gave me a little bit of money to design something. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had the resources to do it by myself.
BRANT: Were you just a few years out of school at this time?
NEWSON: I graduated in 1984 and this didn’t start until about 1987, so I only had two or three years in the real world, so to speak.
BRANT: At first, you studied to be a jeweler, right?
NEWSON: Well, I went to art school, and I didn’t study design. You had the option of specializing in painting, sculpture, printmaking,ceramics, or jewelry. I ended up concentrating in the jewelry department and graduating in jewelry design. Not because I had any interest in making jewelry—it was simply the only department in the art school that actually taught you how to do something. All of the other departments, like sculpture or painting, really weren’t at all interested in teaching specific skills. It was very esoteric. In the jewelry department, there were tools, workshops, people to teach you how to build things. That’s really all I wanted to know—how to make stuff.
BRANT: So much great design has come from jewelry.
NEWSON: If I had to do it all over again, I think I’d probably still study jewelry. It gives you an incredible technical background. If you can work on very, very small things, then, I think, typically you find it easier to go bigger rather than the other way around. I think a lot of architects have struggled with small things. Whereas if you start small, it’s easier to get bigger. It was fantastic training and, in my eye, the art school was notorious in the ’80s—notoriously lax. It wasn’t academic in any way, shape, or form. They sort of just let me go and do my thing. I ended up making furniture in the jewelry department of my art school. I justified it to my tutors by saying it was furniture in the tradition of jewelry—it has the same relationship to the human body. It doesn’t work without the human body.
BRANT: Was the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery exhibit the first you ever had?
NEWSON: Yes, absolutely. It was in 1986. I’d been more than a year out of college—out of art school, I should say. I’d gotten a grant from the Australian Council for the Arts. It was a significant amount of money, actually—about $10,000 Australian, which I guess even now is about $7,000 U.S. But back in the ’80s, it was an enormous sum of money for me. It was enough to put together an exhibition. The challenge was that I didn’t have a gallery. There were a few good galleries, and this Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery was far and away the best known in Australia. But I
really didn’t think I had much of a chance at having an exhibit with her. I was a fresh face. I was barely in my early twenties. But much to my surprise, she agreed to give me an exhibition, which was an incredible thing, really. I’m not quite sure how it happened or why it happened. It would be like going to Larry [Gagosian] in New York as a 22-year-old. Obviously, New York is a lot different from Sydney, but that’s what it felt like to me at the time.
NEWSON: I set about making a handful of furniture pieces, which were really verging on sculpture. That’s when I made the Lockheed Lounge.
BRANT: Can you describe that show to me? I’ve never seen photographs of it. I only know some of the more historic pieces.
NEWSON: Well, there were six pieces in the exhibition. The Lockheed Lounge was one, but there were five other bits of furniture that have not become particularly well known. They were all chairs. The chair was, you know, my thing. There was another chair there called the Music Chair that ended up morphing intothe Embryo Chair. The Embryo Chair came about around 18 months later. It was far more fluid. There was also another piece in the exhibition, apart from that version of the Lockheed Lounge, which is actually different than the one that you have. It’s got a slightly different design on the back. I only made one of those, and it was bought by a museum. In fact, it was the only piece from the exhibition that sold.
BRANT: The Lockheed Lounge has always had such a great feeling. You can tell from the way it’s fastened that there’s the idea of aircraft and aerospace. But it also has so many classical features and recalls David’s portrait of MadameRécamier—those paintings of her posing on a chaise lounge. How did it actually come about?
NEWSON: Obviously, it’s kind of a moniker which became it’s name. Lockheed Lounge was never what it was originally called. I never had a name for it in the beginning, but it’s far more classical than any of the other work I’ve ever done. It is really anachronistic in some ways—it’s a combination of something that’s very classical and also sort of new. We still had to study art history in school. It was the time of postmodernism, where anything that was classical was something that was very, very prevalent. I was hugely inspired in those days by Charles Jencks—even Robert Gray and Philip Johnson, you know, all those people getting huge amounts of attention. The classical flavor comes from being influenced by that type of postmodernism. And then the reason it looks sort of airplane-like was because I wanted to build that form more into a fluid aluminum shape, but, quite frankly, I didn’t have the technical expertise to do it in a single piece of metal. I just didn’t know how to make it like that. Itended up being all of these little pieces, and I rooted it together. I mean, it really ended up looking like it did very much for practical reasons. And, of course, it ended up looking like an old BT3 [ww11 military trailer] or something. That’s sort of where the name Lockheed came from.
