Cracking the Code! An Interview with Marc Newson

Scott Henderson, IDSA
INNOVATION Fall 2021

Vol. 42 No. 3, p. 10-13

Design has gotten complex—so much so that it’s hard to even recognize it anymore. The weight of the world now rests squarely on our shoulders. It is now up to us to save, well, just about everything! Thank goodness for us! Hearken back to a far simpler time when a stayed, entrenched piece of otherwise lowly merchandise could be elevated by the craft, vision, and magic we call design. The mundane, the same, and the plain instantly catapulted to the other end of this sleepy spectrum with intellect, craftsmanship, and wit—and always providing a reminder that it’s not about seeing what has not yet been seen but seeing what can already be seen differently. 

I recently sat down with design superstar Marc Newson to discuss how he has been able to deliver this alchemy consistently for decades with no signs of slowing down. Here we go!  

Scott Henderson: What are you working on now? Can you tell us about your latest project?  

Marc Newson: Unfortunately, I’m sworn to secrecy on what I am working on now. I can say that there are many exciting things coming. This year has been busy despite everything, and I have had a number of releases, including some bespoke switch plates for the artisanal French manufacturer Meljac and the second capsule of my boot collaboration with R.M. Williams. For the America’s Cup, which included the Prada Cup and some additional events, I created a number of things—the logo, the buoys, and the three trophies. I was obviously unable to visit Auckland where the races were happening, which was disappointing. IWA, a new sake brand, is another brilliant project and the brainchild of the former Dom Pérignon chef du cave Richard Geoffroy, for which I created the bottle. It’ll be available in the US and Europe soon, having recently had its launch in Asia.  

Henderson: Amazing array of projects as usual! The term “democratic design” is thrown around a lot, meaning that good design needs to be accessible to everyone or, in other words, affordable. However, a downside is that designers become known for creating temporary artifacts that become landfill in no time. You have always managed to find the elusive perfect balance here. What are your thoughts on striking the balance between accessible design and not making cheap, temporary rubbish?  

Newson: On the one hand, it is a depressing thought to design landfill and add to the ever-growing problem of waste and consumption in our society. On the other hand, things made to last are often vastly more expensive and therefore only accessible to a handful of people. Ultimately, it’s far more sustainable to only ever need to buy one of something. The manufacturers that create these things tend to operate on a small, boutique scale and therefore create less waste, as well as employ specialized craftspeople, protecting skills that are at risk of disappearing. I’m drawn to more analog items, things that are more future-proof: timepieces, pens, eyeglasses, furniture. If the manufacturing and design ensure that they will still be able to work for years to come, there’s no reason they won’t.

  

Pictured: Lockeed Lounge, designed by Marc Newson (photo: Clint Bowers)

 

Henderson: The architect is revered for creating enduring monuments across our landscapes. The fine artist is revered for expressing thoughts and ideas impossible to communicate through the spoken word. What should designers strive to be revered for? What is our ideal legacy?  

Newson: It’s not something I think of often, and I feel one can get bogged down by things like that. The point of design for me is to provide choice, to solve problems, and to raise the bar of what is available to consumers. The best thing about design is that you can take it or leave it. Architecture is far more complex in that we don’t get a choice on the buildings around us.  

Henderson: Much of what design has been about historically is to create something that can be mass produced. Technology seems to be pointing in new directions where the massive industrial process of yesteryear will no longer be needed to churn out millions of the same identical product. What do you see on the horizon for new manufacturing processes that can allow for more customization? 

Newson: What was called rapid prototyping has now become so efficient, primarily because truly structural materials can now be used, so the difference between a real structural part and a rapid prototyped one is now negligible. The problem remains cost. However, if critical mass tips in favor of rapid prototyping, then it could become the norm. It may still take some time to rival traditional technologies like CNC machining. You’ve only got to look at some key players in the technology field. These manufacturers are probably a good litmus test of where we are now.

 

Pictured: Atmos 560, designed by Marc Newson (photo: Phillipe Joner)

 

Henderson: Abstract sculpture is void of any purpose or function. We appreciate it for what it is, not for what it does. Yet, some abstract sculptures resonate very successfully with wide swaths of the population in the same way, as if there is a way to configure form that will generate a universally positive response. Do you think that is true, and if so, why?  

Newson: I do think this is true, and the same can be said for a vast number of notable artworks that are almost universally liked, or if not liked, appreciated. This is because there are some overarching aesthetic values of proportion, geometry, and classical form. These will continue to appeal to people on a subconscious aesthetic level, and that means those things will always look well resolved. It’s easier said than done, though, to crack this code! 

Henderson: Designers today have taken the world upon their shoulders. Design students especially are tasked with huge issues they are told they must consider when designing anything—such as climate change, decolonization of design, relational issues, and many other lofty buzzwords. Do you think expanding design’s sphere of influence is having a positive or negative effect on the overall quality of design?  

Newson: I actually studied fine art with a focus on jewelry, although I ended up submitting what could loosely be described as wearable furniture as my final project. Jewelry was one of the only departments that taught you how to make things. I learned to solder, to weld, the basics of metallurgy, skills that would become indispensable to me. A designer should probably be more of an obsessive geek than a policymaker, although I respect anyone who can do both!  

It’s not often you hear people say that to approach something with fresh eyes is the best way to work, but that’s what I believe I do and what clients usually come to me for. An external designer can provide a totally different frame of reference and solve problems the industry has been struggling with, because they can see the wood from the trees. I think we need to embrace the advancements made in diverse industries and learn from each other about new processes and new materials. I can trace where I have “exported” particular knowledge from one project to the next throughout my career. Different cultures, scientific developments, what is going on in film, fashion, and art—crosspollination between these different discipline accounts for increasingly interesting and forward-thinking conceptions. It’s a designer’s job to dictate taste by designing well and raising the bar for consumers so their references are enhanced.

 

Pictured: Ford 021C concept car, designed by Marc Newson (photo: Ford Motor Company)

 

Henderson: Can you tell us a bit about your design process?  

Newson: I have developed quite a regimented way of working over the years. All projects start the same for me. I think, I sketch, and I try not to have any distractions during this time. After this initial stage, there is then a process with my team and with computers to visualize and resolve the idea. And then the design is shared with the client and its engineers, manufacturers, and craftspeople. In the last 18 months, my process has changed slightly. I’ve been working remotely as has my company, which, to be honest, has made elements of my process trickier than normal. Things have been moving along, but it’s an order of magnitude to achieve the same speed and ease we had before.  

Henderson: Some of your most iconic work has been famously displayed at the Gagosian Gallery—one of the world’s most preeminent art galleries. What is design’s relationship to art?  

Newson: I don’t think there is a clear distinction, and if there is, it’s academic at best and a question of context more than anything. Perhaps for me in particular, the line has always been blurred. My big break career-wise was my first show, Seating for Six, in a Sydney art gallery in 1986, I produced a selection of “seats,” none of which were produced beyond their 1/1 edition. The Art Gallery of South Australia actually bought the LC1 from this show. It took a number of years after this to begin having any industrial commissions—my first was a fragrance bottle for Shisedo in 1992. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to express yourself without any constraints of a precise brief, but there is no hierarchy between projects for me. Both industrial design and art pieces feed a singular interest of mine. I’m interested in the cadence that each of these industries work at. It also ensures I don’t get bored! 

—Scott Henderson, IDSA 
scott@scotthendersoninc.com

Yearbook of Design Excellence