MARC NEWSON (1963-) is known for his funkily futuristic, but technically rigorous approach to design. Born in Sydney, he has worked from studios in Tokyo, Paris and, now, London, to design everything from a private jet to a Ford car.
No sooner had J. Mays, Ford’s design director, called Marc Newson offering a dream project –a concept car – than the designer went to work. For months, Newson pored over automotive books and magazines and peered closely at cars in the street to help him "to figure out ways of doing it better."
When the result of his research was unveiled at the 1999 Tokyo Motor Show, the Ford 021C combined what Newson described as the "totally na?ve shape – so simple that it’s completely unforgiving" of a boxy 1950s saloon with radical detailing. The doors opened from the centre. The trunk rolled out from the rear and opened from the top. Newson painted the under-carriage above the wheels in the same 021C Pantone orange as the body because he’d noticed how ugly the "shitty black stuff you see there" looked on other cars.
Many of his innovations were in the interior, the part of the car which automotive designers usually ignore. The seats swivelled on pedestals, the dashboard was jewel-like in its detailing and, when the light was switched on, an electro-luminiscent film glowed snowy white across the ceiling. The 021C also told Newson’s story as a designer. The dashboard dials were reminisicent of his Ikepod watches and the steering wheel to his 1997 Alessi coat hook. The hourglass orgone that had been Newson’s favourite motif since the 1986 Lockheed Lounge cropped up in the carpet and tyre tread.
Literal references apart, the 021C also acts as a neat illustration of Marc Newson’s approach to design: don’t just tinker with existing typologies, but take a long lateral look at them and imagine how the perfect version would be. "The thing that has always driven me as a designer," he once said, "is feeling pissed off by the shitty stuff around me and wanting to make it better."
As a child, and later an art student, in Australia, Newson had no notion of what it meant to be an industrial designer. Born in Sydney in 1963, Newson’s entrée to design came through his mother (his father had left when he was a baby) who took him to live at a beachfront hotel she managed which he remembers as being "full of all this really cool Italian stuff: Joe Colombo trolleys and Sacco bean bags". In his teens, they travelled in Europe and Asia, until Newson returned to Sydney where he studied jewellery and sculpture. He soon applied those skills to furniture and mugged up on design history by "borrowing" copies of imported Italian magazines, like Domus and Ottogano, from the newsagent where he worked part-time. "That was how I got to know about Memphis and all the other stuff going on in Europe."
Newson has always maintained that it was a huge advantage to grow up in Australia, a country without an indigenous design tradition. "If I’d been studying design in Italy, I’d have been taught by people who’d been taught by Ettore Sottsass or Mario Bellini, and I’d have found having that tradition stuffed down my throat really stifling," he said. "Coming from Australia and studying jewellery and sculpture, my design was self-taught and instinctive."
His break-through piece was the 1986 Lockheed Lounge, the realisation of his image of "a fluid metallic form, like a giant blob of mercury" based "loosely, very loosely" on the 18th century chaises longue he had seen in reproductions of French paintings. Newson made it himself in "a couple of miserable months" of hammering hundreds of aluminium panels on to an home-made fibreglass mould. After the Lockheed Lounge was exhibited at a Sydney gallery, photographs of it appeared in magazines all over the world.
For the next few years, he eked out a living from odd jobs and grants while making prototypes of a few pieces. After a second hand-made metal piece, the 1987 Pod of Drawers, Newson adopted the sleek, luxuriantly industrial style which would become his signature: starting with the 1988 Embryo Chair, another reworking of the orgone, this time covered in brightly-coloured wetsuit fabric. He revisited the orgone and Aussie watersports in the 1989 Orgone Lounge, which was shaped like a surfboard in homage to Sydney surfies.
That year, Newson moved to Tokyo to work for Teruo Kurosaki, the Japanese design entrepreneur. Freed from the usual young designer’s struggle for funds, Newson put some old designs, like the Embryo Chair, into production and developed new ones, like the 1990 Wicker Chair. Kurosaki exhibited his work at the Milan Furniture Fair, thereby launching Newson in Europe. With commissions from Cappellini and Flos, Newson left Tokyo for Paris in 1992.
He eked out a living– "people thought I was loaded because I got a lot of press, but I was still strapped for cash" – by selling limited editions of sculptural pieces, such as the 1992 Event Horizon Table, and designing restaurants, like Coast in London (1995) and Komed in Cologne (1996). When he was paid a windfall $20,000 for designing a Shiseido perfume bottle, Newson splashed out on his then-dream car, an Aston Martin DB4.