BRANT: I have a sense from looking at all of your work that you have a penchant for the female form. The Pod chest of drawers that you madeafter Lockheed always reminded me of the Groult art deco cabinet that’s in the form of the female body. Were you aware of that at the time?
NEWSON: Absolutely. The Lockheed Lounge and the Pod chest of drawers are very classical in their references. I used the Groult pieces as a direct reference. In fact, I wasn’t trying to hide it when I made it—I wanted that to be very, very obvious. I wanted it to be kind of a modern version of that piece. Same with the Lockheed Lounge—it was directly related to the painting of Madame Récamier. It was supposed to be the lounge she was lying on.
BRANT: One of my favorite paintings . . . [laughs]
NEWSON: Bizarrely, me too. I love that picture. In art school, it was one of the things that I learned about and thought, “Wow. How can I take that and create something modern with it?” So those references were intentionally obvious.
BRANT: The metal for the Pod is applied almost like sharkskin. And with those underlying classical references, it ultimately becomes this perfect form.
NEWSON: What’s interesting is that for a very large exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, they used my Pod chest and Groult’s cabinet for the publicity. At a bus stop, you’d see a poster with one half mine and one half his. I’m glad people have come to understand that, in a way, I’m tipping my hat to those pieces from the past.
BRANT: You started going to Tokyo in the late ’80s, and you eventually moved there in the early ’90s. I know you travel a lot. You’re always on a plane. Has travel influenced your design?
NEWSON: I think it must have influenced my design. When you’re from Australia, you’re obliged to travel in some ways—you can’treally not travel if you want to get anywhere in Australia. It dawned on me very quickly thatdesign is such an international business. I don’t mean international in a grand sense. In fact,design is rather immature. It hasn’t existed anywhere near as long as art or sculpture or the music industry or any of the other creative arts. So you’re obliged to travel. I couldn’t just set up a business and work because there isn’t enough work in one country to sustain what I do. I have to work in the U.S., in Europe, in Japan . . . One of the great things about design is that it’s truly international. No one in the design industry would say, “This country is mine,” or “I will make it look this way because it’s for an American market and that way for a Chinese market.” If you look at all of the Apple products, they are the sameeverywhere . . . I mean, I can’t deny that I love traveling. It’s a very healthy thing to be able to appreciate other cultures—or at least witness them firsthand. And all of that goes into helping someone be a good designer, because it’s an international business.
BRANT: How often do you go back to Australia?
NEWSON: I go now three or four times a year. But, very ironically, it’s for professional reasons. My biggest client is the national airline.
BRANT: Yeah, Qantas. You are the creative director for them, aren’t you?
NEWSON: Yes. I design all the aircraft interiors—very slowly. But the one aircraft that I’ve done pretty much top-to-tail is the big A380. I’ve done bits of all of the other ones.
BRANT: Was the first thing you did for them the Skybed?
NEWSON: That’s absolutely correct, yeah. That was done about six or seven years ago. It was a business-class seat. Of course, that’s been upgraded now. We’re in a new generation, the latest of which is on the A380. The super-jumbo.
BRANT: You also designed the Pod Bar in Tokyo. That was an early interior for you, wasn’t it?
NEWSON: Yes, it was pretty much the first in a very tiny place. I’m not sure if it still exists. You know, the Japanese are so meticulous with their bars and the way they display their liquor. Doing anything in Japan as a sort of architecture-related project is just fantastic because they do everything so perfectly and so quickly. It’s unlike anywhere else in the world. Of course, we had a great budget for the Lever House in New York. I think we ended up doing a pretty good job. But if you compare that to Japan, it would have been done in a third of the time.
