From clocks to cars, there's almost nothing Marc Newson can't put his own touch to, writes Tim Elliott.
It certainly doesn't look like a dildo, with its round, breast-like shape and pool-toy appeal. Neither was it one of his best sellers. But in its sleek luxuriance, its cheekiness and indifference to convention, the Mojo vibrator says everything you need to know about industrial designer Marc Newson.
"The market research for that one was fun," says Newson, who was commissioned in 2002 to produce the adult aid by Myla, a boutique sex shop in Manhattan. "I have a lot of female staff so we just conscripted a few of them to give their thoughts on the matter. At the end of the day, I don't think it's a brilliant sexual implement but more of a paper weight. The whole idea was to make something that wasn't too phallic or seedy, something you wouldn't be embarrassed to have on your desk or in your luggage when the customs guy opens your bag."
These days, you might be thrilled to have any Newson-designed object in your luggage. Australian-born Newson, who was named among Time magazine's top 100 influential people in 2005, is now a global industry whose products, for better or worse, come freighted with their author's colossal reputation, one that is regularly ranked alongside Philippe Starck and J. Mays. But unlike Starck (who is most famous for his homewares), and Mays (who does cars), Newson is astonishingly versatile, equally at home designing shoes, saucepans and sunglasses as he is knives, forks and space jets.
Based in London since 1997, the 47-year-old returned to Sydney recently to help judge the Qantas Spirit of Youth Awards, a showcase for young designers and other "creatives". (Newson is Qantas's creative director and is responsible for designing the interiors of its A380s, as well as its first-class lounges in Sydney and Melbourne.)
Hosting a lunch for the finalists, he appeared every bit the rock-star designer, surrounded by assistants and PR people. Thankfully, Newson doesn't seem overly impressed by all this. "My major reason for doing what I do is that I want to make things work better," he says. "I am a gun for hire. I am engaged by companies to solve problems. It's not because the CEO of some company woke up and scratched his head and thought it might be nice to have Marc Newson design something, it's because there is some real commercial and competitive imperative. Someone has identified a problem and it needs to be addressed."
One of the companies to have recently sought out Newson is Riva, the Italian boat maker, which asked him to come up with a new speedboat. The result, Aquariva by Marc Newson, is a 33-foot super-svelte runabout, one part Dr No, three parts La Dolce Vita, that New York gallery owner Larry Gagosian has described as "a brilliant blend of form and function".
Newson has also designed plenty of everyday items - a torch, a dish rack, a coathanger, an ashtray - but most of his commissions are from luxury brands such as Boucheron, Dom Perignon, Jaeger Le-Coultre and European space company EADS Astrium. Most if not all of these companies have in-house design capability but what they want from Newson is an outsider's perspective.
"One of the advantages I have is that I look at things with fresh eyes and draw upon expertise from other sectors and that can't be underestimated. My experience in the aviation or aerospace world will help me design a better watch or shoe or boat. I will have more experience from a technological and experiential point of view than a designer who sits doing the same thing, day in, day out. And that's innovation."
Newson grew up on Sydney's north shore, and was raised by his mother. His father disappeared when he was two. When he wasn't watching The Jetsons, he was tinkering in his grandfather's garage, making billycarts and bicycles and performing post-mortems on radios, watches and anything else he could lay his hands on. "I grew up in an optimistic era when the space race was still on and going to the moon was very real and tangible," he says.
This positivity and Jetson-esque playfulness found expression in Newson's first major piece, the Lockheed Lounge, which he created just out of art school. It was meant to be one fluid metallic form but Newson had no idea how to make that. Instead, he used an electric kitchen knife to whittle away at a hunk of foam in his backyard. Once he had the basic shape, he covered it in hundreds of aluminium sheets, riveting them together to give it the appearance of an aeroplane fuselage.
Newson exhibited the lounge in 1986 at Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, when it was the only piece to sell, going to the Art Gallery of South Australia for $3000. This seems like a good investment: in April of 2009, one of the 15 existing Lockheed Lounges sold for £1.1 million. So how comfortable is it? "Not terribly," Newson told Wired magazine last year. "In this case, the chair is just a medium."
Newson likes to say he considers both form and function when designing but it's clear from much of his work that how something looks is often more important than how it works. His Ford 021c, a concept car he designed at the invitation of Mays in 1999, features thought-provoking innovations such as doors that opened from the centre and seats that swivelled on pedestals. Most notably, however, Newson painted the under-carriage 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.
Indeed, with their funky colours and biomorphic forms, Newson's products are perfectly tailored to today's design-savvy public. But even he concedes that the rise of sustainability has changed the equation for designers. "I don't design disposable products," he says. "I am really adamant about that. I can't say that as a designer I have not contributed to the destruction of the natural world ... But as a designer it helps to take some kind of philosophical stand and mine is that I don't design landfill; I don't design shit that is going to end up in the tip in a very short period of time."
Asked what piece he is most proud of, Newson baulks. "I am not proud of individual things," he says. "But I am proud of the fact that I do such a range of things, that I address all sorts of issues with the same skill set. This is a bit problematic, because to be so broad-ranging is often levelled as a criticism - you know, it's the old, jack of all trades, master of none - because there is this tendency of people to associate specialisation with something positive. But it doesn't work that way with me," he says. "I specialise in design. In that sense, the whole world is my studio."