Vintage Aston Martins, like the DB4, were an influence over his work, as were 1960s Lamborghinis and Ken Adams’ fantastical movie sets and the space race. Newson was – and still is - inspired by an eclectic collection of designers: from Joe Colombo "because of his killer shapes" and Achille Castiglioni "so clever and witty", to Enzo Mari "cool, very poetic" and Buckminster Fuller for "his nutty ideas and amazing imagination".
By the mid-1990s, he was experimenting with CAD software helped by Benjamin De Haan, who became his business partner. "I don’t design on a computer: never have, never will," Newson explained. "I always have an idea in my head and it goes into a sketchbook. All I do on the computer is join the dots. It’s a great tool for verification but there’s no way that seeing something on a computer will ever be as good as actually seeing and touching it."
De Haan’s computer skills proved invaluable as Newson took on commissions for mass-manufactured products from Alessi and Magis. In 1997, they moved the studio to London, where Newson won not one but two dream jobs: designing the cabin and livery of a Falcon 900B long-range jet and the 021C.
Those projects took his career him to another level. A bona fide superstar alongside Philippe Starck, who had encouraged Cappellini and Flos to hire him in the early 1990s, and his friend, Jasper Morrison, Newson juggled jobs for Nike and The Gap, with existing clients, such as Magis and Cappellini, as well as a Brisbane apartment building.
He also found time to compile a collection of objects which would provide an even neater illustration of his design sensibility than the 021C when exhibited at the Design Museum as the Conran Foundation Collection 2001. Given ￡30,000 to spend by Sir Terence Conran, Newson compiled a fantasy shopping list including an hand-made Rich Harbour balsawood surfboard and a cosmonaut’s space suit worn on a Soviet Space Agency mission into space.
1963 Born in Sydney, Australia. His father leaves when Marc is a baby. He and his mother travel to Europe and Asia. At 15, he goes to school in Sydney.
1982 Enrols at Sydney College of the Arts to study jewellery and sculpture.
1986 Exhibits Lockheed Lounge at Roslyn Oxley Gallery in Sydney.
1987 Lives in London. Makes Pod of Drawers from materials stolen from the model making workshop where he works part-time.
1988 Designs Embryo Chair and Andoni fashion store back in Sydney.
1989 Moves to Tokyo to work for Teruo Kurosaki’s company, Idée, which produces Orgone Chair, 1987 Super Guppy Light, 1988 Black Hole Table and 1990 Wicker Chair and Lounge. Kurosaki exhibits Newson’s work in Milan.
1992 Opens studio in Paris rag trade district. Cappellini puts old pieces, including 1989 Orgone Lounge and 1989 Felt Chair, into production.
1993 Designs Helice Lamp for Flos, and Gluon and TV Chairs for Moroso. Develops Seaslug watch for Ikepod, a company co-founded with Oliver Ike.
1995 Coast restaurant opens in London with interior and furniture by Newson.
1996 Komed restaurant opens in Cologne. Newson develops retail concept for fashion designer, Walter Von Beirendonck. Meets Benjamin De Haan.
1997 Moves to London. Designs Rock and Dish Doctor for Magis, Apollo Torch for Flos and Alessi bathroom and kitchen products.
1998 Starts work on MN1 bicycle for Biomega and Falcon 900B jet.
1999 Spends most of the year in Turin developing the 021C concept car for Ford at Ghia carrozzeria. 021C unveiled at Tokyo Motor Show.
2002 Designs new business class seats for Qantas airline and sanitaryware for Ideal Standard.
2003 Develops a range of cookware for Tefal, mobile phones for KDDI and completes work on a bar at Lever House in New York. Participates in Somewhere Totally Else - The European Design Show at the Design Museum.
2004 Creates Kelvin 40, a concept jet, commissioned and presented at Fondation Cartier, Paris. Unveils a range of sports footwear for Nike, Stages a major survey exhibition of his work at the Design Museum.
Alice Rawsthorn, Marc Newson, Booth-Clibborn Editions, 1999
Conway Lloyd Morgan, Marc Newson, Thames & Hudson, 2001
See more of Marc Newson's work at marc-newson.com
For more information on British design and architecture go to Design in Britain, the online archive run as a collaboration between the Design Museum and British Council, at designmuseum.org/designinbritain