BRANT: So how did you get involved in doing a recording studio in Japan?
NEWSON: That was in the mid-’90s. When I first started traveling to Japan in the late ’80s, I became friends with an English guy by the name of Nick Woods. I guess he’s still my best friend. He moved to Tokyo at the same time I did. It’s actually funny—we were both dating models at the time and we were camping out in model apartments in Tokyo illegally. When the models’ bookers came in the morning to take them away, we’d be hiding in the cupboards. We subsequently broke up with our respective model girlfriends and ended up staying in town. Nick was a musician at the time—he still is, but has moved more into the role of producer. By the mid-’90s he had started doing incredibly well in Japan. He needed a recording studio, so he asked me to design it. It was a fun, low-budget job. Lots of international recording artists recorded there because this particular studio had a lot of personality.
BRANT: When you came back to Europe, you eventually forged a relationship with Didier and Clémence Krzentowski, who head Galerie Kreo. I’ve watched that develop and, to me, it was a design version of the Leo Castelli Gallery art system in the 1960s. Didier seemed to put together a great stable of designers. I’m sure you’re friends with all of them.
NEWSON: Absolutely. We were all good buddies even before we knew Didier. In fact, we were working with the same companies: Cappellini and all of the Italians. The typical rite of passage for a young designer is to go to Italy and work with those high-end companies—which actually aren’t that high end, you quickly discover. I think I was one of the first to work with Didier. I had already started producing a lot of aluminum furniture, like the Event Horizon table—that whole series of pieces . . . Didier asked, “Can I help you sell some of these pieces?” Because, of course, in those days, they simply weren’t selling. It was bizarre, you know. I designed an edition of 10 of these pieces, and I probably sold two or three of them at the time. The market hadn’t really caught on. And then when Didier started his gallery, he helped create awareness for that kind of stuff. And subsequently, he sold most of those pieces.
BRANT: When you first got out of art school, what artists really influenced you—besides the Italian futurists, of course?
NEWSON: When I was at art school, I was absolutely obsessed with people like Marcel Duchamp and Jean Arp—that whole era of artists. In fact, the whole concept of the ready-made was something that I played with a little bit in my work. I made a light in Japan called Super Guppy Light, which was literally a street lamp stuck on the end of a pole. That was my ready-made, you know? More recently I drifted through different eras. I must say my favorite period would be Italian art in the 1950s, like Piero Manzoni. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that, even as a kid, I was very influenced by Italian design. What was happening in postwar Italy, including with automotive design, enormously inspired me.
BRANT: The concept of design at that time was so important in Italy, in terms of what it stood for culturally, even politically.
NEWSON: Absolutely. There were crazy people—like Carlo Mollino, who was sort of designing everything from cars to planes. I was inspired by the Italians’ ability to touch so many different areas.
BRANT: You just picked my favorite designer. He was very interested in women as well. [both laugh] Especially photographed nude while sitting on his chairs.
NEWSON: Yeah, he was really interested in women, wasn’t he?
BRANT: I’d like to hear a little bit about your process. I’m sure you work a lot in solitude and design for yourself, but you also work for large corporations and you run a big design firm.
NEWSON: I have to confess that I’m in a constant state of evolution in terms of the way I feel about it. When I was doing early pieces, like the Lockheed Lounge, I wasn’t exactly in love with the idea of building the stuff. I could do it because I had the skills, but I really did it because I couldn’t find anyone else to build it for me. My dream at that moment was to be able to work with a big company, preferably an Italian one, like the Cappellinis or Alessis of the world. I thought that was the ultimate. Of course, soon enough I did end up working for those people and quickly discovered it wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. First, they are much smaller companies than you imagine. And, second, they never make things the way you wanted them to be made; they are always second-guessing—being Italians they always thought they knew better. And, third, you never got paid! A project like that is great for your reputation and it looks good on your CV, but the reality doesn’t stack up. So then I was thinking, Go work with the big multinationals, these giant companies. I ended up getting jobs with companies like Ford, Nike, Samsonite, American Standard—the big bathroom company—and a whole host of other blue-chip companies. But that’s about as difficult as you can possibly get because the decision-making process in those huge companies is crippling. It’s like hitting your head against a brick wall . . . So you end up looking for companies that aren’t too big and aren’t too small. I’m doing a lot of products for this wonderful little kitchen company called SMEG. There’s the Atmos Clock that I designed for Jaeger-LeCoultre. You know, I don’t have the same financial problems as I did before. I have financial freedom now, and I end up doing what I want. So, in a weird way, I’ve come full circle. Working with Larry [Gagosian] and Didier is like making things for myself again. I’m having fun, the way I used to.
BRANT: I went to your opening at the Gagosian Gallery in January 2007, and I thought that whole presentation was incredible. There was so much electricity that evening and so many people really eager to see your range of designs—from furniture to surfboards! It was wonderful to see how Larry can give an artist freedom.
NEWSON: That’s the wonderful luxury for people like me. You don’t get that luxury when you’re working with big corporations. They have huge marketing machines with focus groups and market research—everything, in a sense, conspiring against you.
BRANT: Working with a gallery is much more entrepreneurial.
NEWSON: It allows for more freedom and more excellence. It’s the only way that I truly have the opportunity to express myself without being held back in any way.
BRANT: I think what is extraordinary about how much excitement there is for you as a younger designer is that it really grows to bolster other young designers. Because of your work and what you’ve managed to do in the design field, so many more designers are getting attention and so many art collectors have started to include design. That’s got to make you feel good.
NEWSON: A lot of the time I can’t see the woods for the trees. I’m so immersed in my little world that I don’t often sit back and pay attention to what’s going on around me. It truly stuns me when people recognize me. Obviously, I’m not a film star, but even at a design exhibition or art exhibition, if someone comes up to me, I’m sort of taken aback. I don’t think of myself like that. But if I can have an effect on young designers, that’s great—particularly young designers coming from Australia. Europeans grew up with design. The rest of us lived on tidbits of information.
BRANT: The world is changing, and a lot of people talk about a new order across the board. How do you think that is going to affect design?
NEWSON: Well, I do feel that we’re entering into a period of the incredible—among other things, an incredible period of reflection and introspection. A lot of people are questioning the future, and I can’t help but think that’s a positive thing. I’m not sure about the art world, but the design world may be able to offer some solutions. Design is about troubleshooting. As a designer, I ultimately feel like a gun for hire. Companies hire me because they’ve got a problem. That’s kind of what it boils down to. And I think this is a moment in our history where we need different solutions. Whether that will manifest itself, I’m not sure yet. Obviously there is going to be a focus on environmental issues, on sustainability, but also more on responsibility and practical ways of doing things. I’ve noticed a little bit of a slowdown in the luxury area of my business—which is to say, boats and private planes and such. But in other areas, I don’t see a slowdown. And I feel positive about the role of designers as being able to contribute.
BRANT: How are you doing with the space travel planning? Are you going to take one of those seats?
NEWSON: [laughs] I will be the first passenger! But I don’t think those guys are getting off the ground too soon. They’re in the exact position that so many of those players trying to privatize space travel are in. It really seems unfortunate to me that anything to do with space suffers in times of an economic crisis. Space exploration really benefits from buoyant economic times.
BRANT: Any words of advice for young people interested in going into design now?
NEWSON: One of the best things I ever did was to train in a practical skill. I actually learned how to make things. I love computers and they’ve
become such a part of life, especially to the world of design. But it’s important to understand that they are a tool, as much as a hammer or a saw is a tool. Computers don’t help you design. There needs to be more emphasis on training young designers in how to build things. That way you’ll understand materials. A good writer needs a good vocabulary. A good designer needs to understand his materials and processes. Going to factories and seeing how people do things . . . You can’t, as a successful designer, stand there and pretend to get any respect if you don’t know how things are made.
Peter M. Brant is the chairman of Brant Publications.